How to not freak out when things are suddenly in Transformation — Living la Vida VUCA

philip horváth
9 min readMar 15, 2020
Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

You know that feeling when you get up a little too fast and feel dizzy in the head?

Reality is starting to feel a little bit like that for many people.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” — Kierkegaard

If you are used to a relatively stable daily life in terms of your home and job, if you had relative certainty about what will happen the following day at any given point, if you knew mostly what you were doing, and had a pretty good idea of what’s right and wrong, the current times present a sudden and neurologically taxing challenge.

Any deviation from the norm triggers our Amygdala. Our Amygdala is the part in our limbic system, our emotional brain, that is constantly scanning for potential threats. Its job is to keep us safe.

The Amygdala gets triggered by simple things as symmetry since everything in nature that is symmetrical is either food, foe or f%ck (e.g. an apple, a saber tooth tiger, or a potential mate). This is why it is so relaxing to spend time in nature.

In today’s world, your Amygdala is constantly triggered.

Most cities are laden with symmetrical things, there is noise, there are time pressures, relationship dynamics, financial, personal or work stress and fear of job loss or survival, all the way to constant notifications on your phone in a world that has suddenly become on 24/7.

And now a pandemic.

It’s a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

It’s a VUCA world.

Volatility

Suddenly daily life changes over night.

Kindergarten closed. Event cancelled. Travel halted. Work from home, and maybe for the first time, remotely, disconnected from co-workers, with travel bans, maybe even from family and friends (if you are going remote, here is a good list of things to consider)

Only a few weeks ago, that was not even a consideration for most people.

Our world has been become extremely volatile.

Uncertainty

We have more information than ever. The rate of it doubling is dazzling. The speed of it unfathomable even a few decades ago when you had to go to a library to find out something, had four channels with only occasional news; or only one phone (now called landline) at home.

Today, we are bombarded with information. Social networks and the internet as such, serve up a plethora of daily news, contradictions, confusions, and downright disinformation and nonsense.

Leaving us with more uncertainty than ever.

Complexity

The next thing could come from anywhere. In a highly interdependent system there are a corresponding number of failure points. Things could go awry at any moment. Unforeseen ripple effects of even minor events can cause widespread panic. It is as if someone had lifted the curtain and underneath we see a massive world machine maniacally assembling and reassembling itself.

Our world is more complex than ever.

Ambiguity

In this uncertainty and complexity, it is hard to determine right and wrong. Is the current epidemic over-hyped or the end of the world as we know it? Are our politicians on it, or are they masking incompetence in times of crisis? Should we expand and think of ourselves as planetary citizens and become each others’ keepers, or recoil in isolation and social distancing behind closed off walls, gated communities, and our very own front doors (which temporarily might be a good idea)?

We are missing guidance and ways to know how to move forward with confidence.

Ambiguous is the new normal.

So what can you do with all this and not freak the f%ck out?

In times of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA), it is essential to take ownership of your emotional system.

Through mental hygiene and conscious regulation of your parasympathetic nervous system, you can stay calm, even if everything around you seems a bit out of control.

Once you are calm, instead of reacting to the challenges in front of you, you can create solutions for the future.

KEEP CALM and CREATE FUTURE

Keep Calm

First and foremost learn how to keep calm, and take control of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, meaning learn how to consciously manipulate your Amygdala — and with that your emotional system and state.

There are a few things you can do acutely.

  • Breathe — Here is a simple technique used by Navy Seals, who are trained to make fear their friend: On the count of four go through each of the four stages of breath: inhale on count 4, hold for 4, exhale on the count of four, hold for 4. Repeat until you find your system has relaxed.
  • Move your BodyExercise, walking, Yoga, standing in power poses are all helpful tools to trigger your body into overcoming stress.
  • Go to a Happy Place — Think of a place you like to be or would like to be. Think of a future you would want to live in. Imagine all this current confusion leading to the best possible outcomes. Project yourself there as vividly as possible. While this is a moment of escaping, it allows you to take a breath and step away from the issue before going back to it more consciously (here are some more visualization techniques).

Acute measures are helpful, but we also need tools to shift into dealing with a VUCA world on a more permanent basis, as in all likelihood, it will not get any less volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous any time soon.

Living la Vida VUCA

The good news is, this is not the first time humanity has been in crisis — and we have tools for that.

And not just that:

  • Never before have we had this much knowledge available to us. Never before have we been able to communicate at this kind of speed.
  • Never before have we had more capacities to co-create and evolve as a species.

