This is not the book I intended to write. I can’t tell you how many versions of this preface have come and gone. A preface should help the reader understand the author’s relationship to the subject of the book and how the book came to be, so this piece has evolved in parallel with the book. This book started out as a set of ideas for helping organizational leaders navigate complex and uncertain conditions. It has been recast as an antidote to thinking that isolates, divides, limits, and misdirects.
I completed the manuscript during the summer of 2020—a year that reset the bar for what constitutes complex and uncertain conditions. My editor pointed out that what I had written for organizational leaders could not be a timelier message for anyone feeling overwhelmed and disoriented by the interlocking calamities of racial inequality, political turmoil, a pandemic, historic unemployment, and a climate crisis.
I’m good at thinking my way out of challenging situations. I can remove myself from confusion and anxiety while offering ideas for how to process the various aspects of a problem. It’s a skill that makes me a successful facilitator, coach, and consultant. It’s also a coping mechanism that protects me from getting emotionally embroiled in the situations my clients want help with. But when I can’t come up with a way to think about something, I not only feel helpless, I start to feel inadequate.
As I contemplated an expanded mission for the book, my desire to make a difference started bumping up against my psychology. My editor was coaxing me onto a larger stage. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed and disoriented. I had just written a book about the upsides of not knowing what to do. Would I be able to take a dose of my own medicine?
ON MAY 25, 2020, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd, was murdered by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Lying in the street for 9 minutes and 30 seconds, handcuffed, with his neck pinned under Chauvin’s knee, Floyd begged for air and eventually suffocated to death. Chauvin crushed the life out of George Floyd with callous indifference. The video of George Floyd’s murder shocked and enraged the world. Still, we wonder if the recent outcry for racial equity will reach a tipping point that leads to meaningful progress.
As I write in the closing months of 2020, surging numbers of people infected with Covid-19 may soon overwhelm our health care system. Meanwhile, the sitting president of the United States obsesses over his election loss, plots against preface the incoming administration, and undermines a smooth and peaceful transfer of power. Trust in democratic institutions is on the decline; conspiracy theories are on the rise.
We’ve lost the ability to think together because we can’t agree on what constitutes factual information. We look at the same situation and draw opposing conclusions. Depending on the sources of information you trust, a person wearing a face covering might represent a responsible citizen or a brainwashed conformist. We have problems to solve, yet working together feels risky.
I’m in the business of helping people get unstuck. I’ve been hiding in organizations, busying myself with teaching leaders to notice and avoid thinking traps. It’s work that helps me feel useful. Meanwhile, though, the world has been coming apart at the seams. Dare I turn my attention to more significant problems?
It’s as if the universe has thrown down a gauntlet: You want to help people get unstuck? Let’s see how you do with threats of a lethal pandemic, a climate crisis, deeply entrenched social injustice, and massive unemployment.
To be clear, I don’t know what to do about the crises that have started to define the coming decade. I’ve spent my adult life ducking experiences that leave me vulnerable to feelings of helplessness and incompetence. I’ve focused on challenges inside organizations because it’s an environment I understand well enough to be of use. I needed someone else, a wise and insistent editor, to point out the obvious. I had written that in chaotic times, one should be skeptical of expertise rooted in the past. I claimed that not knowing what to do could be liberating rather than paralyzing. Yet I felt stymied by an invitation to help people trying to make progress on our most consequential problems because I lacked expertise and didn’t know how to help.
Even if I wanted to ignore the world’s problems and remain focused on organizations, the twin viruses of racism and Covid-19 do not respect arbitrary distinctions between personal life and work life. Boomers and Gen-Xers were raised to believe that bringing our full, unfiltered selves to the workplace was inappropriate and counterproductive. Don’t discuss religion or politics at work was the unwritten law. But over the last few years, the workplace has been undergoing a transformation. A socially engaged and interconnected generation of workers have refused to sublimate their values and ideals to corporate goals.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, terrorism, wars, mass shootings, natural disasters, cyberattacks, and other horrors have darkened our mood and tested our idealism. Until recently, I’ve managed to separate my exasperation about the state of the world from my responsibilities to my clients. Now, external world issues have become internal organizational priorities. During the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton introduced the term implicit bias to the general public. Two years later, two Black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks were inappropriately handcuffed and arrested for trespassing. In response to the outcry that followed, Starbucks shut down thousands of stores and put all their employees through racial bias training. Hillary Clinton’s raising concerns about implicit bias may not have roused my clients, but Starbucks closing its stores got corporate America’s attention. Walling ourselves off from our shameful history could no longer keep uncomfortable truths and disturbing events on the periphery. The dam was set to burst when Derek Chauvin brazenly crushed the life out of George Floyd.
