October 11, 2015

Living and relaxing in the present

I have been through a very stressful period in my life, for a variety of reasons. However, the challenges of coping with the sources of that stress have actually changed me for the better and improved my long-term health. I have had to adjust my orientation to problems in two fundamental respects:

  • Increasing my focus on the present, as opposed to brooding and worrying too much about the past or the future; and
  • Believing that every problem I could conjure up has a solution.

Both of these orientation changes were most difficult for me. I am a person blessed (or cursed) with a great ability to understand and dissect history, and to learn from it. I also have prided myself on my ability to see potential opportunities and risks quite far ahead.

Being a CEO particularly reinforced both orientations. I studied the history of both successful and unsuccessful initiatives within my own organization and learned from the successes and failures of others. I saw patterns as I looked at the present, based on what happened before. I also was able to plan and envision the future, because I could see multiple potential futures and prepare for a broad range of those futures.

However, both orientations, taken to an extreme, are unhealthy. Understanding the past without reliving the emotional burden of past failures, whether they are mine or someone else’s, is healthy, but it is very difficult to revisit past failures without experiencing some regret or guilt associated with them, or some nervousness that they will be repeated. There never is a perfect fit between any past set of events and useful insights for a problem currently presenting itself.

As for the future, I found that I spent too much energy worrying about low probability events that never came to pass, especially if those events were further out in time. One of the biggest challenges leaders face, as Andrew Grove of Intel eloquently and thoughtfully describes in his classic Only the Paranoid Survive, is distinguishing between true strategic inflection points and false alarms.

By letting time pass and letting things happen, I found that my resourcefulness was sufficient for addressing problems as they came up. I also found that I approached those problems with a clearer head and with less draining emotions.

The second change in my life came with the most important change in my headset, largely as a result of the innovation of which I have become aware from doing a lot of research online. That change in my way of thinking about the world is the belief that every problem has a solution, and that there is no problem that cannot be overcome, no matter how difficult it seems in the short run.

Over a lifetime, I have tended to believe that there are natural boundaries to the range of solutions available to solve a problem. I now believe that someone who is determined to find a solution can go beyond traditional boundaries to find a solution. Those boundaries come from thinking in fixed categories when the world consists of increasingly fluid categories. Ways of thinking about the world that we assumed were immutable laws of nature turn out to be much less immutable than we believed them to be. We even find that our vocabulary no longer captures what is happening.

For example, in thinking about a future time in which we may no longer have the ability to drive because of reduced capabilities, we may narrow our geographic options to locations with public transportation, because we think of either “driving” a car or being a “passenger” in a car someone else is driving. What we have not contemplated is the idea that a car can operate automatically with no human “driver.” Google has created such a car, and it would not surprise me that, as I get to be unable to drive 2-3 decades out from now, I will still have mobility because of access to self-driving automobiles.

We also think that cars ride on land and airplanes fly in the air. What we have not contemplated is a vehicle that can operate in the air at some points in time and on the ground at others. Cars may also have the ability to operate on the water, as well as land and air. A combined land-air vehicle exists today. Is it an airplane when it is operating on the ground or a car that flies? We have no terminology that describes it adequately.

Today, we are in an era in which anything we contemplate, good or bad, can be made to happen, given sufficient time, resources, and tenacity on the part of someone or a critical mass of individuals who want to make it happen. I still have trouble internalizing this, and wake up in a cold sweat worrying on too many nights, but I eventually remind myself that we are living in the most innovative time in history.

In the book Imagine, author Jonah Lehrer describes situations in which great creative people are blocked and then have a burst of insight that breaks new creative ground. In fact, his first example in the book is the process by which Bob Dylan ushered in a new era of lyric creation with his process for creating the song “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lehrer argues that the most transformative thinking happens when people let go, relax emotionally, distract themselves with seemingly unrelated thoughts, and then allow the transformative insight to present itself, often without an understanding of how or when it will happen.

For those of you reading this blog, learn to relax, use the tremendous resources available online, and envision less bounded and constrained futures. It will make your daily living routine a whole lot easier and less stressful.