Life at work, as well as outside of work, can be very surprising. Lots of unexpected and unwelcome things can happen. Interestingly, if you look at how modern society organizes itself, you realize that much of what we spend time and energy on is concerned with creating predictability in our lives.
The houses we live in are used to keep us warm and dry. Our cars bring us quickly and conveniently from one place to the other. Our mobile phones keep us connected to the internet and the rest of the world. Most companies organize work in a periodic, repeatable and therefore predictable fashion. We have yearly appraisal talks. Agile teams use sprints, sprint plannings and retrospectives as well as daily standups. All this is to create predictability in our lives. Even if it may become boring over time, most of us thrive in a context where routines and habits fill most of our day.
Of course, deep down, we all know that this repeatability and periodicity only bring us the illusion of certainty. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were all forced out of our work habits and routines and many of us had to develop new practices and ways of working to deal with remote work setup. Others were laid off and lost all their work-related routines.
Over time, however, we found new routines and habits. Many of us now realize that what felt like a major hassle when it happened resulted in a new form of work and life that’s actually better than what we had before the pandemic. Hence, many of us still work from home much more than before and the great resignation showed that many of us learned that work maybe wasn’t the end-all of life that we might have thought before COVID hit.
The danger is that many of us easily start to feel entitled to the current status quo. We feel we deserve the things our illusion of certainty has created. Many complain about the entitlement culture at work that especially younger generations seem to be sensitive to.
The challenge is that when we’re suddenly confronted with negative changes and developments, feeling entitled will easily get us into a state of victimhood. We feel we’re the victims of something bad that happened and now somebody else has to go and fix it for us. Rather than addressing the bad situation, we sit around and suffer through things.
A good example of this is the “cancel culture” phenomenon where people that have said or done things that aren’t acceptable to the proponents of the movement are ostracized and shunned. The idea is that saying or doing these things hurts other humans and therefore can’t be tolerated. Of course, it ignores the fact that being hurt by what other people say or do is a choice that you, as the observer, make. Blaming others for having hurt you by what they said is assuming a victim role.
Taking the victim role is the opposite of being the protagonist of your own life. No matter what happens, what the root cause is or what the consequences are, you always have a choice: you can be the victim of the situation or you can take ownership of it. To be the protagonist, you need to own whatever happens and act, rather than rely on others to take action.
Owning the situation, no matter what it is, doesn’t automatically and effortlessly solve everything. Some events truly are completely outside our scope of control or even influence, but it’s the mindset that counts. Taking ownership means you do everything you can to address the situation and make things as good as possible under the circumstances.
Of course, I’m far from the first one to suggest this. Already in the Greek and Christian tradition, there’s a saying along the lines of “the gods help those who help themselves.” More recently, Jocko Willink, a former member of the Seal 3 team, wrote a book entitled “Extreme ownership.” The key lesson is that self-initiative and agency are central to work and life in general.
Many of us realize this and I think most of us take ownership of the situations we encounter in life. There is, however, a sneaky pattern that I’ve at least noticed in my own life: hedging. Whenever the path I’m on becomes difficult and the outcome I felt so confident about starts to become less certain, I start to hedge my bets. I still pursue the goal, but I’m starting to prepare for things not going the way I want. That, of course, causes me to not put everything I have into the path I’m on, which reduces my chances of success even further.
When we’re not aware of this, hedging and preparing for the worst-case outcome will erode the path we’re on and, over time, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Walt Kelly wrote in his Pogo comic strip: “We’ve seen the enemy and he is us.” We all know people who are masters of self-inflicted failures and pain.
For all our efforts to make our lives, at work and home, as predictable and certain as possible, lots of bad surprises happen all the time. We can choose to be the victim of these situations or to be the protagonists of our lives and own it. The big risk for many of us is to start hedging and to start preparing for the, often unlikely, worst-case outcome with the intent of making the pain of failing less bad. In that process, we easily become our own worst enemies. As Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said: “It’s better to have tried and failed than to live life wondering what would have happened if I had tried.”
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