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Embracing the Middle

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Thursday, January 31, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

When I was caring for patients as an oncologist I often found myself advising patients and families to adopt the perspective of "hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Lately I’ve been thinking about that model for a number of reasons, including our recent discussions of the book "Resilience” as well as thinking about my own aging parents and those of my friends and colleagues. I have assumed that this sort of thinking and preparation helps people be resilient, as they are thinking about what sorts of problems they and their families might experience if things don’t go their way, and what structures and supports need to be in place for those scenarios. People involved in risk management and patient safety sometimes refer to this as a failure-mode analysis, as one thinks of the various ways a process, a technology, a working group could fail, and then what could be done to prevent those failures or, at least, mitigate/minimize the harm those "failures” inflict upon individuals and groups.

What I realize, however, with this sort of approach, is that we focus our attention on the polarities- the best case and the worst case. And what we might miss is the opportunity to appreciate all those times that are neither best nor worst, but reflect the uncertainties of daily life. Linear pathways comfort us, and imagining the line connecting us with our current state to our best-case future state fits that style of thinking. Similarly, we often probably imagine the connection between the present and the worst that could happen is a straight line as well, not thinking about all of the ups and downs that likely would occur along the way.

When we awaken on most days, however, we have no sense as to which of those poles is going to be the stronger attractor for us over the next 24 hours. How do we deal with that uncertainty? Some might focus most of their efforts towards forging their path in one or the other direction: taking steps to maximize their best chance for a good outcome (no matter how difficult) or forcing themselves to make plans for the worst. What about approaching each day embracing the uncertainties of what it will bring, not trying to predetermine what the attractors are going to be? And then, as the day unfolds, going with the flow, smiling at the surprises, appreciating the experiences, doing and learning as the situations dictate. Some might view this is giving up control. To me, it is making a choice to accept the complexity of the world we’re in instead of fighting back against all of that complexity. Might that help us apply the concept of Liberating Structures to our own lives- structured just enough that we have a good-enough plan, and enabling ourselves to be liberated enough to try and take advantage of whatever the day may bring?

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  liberating structures  uncertainty 

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