Real Leaders

Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-term Resilience

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  —   William Shakespeare, Hamlet 

One of the biggest lessons I had to learn as a leader was the value of redundancy. For your people to know what you want, you’re gonna have to keep saying it over and over again. Every time I sent a memo or gave a speech, I was worried that my employees would roll their eyes and say, “Here he goes again.” I thought, “No one wants to listen to a broken record.” I was more concerned with being interesting. 

So what I did was constantly refresh and renew my message. Without my realizing it, what happened was that my desire to be interesting was getting in the way of me being clear. Clarity is what we’re after. That’s what redundant messaging gives us. It gives us the ability to be clear. Once you find out who you are, you have to make sure that everyone who crosses the doorway of your business knows who you are. They shouldn’t have to guess. They’re not mind readers. Redundancy is the key to your mindset. How many of you know for certain that if you wake up in the middle of the night, the hamster of your thoughts will jump on the wheel of your mind and whirl from worry to anxiety to panic as you run disaster scenarios through your head? We run through all the bad things that have happened in our past, and when we’re not doing that, we’re thinking of all the bad things that might happen in the future. It’s our personal version of “doom scrolling.” 

For many of us on our resilience journeys, our misfortunes become like landmarks we visit on the cross-country journey that is our lives. When I was a kid, our family would take a yearly trip through New England, stopping in places like Hyannis, Bethel, and Stockbridge. Thanks to my mother’s gift for being a travel agent, we stayed in beautiful places and created lifelong memories. We forgot about the endless hours in a hot and crowded car. 

And later, as we all got older and we told the story of those same trips, even when we blew out an alternator or something that left us stranded on the side of the road for hours in the middle of the night, we laughed about it. After all, we made it through. We were forged a bit in those moments of trouble together. 

Those are the stories we tell because they make us who we are. It’s the things you never planned for, the times when things went wrong, and the ways in which the trip was just one darn thing after another. The darn things. Those are what we remember and mostly laugh at years later. The darn things don’t appear on Trip Advisor or Kayak. 

But as I get older, I realize that my entire life is a collection of memories that include some darn things despite my best intentions to the contrary. We’re all striving to do good in the world, to be our best in our professional lives and our personal lives. We have plans on top of plans, all created in good faith. Sometimes those plans go to hell in a flaming handcart. 

Many of you have lost your business, your job, or a loved one to the pandemic. The business you planned to give to your children. The job you expected to retire from. The partner you were going to grow old with. There’s no way to assuage the grief of that loss. All the books in all the libraries of the world will not make it different because the painful and unavoidable truth is that it will never be different. It will never be the way you thought it was going to be. 

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Our work is about finding your way out of the darkness of darn things and into the light. Out of the valley and back up to the heights. To not just survive the darn things that happen around you, but to alchemize them into the stuff of real growth. The key to mental resilience is realizing that all we can control in life is how we respond to events. We have that choice. We have that power. Mentally we can stop worry and anxiety dead in their tracks. 

Change is guaranteed. How we respond to change is not. That is our task. There’s a quote from renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner that goes like this: “That which hinders your task is your task.” 

You’re obsessed with something you want, but there’s an obstacle in your way. It’s that thing between you and what you want; that is what you really need. The thing that’s stopping you from accomplishing the things you desire? That’s your genuine desire. You think what you can’t control or don’t know keeps you from performing at your best. You think, “Once everything settles down, then I’ll be better.” 

But that’s not how it works. All over the world, in every culture, those leveraging uncertainty are the people and businesses who don’t resist change when it happens. They develop new relationships. They ride the new situations instead of panicking. You don’t fight the current; you ride the current. Surfers don’t mourn a wave they miss or even when they wipe out (which is often). They just get on the next one. 

You can do this by taking the courageous decision to throw out the old mental maps and make new ones. Mental resilience isn’t a life free from the twin wolves of worry and anxiety. It’s about harnessing our energy in creative ways so we can domesticate them and let them pull our sled. We make friends with change, so we don’t have to worry about it.

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