Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
These are the first lines of the iconic song Bob Dylan recorded nearly 60 years ago, and the “waters” — political, economic, geographical, and social uncertainty – are still growing higher around us. Googling “uncertain world” generates 560 million hits in less than a second. Pandemics, the threat of nuclear war, the certainty of climate change threaten all of us. (Though, for far too many, finding food to eat, water to drink and medicines to escape diseases already tamed in the First World are more pressing uncertainties.)
The business world has not escaped the relentless waves of uncertainty. As Joerg Esser pointed out recently in the Harvard Business Review,
“The Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the reshuffling of supply chains and capital structures — the past few years have seen unprecedented disruptions, and the turmoil shows little sign of letting up any time soon. Challenges abound, and companies are finding it nearly impossible to plan for the future.”1
But I believe we must maintain a positive attitude regarding the vicissitudes pummeling personal and corporate life. I have studied the literature on uncertainty, and the four counsels below strike me as beacons that will help us keep our heads above water.
1) Establish clear and visible goals for yourself and your team: These goals should be challenging but attainable. Break down large goals into “chunkable” portions that will allow you to recognize and celebrate real achievements along the way. Psychologists have shown that early wins encourage us to stay the course until the ultimate goal is reached.
2) Concentrate on your sphere of control: It’s easy to blame external factors when plans go awry. Keep a flexible open mind regarding events you cannot control; focus on what you can control. A focused mind will increase your chances of being successful.
3) Be “indistractable”: Traction literally means “to pull,” so distraction is the opposite — to draw away from. “Indistractable” is a slang word popularized by behavioral engineer Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. You become indistractable when you can identify what brings you closer to your goals – the “aha” moment that generates traction and results in both your and your company’s valuable use of time and effort. Urgent activities (e.g. scrolling through your social media) can become distractions when they lead way from important activities, such as buckling down and carrying out important tasks.
Of course, the old adage about “all work and no play” still applies; no one can be 100% indistractable. Taking a break can provide you and your team with positive camaraderie which can translate into more productivity. But being distracted responsibly is the key consideration.
4) Surround yourself with the positive energy you need: This is a subtle attribute – when first encountered, people and places can give off misleading energy “vibes”. It takes skill to be able to discern energy that is both positive and sustainable. (Making these types of discernments are part of the skillset of Executive Recruiters.) It is important to surround your company – and yourself – with people who need not be pushed to achieve. Even if they are subordinates, people with positive energy can help you be a better version of yourself!
Although the swirling sea of uncertainty is in many cases out of our control, what is within our control is the extent to which we allow it to affect our lives. Keeping calm and becoming “indistractable” can even mitigate the impact of uncertainty on our company’s fortunes. Ultimately, our energies should be focused on becoming better versions of ourselves as individuals, as corporate leaders, and as members of society, despite the changing times.