Most of us want the world to make sense. We tend to yearn for predictability. We often resist and maybe even despise what doesn’t fit into our worldview, and we commonly dislike change. But our desire for clarity can sometimes undermine our effectiveness.
When we insist on order and clarity in the midst of uncertainty and complexity, the result is sometimes limited thinking and faulty conclusions about ourselves and the world. Let me illustrate with a story.
In 2011, Daniel Kanneman wrote a story in the New York Times which perfectly described how wanting our ideas about the world to align with reality can lead to false assumptions. Daniel was doing leadership assessment as part of his national service for the Israeli Army and the following is an excerpt from the NYT piece, with Daniel as storyteller:
“After watching the candidates go through several such tests, we had to summarize our impressions of the soldiers’ leadership abilities with a grade and determine who would be eligible for officer training. . . . We were completely confident in our evaluations and believed that what we saw pointed directly to the future.
Because our impressions of how well each soldier performed were generally coherent and clear, our formal predictions were just as definite. We felt no need to question our forecasts, moderate them or equivocate. . . . As it turned out, despite our certainty about the potential of individual candidates, our forecasts were largely useless. The evidence was overwhelming. . . . Our forecasts were better than blind guesses, but not by much.
I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. . . . We continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid.
We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.
I coined the term “illusion of validity” because the confidence we had in judgments about individual soldiers was not affected by a statistical fact we knew to be true. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.“
Daniel’s story and situation match that of many executives I have worked with – it provides a wonderful example of how real clarity and confidence can be reached through embracing paradox.
When we pay attention, right in the midst of the difficulties and strains, and the pleasures and pains of our lives, it’s the unexpected, the puzzles, the paradoxes that catch us, open us, change us.
We can appreciate and learn from these puzzles, and little by little, or all at once, solutions appear. By engaging this practice, we have the ability to transform and shape the context of our lives, becoming more skillful, both at knowing ourselves and at the same time, looking outside ourselves.
When my daughter was seven years old I used to read to her every night before she went to sleep. One night as we were completing our nightly routine, she turned to me and said, “Daddy, when we die, do you think we are given all the answers about life — like when you play a board game and you are done, and you look at the back for the solutions?”
The truth is I don’t remember exactly what I said but I hope it was something like this:
What a great question! I don’t think we need to wait until we are dying to ask amazing questions about what we don’t know. We don’t know what happens when we die. We never have all the answers. The gift and challenge is finding confidence and a deep sense of trust right in the midst of cultivating wonder and vulnerability.
Explore and experiment with allowing the feeling of confidence, without an emphasis on self-consciousness. Try on – just walking when you walk and just talking when you talk – letting go of judgments and comparisons as much as possible.
And, if you are feeling the stress or challenge of change and uncertainty, try leaning in, let your heart soften. Instead of resisting change, embrace it as much as possible. See how that feels. Often it isn’t ‘change‘ that is hard, it’s our resistance to it.