By Jon Patton – June 2023
“Nice one, never saw that coming.”
I have the privilege of coaching many talented individuals across various industries. Frequently, this involves helping them navigate difficult and challenging situations. For some, it’s a ceaseless cycle of challenges, and even the most resilient may ask, “Can’t I catch a break?”
One client experience comes to mind. Following a substantial promotion, they faced a constant barrage of significant setbacks—we all remember the struggles and impacts of the pandemic and global supply chain disruptions on large organizations. Additionally, many of their former peers had become their direct reports.
As we discussed these issues, their relationship to challenges underwent a transformation. The client began to perceive the setbacks not as good or bad but as challenges to overcome, understanding that regardless of their meticulous planning, there would always be one or two obstacles waiting in the wings.
I believe Nassim Nicolas Taleb first introduced the term “antifragile” in his 2012 book of the same name. Unlike resilience—recovery following performance degradation—antifragility is defined as performance improvement when faced with adversity. My client was becoming antifragile.
As humans, we are wired to label things as positive or negative, and consequently, experience all the contrasting feelings based on our judgments. Concepts like antifragility can alter our relationship with a situation. Suddenly, things that were initially a cause of stress and anxiety can be relished as a source of inspiration and opportunity.
The Power of Stoicism
At our company, we value the power of reframing—a strategy we apply ourselves and share with our clients. I recently discovered the work of William Irvine, a Philosophy Professor at Wright State University, and an author on Stoicism. His book, “The Stoic Challenge,” was my introduction to the subject. Contrary to popular belief, Stoics aren’t void of feelings; their aim is to minimize the negative emotions provoked by life’s trials and tribulations. Stoics don’t reject positive emotions; in fact, their philosophy may actually allow more room for them!
The book was full of tools or Stoic Test Strategies that allowed a setback to be experienced without suffering. In it he described a personal travel related setback. It’s a great story but for brevity here are the key points. Irvine was flying out of Chicago when his plane was delayed due to bad weather. When it finally arrived, all the passengers boarded, but were then asked to deplane because of an issue with the cargo door. They then re-boarded only to be told again that the cargo door was still a problem. They deplaned a second time and were finally informed they would not make it out of Chicago until the next day.
They were shuttled to the hotel, where he waited in line to check in. Arriving to his room, he discovered it was in disarray leading to a trip back to reception and then on to a new room. After a few hours of sleep, he returned to the airport and caught his plane without further incident.
The other passengers fully immersed themselves in a “whine fest” of mammoth proportions. He admitted this was his initial inclination too, but he quickly pivoted to the mind game of assuming the circumstances had been created by the Stoic gods*, specifically to test his resilience and resourcefulness. His mission was to fully accept the circumstances, adorn some poise and grace in the process, adopt a solution-orientated mindset, and critically, minimize negative emotions. When he returned home, he rated his performance, he had remained calm and collected, the test had been overcome, and he felt victorious! He decided that the untidy hotel room was a “clever wrinkle that he had not seen coming. Well played Stoic gods.”
A few weeks ago, during a trip to Phoenix, I had the pleasure of sharing these reframing tools with a colleague. Over the course of the next couple days, I witnessed him repeatedly challenged by a very troublesome rental car. First, he was locked out of the car; later a loud alarm blasted when he opened the door. Throughout the course of the rental, the engine would sometimes respond to the key in the ignition and other times it would stubbornly refuse. From the outside, he handled it all magnificently.
The following week he shared with me that after returning the car, he realized he had left his jacket—one which I had complimented during our trip—in the trunk. He said he collected his thoughts, looked to the skies, and laughingly said, “nice one, never saw that coming.”
Part of mastering life and leadership is managing our mind’s response to unwanted circumstances. This ranges from minor inconveniences, like unexpected delays or spilling your coffee, to larger issues such as illness, projects going off track, or difficult peers and/or direct reports. The list of complications is endless, and they don’t happen singularly.
Tricks and Tips for a Head Start:
There is a term in neuroscience called the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a pattern of thinking that habitually fixates to the stories and daydreams that play out in our heads. As the expression implies if we don’t interrupt the pattern of our “automatic thinking” we are destined to be at the effect of our thoughts, and the feelings that get triggered by them.
Here are ways to create a distance between our interpretation to what is happening right now (an unforeseen negative setback) and see the situation as an opportunity to rise to the challenge of the Stoic Gods.
- Meditation Practicing meditation teaches us to be aware of our thoughts and feelings without identifying with them. It allows us to build the ability to create a gap between thoughts and feelings and our behavior. We learn to respond versus react. It is heartening that more and more of our clients are engaged in a regular meditation practice, mostly through using meditation apps. If you are not using one today, I recommend the app Waking Up, which was created by neuroscientist Sam Harris.
- Intention This is as simple as making a sincere commitment to yourself to change your mindset. For example, you could write an affirmation that you read at the start of day and remind yourself of regularly that states: “Today I will see all setbacks as a challenge set by the Stoic Gods.”
- Do not expect perfection It’s called the Default Mode Network for a reason. We have thought this way for a very long time and have ingrained a pattern of thinking that will not change overnight. Be easy on yourself and expect that there will be occasions when you will fail the Stoic test and fall into an emotional reaction. This is not about being perfect but rather simply improving your batting average. The warning though here is to improve your batting average and not rationalize ineffective responses-see point 4!
- The Bedtime Reflection In The Stoic Challenge, William Irvine describes a process, where at the end of the day before bedtime you review the events of the day. If you have made some mistakes, acknowledge them, and forgive yourself for having made them. Then form a plan for not making those mistakes again in the future. If you did something right, acknowledge it, indulge in some self-gratification, and use this as motivation to continue to improve. Irvine encourages us to remember the Socrates quote; “the Unexamined life is not worth living.”
The quality of our lives is shaped by how we choose to experience our circumstances. As Irvine shares in his book, he is disappointed on days without setbacks, often putting himself in situations with a high probability of setbacks. Practicing this mindset can build a crucial skill for professional and personal success.
As you face your current and future tests—because we know they will keep coming—I wish you every success. Remember, there’s often a surprise embedded within unfolding events. If you’re paying careful attention, you might also find yourself saying, “nice one, never saw that coming.”
*William Irvine shared that he was not referring to a physical god, and that the psychological effect would be the same to use an imaginary coach or teacher.