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How to Thrive in Times of Change and Uncertainty

April 10, 2020 Joe Mechlinski

Navigating Change and Uncertainty

“In times of rapid change it is the learners who inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Eric Hoffer

We’ve entered a time in which everything is changing daily, and with constant change comes uncertainty.

For most people, change is difficult. Even when our current situation is not serving us well and we’re stepping into something better, it’s still taxing to shift from the routine to the unfamiliar. Often, it’s not the actual change but the uncertainty that precipitates unease. Relocating, getting married, starting a new career. These may all be positive changes, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.

As human beings, we are built with fairly flexible neural pathways, so when circumstances change, we’re able to adapt. But when the future is uncertain and unpredictable, we tend to react to change inauspiciously. 

In this article I’m going to offer you some formulas you can implement in the weeks and months ahead, to be best suited to thrive in times of change and uncertainty. But before we explore these best practices, let’s review some of the instinctive and unconscious ways that we all respond to change.

Denial
This happens when our brains create a pattern of thinking that actually belongs to a different context, but continues to operate even when the context changes. It’s a way of creating an alternative reality, a fantasy, that blocks us from experiencing the actuality of what is presently happening.

For example, if you receive a bad medical prognosis, but continue with unhealthy lifestyle habits, it’s because of denial. If you are in mounting debt, but continue to spend beyond your means, it’s also an expression of denial. If you continue to pursue a love interest, even after it has been made clear that your love is unrequited, this, like the rest, is denial, refusing to see what’s before you.

In the last few weeks, since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the US, many people have demonstrated this response by throwing “corona parties,” treating it as just a flu, or even defiantly going about life as if nothing has changed.  Unfortunately, the “if I ignore new information, it will go away” mentality is all too common—and rarely, if ever, successful. 

Panic
Panic runs on the theory that any action is better than no action. It’s a fight or flight response that assumes that if you just do enough, with enough force and determination, you can overcome the new situation and return things to normal. If unsure of which action to take, we opt to take all action in quick succession. But all too often, random panic-generated actions are simply action for action's sake, without reason or purpose.

A few months ago, I was driving down a winding back road. In my rearview I could see the sharp bends in the road. In the headlights, I could see a deer standing in the treeline, a fair distance from the road. Suddenly drenched in light, the deer panicked, and in trying to run away from the headlights, it ran into the road, leaving the actual safety of inaction for the perceived safety of action.

As human beings, we’re often guilty of the same. When things are changing rapidly, we sense that doing something—anything—is better than sitting still. Consider the recent events of March 16th, when the market took its biggest single-day drop in history. The next day, people panicked and sold stock. Then, a week later on March 24th, the market made its biggest gain in history. Doing nothing would have worked better than taking action in a state of panic, even if it’s extraordinarily difficult to sit and wait in times of danger—especially when your entire biology and nervous system is urgently telling you to do something. 

Information Guzzling
This disposition assumes that with enough information, you’ll know exactly how to navigate times of change and uncertainty. It posits that you simply need all of the facts, and the correct interpretation of those facts, to fix what’s before you. 

In the narrative-rich environment of the information age, this is particularly difficult today. In the US, the current administration not only has a narrative that has frequently shifted in the past weeks but has also often stood in contrast to a slightly different narrative from scientists, like Dr. Fauci—not to mention the plethora of different homegrown and sometimes wild theories about what is going on, on social media.

Back in the 1970s, people like Gregory Bateson and R.D. Lang researched what happens to people when they are presented with multiple confusing and conflicting narratives, much of their research based on families. This kind of “double bind,” where it is impossible to make a clear decision about what to do next because of conflicting messages and information creates a “schizoid” state in the psyche, and will cause you to feel crazy.

It’s not an uncommon condition now either—many people are experiencing it currently. With so much information available, and so many different theories about how to interpret it all, that discord creates a split, disassociated state in the mind. Fortunately, there’s a solution, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Depression
Another way we deal with times of rapid change is to shut down mentally and/or emotionally. It’s a way of seeking to avoid feeling anything, as numbness takes considerably less energy. It’s often found in how we deal with grief, to avoid feeling the overwhelming sadness. 

This pandemic is the perfect example, which is why it’s important to be aware of our use of alcohol, marijuana, binge eating, or even binge watching TV shows, as they can all be ways of shutting ourselves down to avoid experiencing or feeling reality.

Entitlement
Sometimes we deal with change by buffering ourselves with wealth or other kinds of privilege. Then it’s possible to hold the opinion that “this doesn’t really affect me personally, and therefore it’s not really important. It might be terrible for other people, but that is outside my sphere of experience.”

Of course, many people have responded to COVID-19 in this way. Particularly if we are young and healthy, we may focus on the fact that against a strong immune system, the virus tends to produce mild symptoms that only last for a few days, an idea that far too often causes us to neglect the effects it has beyond us personally. But as soon as we feel concern for other people we love or consider that we operate within a complex socioeconomic system, the truth of our prior entitlement quickly becomes clear—we need the whole system to be healthy in order to experience health ourselves.

Acceptance
Although it’s the wisest and healthiest response to any transition, we all need some reminding and discipline in order to bring a healthy attitude to rapid change and uncertainty. This requires us to gather enough information to be able to create a flexible plan, and then to change it accordingly as new information comes in. 

To be able to adapt to change effectively, we need to not only have a sense of the different choices currently available, but we also need the creativity and the innovation to create new choices that don’t currently exist.

To be able to operate in a changing and uncertain environment with intellect, leadership, and creativity, I’ve found six skill sets that prove to be invaluable:. 

