Staying sane in an era of uncertainty
You will notice that I did not use the B or the T words in the title, and that is because this article is not about Brexit, or Trump for that matter. There have been enough of those already. It is more about how we as human beings, respond to change and what we can learn from our reactions to the events of recent months. Most importantly, what can we do to stay grounded and sane as these events play out?
Change is the only constant in life apparently, and if we were ever unsure of this, boy do we know it now. One of my favorite quips from this period goes something like this; ‘my son is considering a degree in Politics, focusing on the period June-December 2016’. As a Politics graduate of another age this resonated with me and still makes me smile. As the repercussions of these momentous events play out it is worth pausing for breath and reflecting.
Whilst recent weeks have been fast changing and extraordinary in many ways, they are by no means unique. In my lifetime alone (I will show my age here) I have witnessed our original decision to enter the ‘common market’, decimalisation, the first moon landing, the hurricaine of 1987, followed swiftly by ‘black Friday’ the collapse of the Soviet union and then the Berlin Wall, the Iraq wars, 9:11, 7:7, the financial crash, and so on.
There is little point in catastrophising these events and giving them more energy than they already have, Far better to keep them in perspective. The consequences of Brexit and Trump will now play out over a period of months and years and we are going to have to get used to more uncertainty. None of us really knows the detail but we can at least mange our responses to what happens in constructive ways. History and experience tells us that things are rarely as bad as we may fear or as good as we may hope and that reality will probably lie somewhere in between. Hopefully with some unforseen upsides too.
Lesson one; try to keep events in perspective. Change is normal and unavoidable. Our responses to it are our own.
Secondly, I have become increasingly aware of the emotional effects of change and why the term rollercoaster is often applied to intense emotional experiences. Have there ever been a better examples in our times? One or two people mentioned the death of Princess Dianna and I can certainly see that in the sense of loss which many will have felt. But there is more to it than that. Taking the Brexit decision first, this hit right to the heart of something deeply personal to each of us; our identity.
Speaking personally, I view myself as British first and European second but I had completely underestimated the degree to which my European-ness had become core to my sense of self. Like many other people I was genuinely surprised by the result of the referendum (a good example of an unhelpful expectation) and perhaps more surprisingly how it unsettled me, and many others on both sides of the vote. It was a rare example of a collective emotional response which will reverberate for some time. I now tell myself that I am still a European (its a Geographical fact) but just not part of the EU for much longer. Just saying that helps me to let go. As for Trump, that is a different matter.
Sometimes we just have to accept that difficult people will come into our loves and deal with it. Regardless of whether that person is a boss, a colleague, a friend of a friend or even a partner, these people may have antisocial qualities we are forced to navigate. I use this work carefully because there is no point in trying to change them, only they can do that. When that person is a political leader, such as Trump we may not like them or respect them but we still need to live with them at some level and that is the challenge for the next four years. The practical and existential threat may be real but then we have lived with that all of our lives. Sometimes it can be helpful to be reminded of that fact, and as the Roman philosopher Seneca pointed out in the age of Nero;
"'Only time can heal what reason cannot.”
Some of the vitriol, negativity and personal attacks which came out in recent months reminded me of the importance of mindfulness in these situations. Our emotional responses can be very powerful and rather than trying to resist them or pretend that they don’t exist, better to accept them, embrace them and find ways to mitigate their impact. Ultimately we need to learn to let them go. Visualisation may help you to do that and an ex colleague and writer John Purkiss offers the example of the sea.
Try to envisage events and emotions as waves which come and go and let them wash over you, rather than trying to resist them. If the ocean is the sum of who we are, then the waves are necessarily transient and part of us. Accept and even welcome them. It is only when we hold onto negative emotions that they amplify and harm us, and sometimes those around us.
Fear is the emotion which carries the most dangerous baggage of all and the ways in which we respond to it, may prove to be one of the defining characteristics of our time.
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Lesson two; stay mindful and aware of your own emotional responses to events. Learn to let them go.
For those of you who respond more to cognitive reasoning and hard facts I am particularly drawn to the notion of confirmation bias, which has been writ large in recent months and helps to explain the partisan nature of much of the debates. Daniel Kahniman, the Nobel prize winning economist uses the term to apply to the ways in which our minds tend to seek out evidence to support our particular view, and to exclude or discount evidence to the contrary.
I was certainly aware of that happening to me, particularly during the Brexit referendum and interestingly, now that the die has been cast, I find myself seeking out evidence that the decision may prove to have positive consequences after all. As an optimist, I want this to work out for the best, even if it was not what I voted for. My mind now seeks out evidence that this might be so and I find myself more inclined to read articles which support this view. You may wish to think about your own confirmation biases and how they may have shaped your perspective and decisions in the past.
Once you tune into confirmation bias and really get to understand it, you will see it almost everywhere you chose to look. For example many businesses exhibit myopia with regard to digital disruption and some have disappeared as a direct consequence. For example Yellow pages or Yell continued to buy directories businesses when all of the evidence pointed to their imminent decline. Many observers said that Yell had been ‘googled’ but the reality is more complex than that and there was a big dollop of confirmation bias there too.For the record it was a combination of the Internet and the smart phone which did for Yell.
Being aware of cognitive biases of all kinds will help each of us to make better, more informed decisions and to seek broader based evidence to support them. Like the shrewd day trader who observes patterns in the markets and invests at the right time, each of us can benefit during periods of change. We cannot control the events but we can manage our responses to them and it seems important to me that we all do that wisely.
Lesson three; be constantly aware of your own confirmation biases and have the humility to actively listen to opposing views when making decisions.
Finally I mentioned earlier my unhelpful expectation that we would remain in the EU. It was not unhelpful because it was right or wrong in a pejorative sense, but because it proved to be inaccurate. Unhelpful and unrealistic expectations often trip us up and it is better not to have any at all, or at least to mitigate them with a degree of caution. This also implies a degree of humility.
Just as it is a good idea to retain the view that the other person might just be right when you are having a debate so it is a good idea to hold onto the fact that your expectation of a certain outcome may prove to be wrong. Not only are you less likely to be disappointed but you will be able to plan for both outcomes.
Lesson 4; try to avoid unhelpful and unrealistic expectations and plan for all eventualities.
Or put another way, try to be optimistic enough to hope for the best, realistic enough to prepare for the worst and grounded enough to realise that your perception of events is necessarily subjective, and potentially inaccurate. Avoiding assumptions is a great place to start.
Individuals with a growth or change mindset are better equipped to deal with periods of change than those with a fixed mindset, precisely because they view change as the norm. They are also more likely to seek out the opportunities and upsides rather than taking a fearful bunker mentality. Challenging as it may be, we all need to follow this path now, resisting the forces which might seek to divide us at every turn.
David Head is a Coach and Mentor with Accelerating Experience. firstname.lastname@example.org www.acceleratingexperience.com