Embracing uncertainty ‘bird by bird’

Where have you gotten your best advice?

Navigating this pandemic, I’ve drawn solace from wise words. A couple of years ago, I received Anne Lamont’s book Bird by Bird as a gift. Here’s the simple and profound advice Lamont wrote about that prompted the title:

“Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. … He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

 

I echo this sentiment as I navigate a microcosm of my own: working and facilitating e-learning for a group of young children around my dining room table — all spoken in Spanish. “Bird by bird,” I say when pulled by the enormity of the macrocosm: a global pandemic, the growing division in our country that’s all at once economic, political, racial and gendered.

This is a time of questions without answers.

Psychologists agree: Humans detest uncertainty. We’ll go to great lengths to avoid it — even choosing a known bad outcome over an unknown but possibly good one. “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know,” goes the proverb. In one British study, participants experienced greater stress when they had a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock than when they had a 100% chance.

Consider the reason uncertainty is particularly painful now is because the ideas, behaviors and customs of American society are hanging in the balance. Richard Rohr explains, “It appears our cultural meaning has shrunk down to this — it’s all about winning. Then, once you win, it’s all about consuming. I can discern no other philosophy in the practical order of American life today.”

Our ability to win and consume (everything from jobs to toilet paper) is being threatened by the state of the world. We can solve the problem of uncertainty two ways: by decreasing the amount of perceived risk or increasing our tolerance for it.

Stoic philosophers used the analogy of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Gravity ensures the cylinder will start rolling. But its shape determines how smoothly and quickly it rolls. We can’t control the hill or gravity, but we can control the shape of our cylinder, the state of our minds. The facts of your situation represent the hill; they are immovable. What you can move is your attitude.

Here’s how to begin embracing uncertainty and building tolerance for the new world:

 

Accept what is.

Change itself is not the hard part; resistance to the change is. Go in the direction of the river. Change what you can and accept what you cannot. Gather behavioral data to become aware of how risk-oriented you and your team members are. Some of us are more comfortable with the unknowns than others. Insight into this spectrum gives us the power to anticipate our own responses to our environments.

 

Don’t react. Respond.

When we’re in fear, the sharper edges of our personalities tend to emerge. We become harsh, critical and reactive, rather than loving, accepting and empathetic. There is a time when reaction is appropriate, like when a car swerves into your lane. Our reaction centers are critical to our survival. But we need to manage them. When uncertainty emerges, our emotional intelligence helps us hit pause. EQ is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Measure your EQ so you know how much more you need to build.

 

The best criticism of the bad is still the practice of the better.

Oppositional energy only creates more of the same. All problem solving must be guided by a positive, overarching vision forward, not against. Research has unveiled shared characteristics of people who are good at navigating change and uncertainty: open-mindedness, willingness to try; being in a state of abundance, not scarcity; not focused on the past; not comparing themselves to others; and keeping a sense of newness and momentum. Look for these traits in your life and within your team.

Regardless of the microcosmic circumstances of your team or tribe these days, you can build tolerance for the wildly uncertain downhill roll, bird by bird.

 


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Want to hear more from Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett? Read her previous article “Three variables will make or break successful return to the office.”

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on September 11, 2020.

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