Not surprisingly, at Unstuck Minds my business partner, Lisa Weaver, and I have been getting requests to help organizations and their leaders learn how to acknowledge and respond to unconscious bias and racism in our society. I’ve read the books, listened to the podcasts, and watched the videos. As a white male I have not, however, lived the oppression. I don’t experience the unrelenting dissonance between the promise of liberty and justice for all and the reality of being devalued because of my race. When clients ask for help combating racism and other adverse effects of implicit bias, I am neither neutral nor an expert. It’s not just issues of race exposing my vulnerabilities these days. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, our firm has been getting requests to help leaders learn how to manage distributed workers who may never again return to daily office jobs. When it comes to a world where convening is dangerous, no one is unaffected. And when it comes to reinventing work for that world, no one has expertise.
I remember feeling similarly incapacitated as I watched the election returns of 2016. At first, I wasn’t focused on what a Donald Trump presidency would usher in. I was too busy struggling to understand how I could have been so out of touch with American voters. I consider myself well-informed and broad-minded. It made me wonder what other erroneous assumptions I’ve been harboring. I can recover from the sting of being wrong if I get to learn something from it, but the 2016 presidential election pulled the rug out from under me. I wasn’t just mistaken; my thinking was flawed. I’ve heard all the theories and still can’t make them add up.
I am not by nature a pessimist. In fact, I’ve gotten pretty good at spinning our global dilemmas as necessary corrections that will eventually lead to an era of collaborative and humanistic social structures. I am not writing this book to explain what’s going on, nor am I offering solutions. My purpose is to suggest practices that help us adapt to chaos and instability and allow us to meet the uncertainty of the moment with compassion and creativity. When I was challenged to expand the scope of my work and the audience for this book, I first hesitated, and then rediscovered the surprising power of not knowing what to do. I’m now even more convinced that my reflex to turn away from a problem because I don’t know what to do takes a toll on my creativity. And if I only work with people who think like I do, my compassion atrophies like an unused muscle.
Do you know how a vaccine works? A vaccine doesn’t eliminate the disease or cure those who have been infected. A vaccine trains the immune system to make us less susceptible to a disease. Recent events have infected us with a malaise against which we need inoculation. It feels as though the foundations of civil society that anchor our identities and our aspirations have come unmoored. When our bedrock assumptions are threatened, we become susceptible to arrogant leaders, conspiracy theorists, and purveyors of snake oil. Adrift, we are grateful for any port in a storm. We look outside ourselves for answers—any answers—when what we need is a way to fortify our ability to access creativity and compassion amid the turbulence.
This book is not a prescription for what ails us but more like a fitness routine for thinking and feeling. You’ll read about techniques that protect you and those you serve from becoming paralyzed by limited and misguided thinking.
Just because I decided to write a book about responding to political and social turmoil doesn’t mean I’m sharing my reactions to current events. Whether you’re put off or drawn in by partisan commentary, don’t expect to read about my take on current events. Instead, many of the examples and stories in this book are drawn from decades of experience helping leaders and their organizations overcome challenges and pursue opportunities. But leaders aren’t the only people who become stuck.
The book opens with insights into how and why we get stuck. Part Two makes the counterintuitive claim that in uncertain times, focusing on what to do limits creativity and compassion. Part Three describes four thinking disciplines that, when consistently practiced, help us form insights and discover options even in turbulent and chaotic times.
I wrote this book for people who are feeling disoriented and stuck. I invite you to embrace the surprising power of not knowing what to do—to become not like a beginner but to become a true beginner, one who can see abundant possibilities because you are no longer a captive of assumptions the world has left behind.