Creating Solutions for the Future

Once shifted out of anxiety, you can see the opportunity of the situation, and you can begin to address not just the challenges at hand, but you can use this transition to build the capacities necessary to deal with what is to come:

How to plan and act in a time of Volatility

The Prussian army Field Marshal Moltke once said “no plan survives initial contact, but it’s good to have a plan.” Similarly just because things are a bit volatile at the moment doesn’t mean you can’t plan.

It is easy to hold off and wait before you do anything and let “fate” force your hand — only re-act, even if too late, and only when you have to. In that case, you would have “had to” do whatever, and can abdicate responsibility. This is already how we are dealing with the climate crisis — and it’s not working too well.

If you choose to step into responsibility for reality, into leadership, and create the future, you need an emotional anchor in the future. Don’t think three years or five years. Think ten years ahead, or even a hundred.

Where would you like to see yourself — and the world — in ten years? In a hundred?

Reach as far out into the future as you can imagine and emotionally connect to.

Then focus on what is right in front of you.

With your eyes set on the long-term, how could you best address the immediate needs of the situation?

What needs your attention right now?

How can your immediate purpose serve you in going as much as possible in the direction of your long term vision?

How to overcome Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a killer when you are used to reacting to things. When you orient ourselves on where you want to be in the future, and create instead of react, uncertainty goes away.

For that, you need a clear purpose. A why? A clear sense and vision of a future you would like to see happen, that you would want your (imaginary) kids to live in.

In moments of transformation like the current one, when tomorrow is suddenly disconnected from a linear history, we have the opportunity to orient ourselves on what really matters.

Values orient you. They are a simple tool to make decisions with.

Become clear about your values. What is important to you?

What kind of future would you want to leave behind when you pass on one day?

What are key values of that future?

What can you do now to live those values?

How to handle Complexity

Before stepping into action, make sure you include as much relevant information as possible in your decision making process. Go wide. Include wildcards, create multiple scenarios, multiple futures that could come to be.

Then use that information together with your purpose and values to focus in on activities that will provide the most leverage and address as many scenarios as possible, while leaving you the option to remain agile, knowing that in all likelihood the future will look different from what you imagine anyway — we don’t have control over our circumstances, only the ability to influence.

Create a portfolio of possible next steps.

What are streams of activity that serve you now and in the long run?

What gets you closer to your purpose, is aligned with your values, and creates immediate results for others?

How to clear Ambiguity

The easiest way to shift out of ambiguity, is to be curious. That is what science is all about. Not about “the truth” or “knowing the answer”, but instead, about delighting in the question.

Nobody really knows what is happening.

We can only ever have opinions or assumptions. We are all blind men, trying to identify the elephant. The best thing we can do is to be open to all options.

Ambiguity is often presented in either/or options.

One thing that can help you here is to accept paradox. What if both is “true”? What would a synthesis of the options look like? What are you assuming?

Test your assumptions.

What is the smallest action you can take that will provide you with the most information?

What can you test today to get an idea of possible futures?

Transformation is an Opportunity

The future is uncertain, but in all likelihood, VUCA will continue for a while (and probably even increase).

We are in a process of transformation.

Our old systems, still built for a national, and at best, global context, are beginning to break down in a planetary context, in which people understand that the wingbeat of a butterfly in China does have an effect on the rest of the world.

The good news is, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we are moving closer together. In crisis, and with a common “enemy” humanity does tend to stand united.

Reactivity and fear are contractive, and we are seeing some of that, but people are smart enough to see behind temporary delusion eventually.

Whether because of climate or pandemics, we cannot say that in our generation we weren’t aware of our planetary interdependence.

We now have choices:

  • We can try and react to the challenges in front of us while holding on to the old systems that are failing anyway — and go down with them.
  • Or we can overcome anxiety, keep calm, take responsibility for the future of this planet, and build solutions for a planet we would want to live on.

In between these two polarities (I am aware of presenting a dualistic choice), there is a plethora of action potential and ways of being.

You now get to choose who you want to be.

One day, when they ask you who you were during the transition, how will you answer?

The future belongs to those who create it. That is why I work with change leaders and their teams to create future-ready cultures and organizations. Through my work with LUMAN and other projects, I provide frameworks and operating metaphors to support leaders around the world in their individual evolution and in growing innovation capacity in their teams and organizations. I have worked with startups, NGOs and with global brands in a variety of industries around the world. More at http://philiphorvath.com.

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philip horváth

culture catalyst ★ planetary strategist — creating cultural operating systems at planetary scale — tweeting on #future, #culture, #leadership @philiphorvath