I recently heard someone say that that inherent unpredictability and uncertainty of life can feel like “looking both ways before crossing the street, and then getting hit by an airplane.”
For better or worse, we often live under the illusion that things are stable when in fact they are always changing.
We crave a straight line of increasing progress, happiness, and growth; but in reality, life is cyclical. We are always surfing the tension between stability and chaos. A few ways to represent it:
- Order → Disorder → Reorder
- Orientation → Disorientation → Reorientation
- Integration → Disintegration → Reintegration
The hard part is navigating the middle phases.
The prefix “dis,” which all the middle phases share, means asunder, apart, or into pieces. How, then, can we maintain some semblance of stability through change and challenge, through the middle phases?
This piece details eight principles that can help—all of which are supported by modern science, ancient wisdom, and daily practice:
Stop Resisting What Is Happening. Periods of disorder are an unavoidable part of even the most average human existence. Resisting them may feel good in the short-term, but it invariably leads to distress in the long-term. Magical thinking and delusion eventually catches up to all of us. If you don’t confront what is actually happening then you can’t work with it in a meaningful way.
Focus On What You Can Control, Do Not Worry About What You Cannot. Trying to control the uncontrollable is a waste of time and energy, and a surefire path to anxiety. There is a difference between worrying about a situation one the one hand and taking productive action on the other. Whenever you catch yourself doing the former, use it as a cue to do the latter. Not only is it more effective, but you’ll feel better too. Exerting agency, even if only in small doses, is key to health and well-being.
Nail Daily Habits. Move your body regularly. Sleep. Do what you can to eat nutritious foods. Not letting these basics fall behind (at least not for too long) supports underlying physiological and psychological strength. If you feel guilty or indulgent for doing these things, don’t. Daily habits serve as the foundation from which you can gain strength, show up, confront reality, and meet challenges.
Lean on Routines. When it feels like the ground underneath you is shaking, having tried and true routines provides a source of stability and predictability. This can be as simple as your daily walk or run, morning cup of coffee, meditation practice, training session in the gym, or evening reading time. The actual substance of the routine matters less than the fact that you have one. It’s all about something that you know will be there and that you can come back to over and over again.
Stay Connected and Seek Help. Study after study of resilience points to the benefits of community and asking for help. During periods of disorder there can be an urge to shut down and isolate. Do what you can to resist this urge. Odds are, many other people are feeling the same way as you. Vulnerability builds trust and deep relationships. In relationship to one another we stay strong (enough) when we might otherwise struggle alone.
Think Rugged Flexibility. Instead of viewing change as something that happens to you, view it as something that you are in conversation with. All successful systems, from individual cells to entire species, are successful because they can adapt with their shifting surroundings. Get clear on the aspects of you (or your organization) that are non-negotiable—these are your sources of ruggedness. Then, push yourself to be flexible with just about everything else. This does not mean surrendering or giving up on your values. It means applying those values to the ever-changing nature of life.
Respond Not React. There is a quote that is largely attributed to the holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Of course, this approach is easier said than done. Something that helps is what I call the 4 P’s: pause, process, plan, proceed. It’s a good heuristic for how to thoughtfully be in conversation (see above) with a frequently changing environment.
Show Up, Get Through, and Worry About Making Meaning on the Other Side. At times, it can be helpful to release from any sense of “this has to be meaningful” or “I need to make the most out of this” in favor of being kind to yourself, being where you are, and simply getting through. If you pay close attention to what is happening inside of you during these liminal phases, and do so without judgment, the right choices and actions tend to emerge on their own. Gradually, you progress from disorder to reorder, from disorientation to reorientation.
Research conducted at Harvard by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows that we look back on challenging periods of disorder in a much more productive and meaningful light than we experience them. In other words, sometimes nothing makes sense until you get to the other side, and that’s okay. In those harrowing instances, all that matters is showing up. Sometimes that’s plenty and the real growth is learning to let it be enough.
When it comes to resilience there are countless feel-good quotes and sound-bytes. But there is a difference between “resilience speak” and actual resilience. When it comes to the latter, nuance and a diversity of skills is what works best. That’s why I wrote Master of Change—to expand your toolkit, so that you can better navigate whatever challenges come your way.
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