It’s not news to say that nothing in life is certain.
Not even if you ‘follow the rules’, not if you ‘trust the process’, not if you ‘do everything right’.
However, in life, we are conditioned to believe that certain actions will yield defined results:
- “Study hard and you’ll get an A”
- “Work hard and you’ll be financially rewarded”
- “Love your friends and family and they will love you back”
However, a time comes when you find that A ≠B. You studiy hard but you mess up the exam. The hard yakka you’ve been putting in at work goes unnoticed. The love you pour on a friend is unrequited.
This creates pain. It creates pain because of the chasm of discrepancy between results and expectation. You’re disillusioned. You feel cheated. After all, you ‘did everything right’, so why did you ‘fail’?
What’s Certain About Anything?
What is certainty? Certainty is when
- You are sure of something because
- You have no grounds for doubt, and
- You believe you cannot be mistaken
However, few things in life are truly certain. Outside of the laws of science, everything leaves room for error and interpretation.
This is terrifying to admit. Who wants to look into the dark abyss of doubt and allow that we may be working hard for nothing, the path we are leading may lead nowhere and that our loved ones may leave us no matter what we do?
If there is no certainty, there can be no faith. If there is no faith, there is no hope. If there is no hope, there is no motivation. So why do anything?
That is why we can hold onto pretty much any loose belief and stamp it as ‘fact’ – because it’s better than the alternative, a.k.a. admitting that you actually have no idea whether the things you believe in are true.
One of the best examples of mankind’s fear of challenging what they perceive as certain is Plato’s story of the men in the cave.
In this allegory, a group of people are chained to a cave floor and forced to watch shadows dancing on the wall in front of them.
These unlucky individuals have never left the cave. They cannot even turn their heads. This murky existence watching shadows is all they know.
As the shadows are their world, the group grow attached to them. They give them names, discuss their actions and behaviour with enthusiasm. They are certain the shadows are real.
One day, a prisoner manages to free himself and step out of the cave into the world outside. The sun burns his eyes as he adjusts to the feast for the senses represented by the outside world: a cacophony of sound, colour and life.
He sees the real form of the entities previously experienced only as shadows: rabbits, flowers, people. He sees the sky and the stars.
He returns to the cave and tries to explain to the others what he has witnessed. His eyes have trouble adjusting to the darkness and he can no longer see the shadows as he used to. They are now just shapeless forms.
The other prisoners don’t believe his story and call him crazy. They violently resist when he tries to free them. In the end, they plot to kill him.
Plato uses the story as an allegory for a philosopher trying to educate society. Enlightened ideas are frequently violently rejected by others.
Applying the Parable
Plato’s moral that the general public are hugely resistant to changing the status quo holds as true today as ever.
People have very strong attachment to the way they view life. Even when they feel unhappy and start questioning why they feel unfulfilled in spite of ticking the right boxes and ‘winning’ at the race of life and its pre-prescribed rules, they are unable to unchain themselves from their deep-set beliefs.
If things not working, people are quick to convince themselves that it’s because:
- They just haven’t worked hard enough or
- The circumstances weren’t right or
- They just need to wait a bit longer
They last option an average person would admit is that the game isn’t real and they are looking at shadows in a cave and ignoring a whole world of creation only steps away from them.
Leading with Certainty
How can this discussion be applied to leadership?
1.Examine your own beliefs
As always, it’s best to start with yourself. As you find yourself in a leadership position, examine what it is that you actually expect of yourself.
- What do you have to look like?
- What do you have to act like?
A lot of our ideas about who leaders are are deeply ingrained from examples in our lives through family, media and our community. Examples are not wrong in themselves, but they can be positive or toxic.
When you think about the questions above, where did you get these ideas and do they feel true? Does following through on these ideas feel like being authentically you?
If not, you will spend your entire tenure in leadership feeling discontent or living with the impostor syndrome as you pour your energy into maintaining a facade.
Worse, you will never be a leader you were meant to be as you drain your energy on meeting what you believe are other people’s expectations.
Being the best version of yourself is the single most important thing that can be done to serve the world. A leader has a duty to act accordingly.
2. Open your eyes to the value of rejection
You can only please some of the people, some of the time.
However, within us sits a deep human fear of rejection. We are terrified that we are not enough and that, when our true nature is exposed, we are not going to be accepted for who we are.
It’s just not sexy to be that vulnerable.
This leads us down some pretty bad paths. An example is a teenager falling in with the wrong crowd, getting involved in gang culture and letting their life being taken over by other people’s agenda.
We all know that story. Fewer think of a career professional in a suit, dedicated to the daily grind they have no idea how they ended up in, questioning if – and how – they dare to break free and unchain themselves from societal expectations.
It’s not easy to just ‘get over’ a fear of rejection. It’s a terrifying thing. We are programmed to get on with our tribe and avoid rejection at all costs. This is particularly acute when we are prominent and exposed in a position of leadership.
The secret is in re-framing whom you want approval from and why. Rejection by those we admire and respect is painful. Rejection by those who do not have our best interests at heart, who don’t see our potential and who won’t want to let us prosper and grow is, in actuality, a blessing.
Rejection by those who hold you down and have nothing to teach you is a sign you are moving on.
3. Create your own certainty
There is no certainty apart from the certainty you create.
Leaders are often called upon to bring calm and order to chaotic situations. The irrepressible human need for direction and instructions places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of those whose job it is to define what those are.
In truth, there is no divine oracle that tells anyone what the exact right thing to do is in any moment in time.
There are, however, aspects of any situation where certainty is available: attitude, outlook, beliefs.
Where outside circumstances present no certainty (and they rarely, if ever, do) certainty has to be driven from within.
Understanding that certainty is created rather than awaited is the key to shaping a future driven by authentic vision and strategy: motivators that are likely to lead to much greater success than simply trying to say the right thing.
It is a liberating realisation as you release the pressure of expectation that you have any insights into the future no one has. It’s an empowering realisation that you can shape what the future looks like by your ability to envision it.
The bottom line
Nothing is certain – but your thinking makes it so.