I don’t know if I’ve told this story before, but it is about one of the most impactful questions I’ve ever been asked. I was working with Kent Osborne, a coach I admire greatly, and we were muddling through a problem I had presented without a lot of success. A period of silence landed, during which Kent was nodding his head as he considered his next question.
That question turned out to be “Ian, what would happen if you just trusted the universe on this one?”
The first thing that came to mind for me was … “Do what?” That doesn’t sound like a good idea. I’d have no control? What if I don’t like what the universe has to offer? In short I was totally uncomfortable with the concept.
I sat with this question for a number of days and I came to understand that the discomfort was the lack of control. I then came to realize how little control I have over most things that
happen to me occur on a day-to-day and minute to minute basis.
The first part of the puzzle was that I did see things as “happening to me” as if it were the universe out to get me personally! No wonder “trusting the universe” was tough!
Secondly, I realized just how much I try to exert control over them … perhaps by intervening, or perhaps by getting frustrated with them. Perhaps I try to blame somebody else so that it isn’t me that isn’t in control, it is this other person’s fault that I’m feeling this way so it seems to make it more okay for me.
When we are uncomfortable with a situation there are three common strategies that we apply to remove the discomfort:
- Build walls around ourselves to keep the discomfort out. We retreat from the situation and we limit our connection with the source of the discomfort. We create mental constructs which keep us safe from these distressing feelings. Sometimes this includes cutting ourselves off from other people, which may make us feel even worse. When we do venture out, we are very careful to avoid the discomfort, so we reinforce its influence on us.
- Hammer away at the situation incessantly. For some people this means talking about it all the time. For others it may show up as obsessive amounts of work. Still others may go dark and brood about the problem hoping to find a solution. But because many of the complex situations we face aren’t currently solvable, we simply wear ourselves out trying to find an answer that isn’t yet discoverable.
- We numb ourselves. This strategy can be quite harmful but it is quite shocking how much it is employed. Numbing means we do something to lessen the discomfort. We over-eat or we drink too much. We go shopping and buy ourselves things. We gamble. We take drugs. Those are just a few of the ways to numb but I’m sure you get the point. The problem with this strategy is that we can’t do it selectively. When we go down this path we numb everything, including all that is good and joyful in our lives.
The truth of our world is this: change is happening faster and situations are becoming more complex. If we think we know the solution to an issue today and then go to act on our solution tomorrow, everything may have changed. Where we used to say we needed to get more comfortable with change, it may be more appropriate now to say we need to get more comfortable with chaos.
That speaks of a need for new techniques to help us be happy, healthy and hearty while addressing this increasingly complex and chaotic world. Here’s four ideas to help us get there:
1. Embrace learning.
An obvious way to look at this is to define the opposite of being comfortable as being uncomfortable. If we think about stepping out of our comfort zone we would see ourselves stepping into our discomfort zone, where we spend our time trying to figure out how to get back into the comfort zone.
I’d like to propose that we need to look at the discomfort zone a bit differently. What if that zone was actually composed of two parts – a learning zone and a panic zone? Both are valid states – what we need to differentiate is in the level of discomfort. When it is tolerable we ask ourselves what there is to learn in the situation. When it is not tolerable then we start to retreat to our comfort zone until it becomes tolerable. But if we attempt to stay out of our comfort zone until we learn what we need to know to move forward, we can get more adept at embracing discomfort. We can actually increase our tolerance for it, and with it our capacity to learn.
2. Practice not knowing.
According to Dave Snowden, the creator of the Cynefin Framework, a characteristic of complex situations is that there are “unknown unknowns” where we don’t even know the right questions to ask. Regardless of the time spent analyzing the issue, there is no way to reliably find a solution, identify risks, assess effort, etc. The greatest gift we can give ourselves here is the privilege of not needing to know the answer, because we can’t! Our approach is to ask questions, take educated guesses, make experiments and see what we can learn along the way. Every time you feel yourself say “I should know the answer”, stop and ask if that is fair to you.
3. Sense the “next first step”.
Inherent in the process of experimentation is taking a step forward. The problem is when we won’t take the first step until we know where the destination is. There is truth in the old adage “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. In the case of complex issues, the destination won’t be revealed for many steps down the road. So each step becomes our “next first step”. As we experiment, more information will be revealed to us. Sometimes it will be obvious, sometimes we will need to use our expanded senses such as emotional intelligence, intuition and imagination to glean new nuggets. Stay open to these sources of information. We won’t always intellectually know what to do … we will have to sense what wants to happen (back to trusting the universe a little bit!). Then take the step in front of you and then start over, sensing the “next first step”.
4. Sort drama from facts.
While the first three ideas in this post are somewhat of a continuum, this last suggestion is something for us to monitor throughout any level of discomfort. Most complex situations are rife with drama, communicated second or third hand by others. . At first blush, this can seem like the truth. Our minds don’t like a void when it comes to uncomfortable situations so we tend to fill in the blanks, creating a story and gilding it in the gold of fact. A critical skill is to be able to separate the truth from the fiction. It isn’t easy. If a colleague says “I’d avoid the boss today … he really seems pissed at you”, what do we actually know? The truth is not very much. We weren’t in the conversation. We don’t know he’s pissed, we don’t know what our colleague’s motivation or mindset is, we don’t even really know what led to the comment. All we know is that our colleague said the boss seems pissed at us. So we file that single fact away and perhaps ask our boss a simple question like “how are things going for you today?” Resist the temptation to make up the rest of the story and gather your own facts.