Uncertainty – A Gateway to Attention

Picture Credits: Mikael Kristenson 

Uncertainty in 2020

I enter into this new year as a different person.  Of course, each year I am a new version of myself.  However, this year I feel it more because I learned a lot in the past ten months.

Most importantly, I learned to make friends with uncertainty.  I thought I had befriended uncertainty long ago, given my love of change.  It turns out that this friendship required a much deeper understanding.

Joanna Macy, environmental activist and author of eight books, revealed to me the five gifts of uncertainty in one of her 2020 talks.  These gifts are:

  1. The gift of presence
  2. The gift of choice
  3. The gift of courage to feel
  4. The gift of a sense of solidarity
  5. The gift of noticing the immensity of time.

These gifts are actually gateways to harnessing attention, one of our most valuable assets for innovation and creativity.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Presence

In a pandemic, we may oscillate between hopefulness and hopelessness. If we can recognize that these are just feelings that come and go like clouds, we can arrive in presence. Uncertainty gets us to the present moment because

“Uncertainty can free us from the need to be constantly taking our emotional temperatures to how optimistic or pessimistic we are in the moment.” 

– Joanna Macy

In 2020, I quickly realized the unproductive result of playing the game of riding my emotions.  When I had something to act on like writing an article, I was right back in the present.  I was able to harness the strength of my own alertness.

Cultivating awareness of emotions is a practice.  Only when we become aware that we are on the emotional roller coaster can we let that go and get back to the present.  This is closely related to the second gift of uncertainty.

Being in the present moment is a primary gateway to harnessing attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Choice

The second gift of uncertainty, completely linked to the first, is choice. We choose what we are going to do, only in the present moment.  As humans we have a capacity to choose. We are actually choosing which verb we want to be. So, are we choosing to act from purpose, with intention, or are we choosing to react to an emotional state?  That is our choice in every given moment of the day.

If we are able to be with our deeper sense of purpose, our motivation to choose useful action will ultimately benefit the world and humanity in a positive way.  Being with purpose unlocks value creation at a higher level.

Choice is a gateway to harnessing attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of the Courage to Feel

In this pandemic time of uncertainty, we also have emotions like outrage, fear and grief.  We are presented the gift of courage to notice these feelings, to turn towards them.  Instead of the habitual running away from these uncomfortable feelings, we can sense into collective grief and pain.  Here we can find golden nuggets of insight that may move us to act in powerful and positive ways.

Courage to feel is also a gateway to harness attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Solidarity

Uncertainty unites us in solidarity. Solidarity means unity or agreement of feeling or action.  The COVID pandemic reinforces the interconnectedness of all human life forms.  It helps us pay attention to that interconnectedness.  The uncertainty of transmission, of who believes COVID is real or not, helps us pay attention to how we will act in relationship to our fellow humans, those that we know and those that we don’t.  

Solidarity is a gateway to harnessing collective attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of the Immensity of Time

Joanna Macy says that to be a human now in this darkness of uncertainty presents great responsibility. The decisions we make right now will have a direct effect on whether future generations, centuries and millennia from now, will even live or thrive. 

“We live in a time when the consequences of our actions, thanks to science and industrial capitalism, extend into geological time…. To hundreds of thousands of generations.”

“The future ones are therefore in our actions right here, now.. These future beings are all plugging for us. Please feel them. Let them laugh in your ear as well as slap you on the back side and pull you forward, because we have great work to do.” 

– Joanna Macy  

When we are able to understand that today’s choices will have a ripple effect into the future, then we will have received uncertainty’s fifth gift.  Thus, the sense of our relationship with the immensity of time  is also a gateway to harnessing the power of attention.

Your Team’s Brain – Rewired

Photo: Dan Dennis

Remote Forever

It is no secret that more remote working is here to stay, even after this pandemic is over.  A new role is emerging in large organizations – the Head of Remote Work.  “Digital first” is a given combined with the fresh term, “Remote – first” ways of working.  Gitlab, Facebook and Okta Inc. hired new Heads of Remote Work in the last year.  Shopify calls its workforce “digital by default.”

Neurodiversity Decline

There is a less talked about impact of more remote work.  What will it do to our brains?  How will the collective brain be affected?  

The December 2020 Globe and Mail article, “Tech is rewiring education – and our children,” shed light on the mounting concern that on-line learning disregards neurodiversity.  This emerging flavor of exclusion negatively impacts collaboration so key for knowledge worker teams.  Thus, the rewiring of work will result in teams that lack neurodiversity. Ultimately, a decline in innovation will occur.   

Tactile, experiential learning is revered by Silicon Valley CEO’s as evidenced by their preference for low-tech Waldorf schools.  This type of learning is key for creativity.  

The core role of knowledge worker teams is to constantly learn and create new products.  Post pandemic, what will happen if they continue to omit tactile, embodied experiences?  I predict the creative process and innovation will suffer deeply.

Remote Rewiring

The fact is, our brains are impacted negatively with increased remote work because it equates to more heads in screens.   The 1950’s book by Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, predicted what we are experiencing now, namely

 “a profound change resulting in the human disconnect from the tactility of material work where the worker  loses contact with the primary element of life and environment, the basic material out of which he makes what he makes.  He no longer knows wood or iron or wool. He is acquainted only with the machine.”

The result is a decline in cognition, learning, and innovation. Embodied cognition researchers T. Ionescu and D.Vasc “consider the body as a key factor in shaping our cognition.”   Without the connection to the body, our brains will be rewired, putting us humans at a disadvantage.

For the past four years I have been helping teams innovate and transform differently by applying embodiment practices developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  During this work I have witnessed the importance of movement and gestural expression.  The physical quality of embodied practice leads to faster solutions, deeper perspectives and news ways of seeing and solving problems.  In short, the collective cognition of teams is improved when such practices are layered-in alongside the digital tools.

So let’s make sure we gather as teams in physical spaces again….often. Engaging with our collective learning, moving bodies on a regular basis will be of paramount importance once this pandemic is over.  

Why?  To preserve and improve the cognitive power of our teams, to prevent the divorce of body and brain.  At the same time, we will maintain our humanness.