“The manager accepts the status quo. The leader challenges it.”
This sign has been gracing the side of my office walls for close to ten years now.
Every time I move, whether it be due to a position or job change, it comes along for the ride. Eventually, it finds a place of honor and is prominently displayed somewhere among the clutter of the everyday minutia that is office life.
It was a Christmas gift from a co-worker back in 2008, largely as a reference to someone that used to say this frequently to the staff. Having spent a fair amount of time working along side her, it stuck. I found myself repeating this mantra, perhaps a little too often.
To her credit, situations existed where it certainly applied. There were several instances that were far beyond our control that concluded at a higher level than both of us, but the phrase surely felt recycled among the lower levels. More often than not, it was used department-wide to support inaction or qualify justification of a certain rule or standard.
Question: “Why do we do this? It doesn’t make sense.”
Answer: “I get it, but it is what it is.”
It was especially descriptive of a “no” answer when it came to financial matters:
Question: “Can we find some room in the budget for project X? “
The canned response: “Nope. No money for that kind of thing. It is what it is.”
My personal favorite was to hear it employed to defend against particularly high associate attrition levels within the company:
“Joe left us because he had a better opportunity. It is what it is.”
Eventually, I became so accustomed to hearing it from others around me that I began to use it to justify my actions or to support reasoning for just about anything. Periodically, logic and rationale would be replaced by an abdication of judgement and submission to bureaucracy. You fought the battles you could win, and in my estimation, those were few. Anything else was just throwing pebbles at a rock wall.
Although the mentality changed over the years, I held onto the sign and displayed it as I’d done in the past. Having recently experienced a job change, it came with me. Once positioned in my office space, I found a spot atop my cubicle wall where it remained for a month.
That was until I was called out by a co-worker a few weeks ago who saw the sign and purposely diverted my way to ask me about it.
“You know what that sign means, right? ” The smirk on his face indicated he wasn’t expecting me to answer his question seriously.
“As in what’s the hidden message? Yeah…I do,” I replied.
Unabated, my counterpart continued. “That was a pattern answer at a previous job of mine. It was the classic way to say f*ck it. Used to drive us nuts. We’d be in a meeting, and inevitably, my boss would say it. We’d look across the table, laugh and mouth ‘f*ck it’ to each other. Know what I mean?”
Yes…Yes, I did. To coin another overused sentence, I’d been there and I’d done that.
We joked a bit further, shared a couple of stories from our previous office lives and laughed at the similar parallels. After a few minutes, we returned to our responsibilities and resumed our workday. Clearly, this would now be a running gag between the two of us from here on out. In some sort of strange, twisted sense, the legacy I had shared with a previous work soul years ago had been extended to yet another.
As he departed for his desk, it struck me.
For as much as I’ve endured and experienced change over the last ten years, this was an adjustment I’d not fully embraced. My co-worker had innocuously called me out for my lack of vision and trust in my new environment, and to some degree, it was showing to the new group of associates I’d been charged with leading. Whether he knew it or not, he’d challenged me to let go of some of my old, worn out preconceived notions.
It also meant I had to let go of a few other things. Disappointment. Resentment. Anger. That’s because the person who graciously gave me that sign back in 2008 committed suicide almost eight months ago.
The conditions by which he decided to end his life were indeed tragic and beyond any logical explanation, as suicide normally is. To this day, I struggle to understand his reasoning for selfishly leaving two young daughters fatherless, and for robbing them both of the joy of having their natural Dad forever in their lives. I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. For as long as I live, it will never make any goddamned sense.
And now that sign, originally a humor-filled homage to the paralysis of progress and growth had taken on a new meaning. The new reality behind “it is what it is”represented surrender. Abandonment. Cowardice. Three words that could never be associated with my role as a father, son, brother and leader.
Still, I kept the sign in its place, hoping that it would serve as some sort of reminder regarding what I should never become. “Avoid this mentality at all costs,” I told myself. I even scribbled the words “until you change it” (pictured above) on a piece of paper and attached it to the end in a vain attempt to display to others the importance of keeping a positive outlook in the throes of transition.
But it wasn’t until my co-worker came to find me that afternoon at my desk that I realized my own internal resistance to change had taken hold. Sure, I displayed flexibility on the outside, but on the inside? That was a different story. All I was doing was paying lip service to a ideal and believing I had completed the required acclimation.
Suddenly, it was clear to me that my own inability to adjust was doing me in, and that sign was not granting me any favors. It was time to take it down. Time to personally and professionally grow beyond my own original expectations. Time to allow myself to step beyond the anger and resentment.
Time to forgive and move on.
I will admit the phrase will forever hold a double-meaning for me that references both a happy and sad interpretation, both permanently interlocked to the same person. One connects to an almost “Dilbertesque” satirical jocularity, the other to a memory of a lost friend and good times gone by…and that’s okay.
As I’ve learned several times in my life, there are parts of the journey that will never make sense. What counts is how we handle it once we’ve accepted the outcome.
It is what it is? I beg to differ.
More like it is what it can become.