Control Freaks

Control Freaks

How to finesse the landing, sink the putt and regulate entropy in the universe

 The phrase was first used in the 1970s, an era when the principle of “doing your own thing” and letting others do the same, was born. It’s a somewhat derogatory assessment of the way in which a “driven” person interacts with their universe and the less-driven, more laid-back personalities inhabiting the same. It’s often difficult for them to leave the super-efficient controlling modus operandi at the office, plant, hospital or in the plane. So, they drag it to the restaurant, social gatherings and to their homes.

These controlling men and women have an answer for everything and their precise and sterile approach to problem-solving is often seen as sanctimonious and hypocritical. I know about these sanctimonious people because I am one of them. We think we are being helpful by fixing things. The first stage of recovery from this affliction is acknowledgement of the condition.

Hello, and thank you for inviting me to this debate. My name is Kevin, and I’m a control freak.

People who are controlling often think they should correct others when they’re wrong. It’s important to understand that underneath the motivation to correct others is the belief that they are usually right. This is logical and easy to understand because they are right; don’t argue! Controllers correct someone due to their irrational arguments; they correct grammar, sentence structure, spelling and pronunciation; they correct details of what happened in the past and they correct bad manners. They are highly principled with opinions on everything from how people should hold their fork and manage their posture to proper social interaction, politics, body art, grocery selections, career choices and clothing styles.

Some even correct the flying techniques of others; imagine that. But on the other hand, controlling is how we pilots keep track of and manage things: the weather, our fuel, aircraft systems, the payload. It’s also how we decide if the mission can be completed safely, efficiently and with an appropriate level of gratification and fun.

Islands of Brilliance

It seems that being in control is the best way to get things done safely, and done right the first time. Waiting for someone else to handle it is more stressful than putting in the time and doing it ourselves because we will just have to fix it when they mess it up. It’s simply more efficient to do it ourselves in the first place. We try to help others by pointing out the frustrating faux pas in their thinking, speech and gestures. And the inefficient or impractical way in which they try to complete an activity or solve a problem, like raking leaves into the wind or washing a car from the bottom-up instead of from the top-down. It’s like savant syndrome (Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise 1988): we have occasional islands of brilliance in our sea of otherwise annoying, over exuberant, and often times irrational attention to detail. Just ask our spouses, family, friends, colleagues or a psychoanalyst; pilots are controlling and we can get weird about it.

Sym•me•try (noun) Correct or pleasing proportion of the parts of a thing; beauty based on or characterized by such excellence of proportion.

Do you recognize any of these traits? You arrange things in a particular, precise way. The bills in your wallet for example? Arranged by denomination, facing the same direction and all of the heads facing up.

How about having things in a logical order: 8.5-by-11 in. notepads on the bottom, 3 by 4 pads next, then a tablet of sticky-notes on top. The same with incoming envelopes in the mail: legal on the bottom, then invitation size, letter size and finally postcards on top. Wall hangings must be level, symmetrically distributed and functional.

Ever contemplate why it is comforting to have a precise and predictable method for powering up the systems and starting your plane’s engines, to fly an IFR routing, an instrument approach or a structured, predictable VFR traffic pattern? It’s because we like things that are predictable and structured. We like precision. And we like to measure our abilities and success against rigid and reliable parameters. Unfortunately for others, we expect the same of them.

Where is this long-winded airline pilot going with his contrite but convoluted comparisons of control? While we may be admonished for our control-freak-frankness, flying an airplane is right up the middle of the control freaks’ philosophical runway. Pilots control the planning, performance and precise placement of the airplane. And landing is the pinnacle of placement, precision and control. It’s the glorious gem of gratification for a control freak.

Smoothness: A Golf Metaphor

A great golf stroke begins with you seeing it happen in your mind and ends when the club contacts the ball. After that, it is all a matter of physics and geometry; your control is gone. All the planning and effort that went into the point in which the club hits the ball becomes irrelevant once the ball is in motion. You can try to assert control by leaning left and right while the ball is moving, but it will not change the trajectory. I know; I’ve tried it.

Landing an airplane is similar in that our descent and approach all lead up to the landing, and the landing then leads to the rollout. The amount of time and fuel saved by flying fast on approach is minimal in contrast to the hours of en route adaptation to wind, course routing, altitude selection and speed. Did you take the time to set up for the approach or did you hurry due to late descent, runway assignment or an error in programming the avionics?

How well did you transition from the descent course and vectors to final? Was the intercept at a high angle, too close to the final approach point or GS intercept? Or was it a manageable intercept a few miles outside of the marker? Flying a well-planned and stabilized approach is how we set up for a good landing, fully configured, on speed and tracking the PAPI, ILS or VNAV. Not scrambling to get the gear and flaps out as we turn, decelerate and chase the path, hoping to land in the first third of the runway.

We judge our landings, as do the passengers, by smoothness on final, the touchdown and by the rate of deceleration during roll-out. Slow down and prepare for the descent, approach and landing, as a golfer would prepare for a 15-yard, tournament-winning putt.

The Tale of Two Brains

Perhaps to temper our controlling, regimented view of, well, everything, we could relinquish a tiny bit of control. It’s OK, just breathe. Pilots and control freaks are good at compartmentalization (Google search: The Tale of Two Brains). Keeping our perfection-oriented personality in its own compartment should help to shield others and create an acceptable level of restraint. We control freaks could start by leaving the summer floor mats in the car instead of changing to the winter ones and by allowing our stack of incoming mail envelopes to be sized randomly.

We may even try to tolerate bad grammar, bad drivers, clothing styles, laundry-folding techniques, dishwasher-loading philosophies, grocery choices, career moves, stupid TV shows and … whoops, I’m having a control freak relapse. Those around us would appreciate it if we would smile more, present suggestions less often and tolerate some of the disorder in the world.

As an illustration of just how critical it is for us to allow some disorder to exist, consider the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics, the one we all remember, says that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. The lesser discussed second law applies to us control freaks and says, in essence that the universe gets more and more disordered over time. It’s referred to as an increase in entropy (disorder).

Your influence on the golf ball ends once the club strikes it. You can try to assert control by leaning left and right while the ball is moving, but it will not change the
trajectory despite our best efforts.

As control freaks, an increasing level of disorder is scary. The principle that control freaks should really fear, however, is not the second law, but the third. The lessor quoted and more obscure third law states that the entropy of a system only approaches a constant value as temperature approaches absolute zero. In our controlling mind, the disorder around us would stop, or at least stop getting worse. So, if we fix and organize everything and everyone, our control-freak universe would be at absolute zero. No disorder, no movement, no mistakes, no making a great golf shot and no making a smooth landing.

Control Freak Paradox

Despite the assertions of non-control freaks that we aren’t actually in control, it’s clearly the destiny of control freaks to allow an increase in entropy in the universe by not fixing everything and everyone; theoretically keeping the temperature above absolute zero. By tolerating imperfections in others, we acknowledge that they can’t all be like us.

But we can still unleash our own control freak and take control of the arrival, approach and landing. Let’s not allow the airplane to run out of gas or ruin the landing as we yield to the third law of thermodynamics. After all,
imperfection and perfection are a control freak’s entropic paradox and we must be cautious to not upset the delicate balance of the universe.

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