Being Ready for an Uncertain Future
Significant changes to the established ways of living that we learned during the 20th century,
and today think of as normal, will challenge people’s thinking and emotions.
Most of us have learned to take our “modern” way of life for granted, and as a result, we no longer hold the knowledge nor maintain the skills that our grandparents and great grandparents relied upon in their everyday lives. If we were to be thrust into a late 19th century mode of living, most people alive today would be unable to cope. A large part of that coping, which indeed may be required again before too long, will depend on our abilities to be able to adjust our thinking and to manage our emotions.
Most people most of the time these days, at least in the western countries, operate with
“autopilot” (i.e. we seldom think about “how we think”) thinking systems that support and
reinforce a consumerist society that is fueled by cheap abundant energy, and the ability to
quickly buy new things and replace old things. We are for the most part comfortable with
having our goods and our food shipped to our local markets (or Internet supplier
warehouses) over great distances. Most of the time, we are unaware that on any given day
there are never more than nine meals worth of food in our local supermarkets!
Where major calamities have happened, for example in Argentina in 2001, and during a larger
than expected snowstorm in Washington DC a few years ago, hoarders cleared the
supermarket shelves in a matter of minutes.
The Internet has helped to reinforce our collective “need” for instant gratification and easy
access to whatever we want. Although we are generally unaware of it, we have taken the
internet for granted and assume quick and easy access will always be there.
PART A: ESTABLISHING MENTAL RESILIENCE
So what are the frames or memes that tend to dominate our “autopilot” thinking? Many of
these are suggested in the preceding paragraph. I’ve done some research on our key autopilot thinking dimensions, and I am happy to share the six dimensions of “autopilot” thinking that Ihave identified.
1. Most of us usually prefer to think in a short-term, immediacy-based manner. Quick results,
fast service, and instant gratification are “key” to our happiness.
2. We generally also react to the external world rather than building the “reality” we would
really like. In fact, many people are made quite anxious by questions like “What do you really
want?” or “What would you create with a magic wand?”
3. It is apparently a part of the human condition that for every “us” there is a “them.” The
question to be answered is “where do you place the boundary around “us”? These days, there is a great deal of divisiveness in our society, and our “us” boundaries are drawn ever tighter.
4. As a hold over from the mechanical age, we are good at breaking things down into basic parts. Unfortunately this manner of thinking reinforces a focus on “single issues” and therefore, we have a limited understanding of today’s complex interwoven issues.
5. Perhaps as a result of the pyramid style of organizing that has prevailed in the west since
Roman times, we tend to think in terms of accountability and we seek to assign “blame”
whenever things go wrong. “Who’s in charge” and “Whose fault is this?” are frequently raised
questions. The media productions that represent what is nowadays considered to be “news”
rely on blame placing to attract like-minded viewers for the commercial sponsors to sell to.
6. We also seem to have widely bought into the notion that “the one who dies with the most
toys wins.” Driven by the erroneous notion that buying “stuff” is the pathway to fulfillment
and happiness, we work harder to earn more to buy more. We have become “human doings” rather than human beings.
These are six frames or themes of autopilot thinking that are widespread in western thinking.
Being autopilot in nature, we are generally unaware when we are thinking in these ways, and
yet they are strongly self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. As R. D. Laing once wrote, “The range
of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that
we fail to notice there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes
our thoughts and deeds.”
In order to think in more flexible ways, we must first become aware of how we are habitually
thinking, and then make choices about more appropriate frames. By asking questions that
take us out of our autopilot frames, we can learn to think in more versatile (i.e. appropriately
flexible) ways. With practice, we can learn to move appropriately along these six dimensions:
1. Short-term to Long-term
2. Reactive to Creative
3. Local / exclusive to Global / inclusive
4. Mechanistic to Systemic
5. Accountability / blaming to Learning
6. Doing / having to Being
PART B: ESTABLISHING EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE
There are surely hundreds of ways to understand our emotional aspects. For this blog series, I will focus on the emotional elements that are a central part of adjusting to changes – the
predictable emotional stages of transition.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross gave us the now famous five stages of adjustment to facing a terminal
illness – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Many writers and
commentators have drawn on these five stages to predict or describe how we would react to a
fundamental shift in our “way of life.”
At approximately the same time that Kubler-Ross was articulating these stages, in the late
1960s, I was conducting my dissertation research in a related area – how people adjusted to a
novel, unpredictable situation, in which many of the familiar constructs were changed or were
missing. Not surprisingly, I identified predictable stages of adjustment that are similar to
Kubler-Ross’s. The main difference is that my subjects were not going to die anytime soon,
and so there were some differences and a couple of additional stages of adjustment.
I named the seven stages that I found:
1. Shock – Overwhelmed, unable to plan, reason or understand
2. Minimization – Denial or trivializing the impact
3. The PIT – emergence of intense feelings of anger (outward) and / or depression
4. Letting Go – Release of the past state and turning towards the future
5. Self-testing – Trying out new ideas, relationships, practices
6. Seeking Meaning – Priority on understanding what the change is all about
7. Integration – Full incorporation of the “new” state
The first three stages are experienced in a “reactive” emotional mode, while holding on to the
past – what used to be. The final three stages are experienced in a “proactive” emotional mode, while taking an increasing role in personally creating and solidifying a desirable new state.
These seven stages can be arrayed along an emotional curve as follows:
One of the features that I think is unique in my research findings is that the emotional
intensity of the adjustment progression is a function of how much SURPRISE and how much
UNCERTAINTY / UNFAMILIARITY are introduced by the change. While breaking a pencil lead while writing and being unexpectedly fired will both trigger the seven stages I identified,
these stages may not even be felt in the case of a broken pencil lead, but will be intensely
experienced in recovering from a surprise job loss.
I found also that my adjustment stages fit nicely along an emotional experience curve adopted
by the Menninger Institute (see above), also in the late 1960s, to describe the emotional
experience of Peace Corps Volunteers during their training and again during the term of their
A major contribution of the Peace Corps research was the discovery of “elasticity” of
adjustment. That is, the emotional adjustment to a big change can vary depending on the time
available for adjusting. The Peace Corps volunteers went through the same emotional
adjustment cycle in the six weeks of their training that they stretched to cover the full two
years of their assignments. And even more significantly, without any pre-arranged “endpoint,”
some of the volunteers took many years to emotionally adjust to being back home in the USA
following their assignments.
If we understand that our emotional experiences of big changes are normal and follow a
predictable sequence, we can focus on making adjustments and moving forward more
effectively. We can acknowledge that it is OK to have feelings of loss and we can know that
with small successes we can creep forward to the next stage. Perhaps most importantly, we
can reduce the novelty and uncertainty by examining three things: 1) what knowledge or
information is needed to move forward; 2) what new skills or capabilities are called for to
move forward; and 3) what can I do to maintain or restore a positive and optimistic outlook.
We can also speed up the adjustment in some cases by creating “endpoints” along the way as
described in the preceding paragraph.