#1 Expand Your Circle of Influence

In the past, when things have changed rapidly, the people who have thrived and become leaders of the next phase are those who can think in a bigger picture than everybody else, those who can see every challenge and hardship as an opportunity. 

During the Great Depression, Procter & Gamble were in the business of manufacturing fine soaps. There was no logical reason to believe that their business would survive hard times any better than any other business. But instead of getting lost in the static, they expanded their vision. They started to create short and simple theatrical pieces in an ongoing series called “Painted Dreams.” This provided entertainment and solace during the depression, and so created the original “Soap Opera,” which in turn created loyalty to their brand. 

In a similar fashion, Martin Guitars also thrived during the depression by mass-producing much cheaper instruments than they had previously offered—and many of those instruments are still in production to this day.

The more you can expand your circle of information and inspiration during challenging times, the more likely you are to thrive.

The great philosopher, Ken Wilber, has elaborated on these kinds of different developmental stages of consciousness. 

  • Egocentric stage: means that you are mostly concerned with your own needs: food, warmth, water, sex, and safety. 
  • Ethnocentric stage: is more expanded: it is driven now by a sense of meaning, direction, and purpose, with predetermined outcomes. We may become willing to sacrifice our own selfish needs for some form of transcendent cause, whether secular or religious. 
  • Worldcentric stage is one where we become concerned with progress, prosperity, and strategy that expands our view to involvement on the global stage.
  • Kosmocentric stage is an evolution into marveling at existence itself, as more central than worldly success. We now become interested in the great story of evolution, of humanity, and less concerned with success and progress.
    There are many ways you can expand your circle today. One would be to think beyond your own needs, or even the needs of your company, to see how you could contribute on a national or even global scale in a way that benefits everyone. But equally, you can expand your circle of influence by considering the well-being of the planet, and all of the other forms of life, besides just human beings. In that way, you might see that the reduced emissions we have witnessed over the past weeks were terrible for the economy, but great for the planet. You might also expand your circle of influence to think about future generations: to be concerned with the well-being of your great grandchildren, who you may never meet.
    I have noticed that great leadership emerges simply as a consequence of expanding the circumference of information and responsibility to include the well-being of more people, and environments, not only outward geographically, but also forward in time.

#2 Question Your Mind

Everything we believe and every “wise action” we have learned to take is all conditioned by what has come before. Consequently, in times of rapid change and uncertainty, the more rigidly we hold on to opinions and beliefs, the more ill-equipped we will be to deal with the changing environment—which is why it’s imperative to question your own mind and get in the habit of frequently asking yourself “was that statement I just made a fact or an opinion?” Much like upgrading operating systems and software, it’s necessary to overwrite the old, obsolete version to benefit from the new.

You can safely assume that everything you know about business, leadership, the global economy, the workplace, investment, and risk management is all out of date and needs an upgrade—something you won’t find within anything that your mind already knows. We have to let go of all of it, then apply a curious and innocent mind to gather new information.

#3 Find Leverage

To thrive during times of rapid change and uncertainty, we have to be able to sift through everything that no longer works to discover the raw materials for what we can now create.

Here is a very simple practice which you can activate right now.

Take a paper, and a pen, and complete this sentence:

“This is the very best thing that could happen right now because…”

You can keep writing more completions to that sentence, and as you do, you will reveal opportunities that were hidden in the mud of what must be discarded.

Under pressure, dirt becomes diamonds. All great innovation happens at times like this, when we are forced to take the raw materials of what is here, and transform them into something new with creative intelligence.

Remember the double bind we discussed earlier? It can be a time to collapse and go crazy, but it can also be the best environment to evolve and grow—but only if you get in the habit of learning how to spot diamonds in the mud. 

#4 Raise Your Energy

You will only be able to recognize situational avenues of new opportunity when your energy is high enough. As we discussed earlier, many people will freeze or get depressed when faced with change. Some people get easily distracted or become mentally hyperactive.

To combat these pitfalls, it’s important to raise your energy every day: go running, ride your bike, do anything that gets you out of breath. When you raise your metabolic rate, you will be better equipped to deal with reality, and less occupied with overthinking. Remember: all of your thinking is outdated at this point, and merely a focus of what worked before.

We haven’t had time yet to create the thoughts about what’s coming next. Raise your energy and increasing your situational awareness will help you to be able to spot the diamonds in the mud. 

#5 Double Down on Each Other

This is the fundamental principle of business: we are always better when we collaborate. Before the pandemic, many people were focused on getting things done, making money, and meeting deadlines. Now is a great chance to focus on the quality of your relationships. The space that sits between us is the thing that will pay the most dividends. Get in the habit of diving deeper with all your friends and loved ones than you ever have before. It will increase your sense of present moment awareness, it will raise your energy, and it is in relationships that new opportunities will emerge.

#6 Open to the Infinite

Every now and then we all punctuate our routines with moments where time and thought stops. That’s why we make love when it’s not to reproduce, why we jump off cliffs with skis on our feet, why we pursue spiritual practice—it takes you out of your mind. 

When you truly transcend your habitual thinking, even for a moment, you can have a small taste of what the Buddha discovered two and a half thousand years ago under the bodhi tree: that your real nature is infinite and free. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, there is nothing that will serve you better than regularly shifting the center of attention from out of the mind and into your own mysterious presence.

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As human beings, we are all prone to habits, patterns, and predisposition. It’s the way we’ve survived the basics of evolution. But to transcend the motivation of survival and thrive in times of change and uncertainty, we must first become aware of our shortcomings and learn how to effectively focus on efforts that will help us move forward personally, professionally, socially, and universally, no matter what stands in our way. 

TOPICS: Leaderhip, Employee Engagement, Remote Work