THE CURSE of “INTERESTING TIMES” and A FEW ANTIDOTES
“May you live in interesting times”- Unknown
This Confucius-style saying poses as a blessing while delivering an underhanded curse.
If received as a “curse”, it wishes that your times be filled with turmoil and difficulty.
BTW- There are way more history books written about war and famine, than about peace and plenty.
If the saying is received as an affirmation or blessing, the ferment of change always opens the door to exciting new possibilities.
Certainly, we can agree that our current pickle, being in the middle of a full-throttle, global pandemic qualifies as “interesting”. With the first psychological shock waves subsiding, we’re in a pervasive, collective reality that adversely impacts us all.
Maybe it’s Murphy’s Law gone wild, or maybe we’re at the bottom of a big honking learning curve with a very steep upside.
As the COVID-19 crisis persists, no training or experience in previous downturns has prepared us for it.
Governments, businesses, schools, hospitals, churches, and families are all scrambling to cope with the insidious nature of our current era.
Over the past months, I’ve had numerous personal conversations with fellow leaders about the current situation and its greatest challenges. The current over-all toughest challenge is the mind-numbing complexity brought about by uncertainty.
“It seems that every way I turn these days, I’m facing a no-win-situation” Young CEO in the Charity Sector.
“ It’s like I really have four jobs. There’s the one I signed up for, you know, the job description. Then there’s the job my board expects me to do. My staff has high expectations of me to help them do their job while keeping them safe. Finally, there are the expectations of stakeholders and investors. The pandemic has really complicated all of this”. CEO in the Housing and Community Services Sector.
I launched these conversations to research an online leadership development project that I’m working on. The results were much broader and richer than I anticipated. It will inform my work for some time to come.
If we take a good news/bad news approach, the bad news is that uncertainty is non-negotiable. It’s the X factor that seems to lurk around every corner.
It’s just that recently there’s been so much of it.
The addendum to this is that “Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center.
If we are in a state of perpetual high alert, preparing for potential bad events, this results in a chronic stress pattern build-up. Physiological symptoms are mental churning, random anger at the slightest of provocations, being perma-cranky,
On the flip side, the good news is that there’s a trail forward. There’s always a way forward. It’s just that it’s not always real obvious.
The trailhead is the realization that you can take charge of everything within your control and be intentional or mindful about not worrying about the things you can’t.
This valuable principle has been around for centuries.
Epictetus, the Greek philosopher from the early 2nd century observed that things are either under our control or not under our control.
His Enchiridion (The Good Life Handbook) begins with this basic idea.
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” Epictetus
This truth-powered concept is echoed in the well-known 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer;
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Nieburh 1934.
Regardless of your worldview, the idea of focusing on the actions and experiences within your control has been around for centuries. It’s as valid and effective today as it was back then.
Another Approach I’ve Been Thinking About…
Minimum Viable Outcomes
Another approach for tackling the complexities of uncertainty is the idea of a Minimum Viable Outcome combined with small wins.
Protect the main thing!
Minimum Viable Outcome (MVO) refers to those core activities that you do best while paying attention to the small margins between success or failure.
Set realistic expectations!
It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect almost never is.
Find your trail!
It’s hard to steer a parked car. Things work so much better if you generate some forward momentum.
Like you, I have good days and bad days that toggle between optimism and pessimism. I can go from seeing optimistic signs of progress in the morning to feeling doomed by dinner. (watching the news cycle doesn’t help)
On the whole, I’m confident we’ll get through this. Trying to figure out what “this” is and what it means, can be exhausting.
If you’ll pardon me, I have to go decide which shirt to wear on my next Zoom call.
Until next time,
Subscribe to Get a Free E-book: 7 Principles of Leading Change
Subscribe today and I'll send you my complimentary e-book on navigating change and a monthly support article on effective leadership.