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Clarity, resilience and redefining goals: “It’s just part of your process”

April 18, 2011

In every career there is a series of successes and lessons learned. “Lessons learned” could certainly be a euphemism for “failure”, if one allows an event to be viewed in that light. However, taking the concept of “failure” and reworking it into lessons learned and then further reworking it into an opportunity becomes a choice. For purposes of this discussion I will avoid the term failure and focus upon lessons learned.

The first step in making sense of the world as it pertains to one’s goals is to understand. Viewing a problem from the sensemaking perspective (Weick, 1995) is necessary to gain clarity. Without clarity one could easily get stuck in a metaphorical fetal position and never fully understand what has happened to them, let alone glean a larger understanding of what a particular event might hold in the way of learning. Weick (1995) states “Sensemaking is tested to the extreme when people encounter an event whose occurrence is so implausible that they hesitate to report it for fear of not being believed. In essence, these people think to themselves, it can’t be, therefore, it isn’t” (p. 1). The concept of sensemaking, as Weick (1995) describes it, involves making sense of events and occurrences and then applying frameworks and knowledge to something that wasn’t there before. Usually the events or occurrences are unexpected and rather shocking, leaving the individual with a feeling of disbelief. Yet, the event or occurrence clearly happened. Sensemaking applies on an individual level as well as on an organizational level and can be greatly useful in both realms. For purposes of this discussion, sensemaking on an individual level is relevant.

Once the process of deconstructing an event or an occurrence is undertaken, over time the question of “What has happened here?” can be addressed. Generally speaking, the process of determining what has happened can be longer or shorter, depending upon the magnitude of the event. And so it is with life events, especially as it relates to career paths. The clarity that results from a thorough examination, or “brutal audit” (Collins, 2001), of what went well and what didn’t gives way to a sort of gap analysis. Gap analysis provides a linear approach to understanding where one is (as a result of the event or occurrence) as well as to assess where they desire to be.

Upon coming to grips with the perhaps undesirable outcome(s) of the event or occurrence, the individual must then turn their attention to bridging the gap that has been identified. Sometimes the event/occurrence is received by the individual as a very destructive or negative influence in their lives, leaving them without a clue as to where they might go next. For some, the lack of a clue can be extremely debilitating and rather final. For others, a sense of resilience kicks in and out-of-the-box ideas materialize as the active agent (the individual) figures out how to turn a negative into a positive. The differences between the two types of people is profound and will, without reservation, determine their future pathways to success. Consider this question: have you ever known of any individual who has accomplished extraordinary things in life who lacked clarity and resilience? The answer is likely “no” and I would concur with such a conclusion.

Imagining how an individual might feel after a major disappointment conjures up images of anxiety, maybe depression and lack of drive in an overall sense. Stepping away from the urge to feel badly for the individual’s unfortunate experience, there is an enormous amount of literature that informs us that the brain’s neurochemistry is altered by these negative responses if left to go on for too long, unattended. Therefore, the individual’s ability to pull themselves out of their slump and into a resilient state is paramount to moving on to the next stage of coping, which is to redefine goals. Often such a forward move requires a great deal of support from family and friends. Such support can make all the difference in the world to someone going through (what might be considered to be) a setback.

Once the individual benefits from clarity through sensemaking and decides to call upon their physical, emotional and mental reserves in the form of resilience, they can step away from their commitment to previously defined goals in order to test those goals from a more realistic perspective. Being realistic in the face of lessons learned can take an individual down a few dark alleys, necessitating that they ask and attempt to answer some very difficult questions. Nonetheless, the fear associated with addressing such questions must be set aside or progress will stall. Fear, like many human emotions, feeds counterproductive energy stores in the decision making process and can be an enormous barrier to forward thinking and creative problem solving. A healthy modicum of caution is in order, however, flat-out fear is destructive.

After setting aside the fear, which can sometimes take a little while, options not previously on the table or even known about can be examined. Some options will be far out of the realm of possibility and other options may be more realistic. Identifying options should involve looking at everything – not just the safe choices. This type of “free thinking” can be easily accomplished using mind-mapping technology or even a more low-tech technology such as a dry erase board or a large piece of paper for memorializing random thoughts as they occur. Regardless of the technology utilized for the process, the outcome will yield some viable possibilities as well as a few wild ideas that can be tucked away for later brainstorming activities. Nothing that emerges during this process is a waste of time and/or resources as part of the value of the process itself can be found in not immediately discarding an idea (no matter how crazy it sounds) before one has had a chance to earnestly consider whether or not the idea has value. Value can change over time. Failure to consider everything constitutes a failure of imagination. Failure of imagination constitutes a refusal to see the event/occurrence with clarity and therefore address it with appropriate resilience. How could one possibly rework goals if they do not turn their mind loose and explore all of the possibilities? The answer is they cannot. It is impossible.

Facing problems that have resulted from a bad experience can be daunting for anyone. Everyone experiences these feelings at one point in their lives and if they cannot admit to such things they are in denial, in my humble opinion. When problems seem bigger than what one can handle, it can become easy to hide and remain inert. When the person finally resurfaces to join the productive world again, the problem is still there; unresolved and unaddressed. Therefore, a linear and simple process to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns looks like this:

  1. Make sense of it. Ask “What just happened here and what does it mean?”
  2. Gain clarity. See the event/occurrence for what it is; good, bad and ugly.
  3. Draw upon resilience. Take comfort and strength from your support system.
  4. Get creative and draw pictures. Make diagrams and mind maps. Let the mind run off into as many directions as possible; exploring all possibilities.
  5. Sort it out. Redefine goals by sorting and ordering the practical from the not-so-practical.
  6. Make a plan. Reconstruct short term, mid-term and long term goals; just as an organization would.
  7. Repeat as necessary. Unexpected glitches happen. Don’t be debilitated. Deal with the feelings associated with the event/occurrence for as long as needed – no more; then act. Never quit. Never allow defeat. Never fail. Always seek to understand what the situation has brought forth in terms of learning opportunities. Then learn.

Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. While Einstein may have been speaking in experimental terms, there is a great degree of salience in applying the statement to how individuals handle disruptions in what they believe to be their sole reality (i.e. what they thought they were meant to do with their lives via goals and career paths). Disruptions can be temporary if the individual applies clarity and resilience to the process of redefining their goals. Otherwise, disruptions can become terminal failures. Good advice in every situation would be to not give up one’s right to choose their own path.

From a personal perspective, I have had three rules on a chalkboard in my office since beginning my PhD. Rule #1 is “It’s just part of your process“. I can honestly say I look at that board often and even cite those three rules to my students and my children. Rule #1 exhibits the need for clarity and resilience to frequently assess and redefine my goals. Rule #1 is also a reminder that I can never give up my right to choose my path. Perhaps this philosophy could be helpful to someone else as well.

Remember: “It’s just part of your process.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Weick, C. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 11:50 pm

    Reading Buzz Aldrin’s “Magnificent Desolation.” In the beginning he talks about landing on the moon in Apollo 11. He says “failure is not an option” really isn’t true. When he was in the lunar mondule (LM), he was very much aware failure was an option – so many things could have gone wrong. They could be stranded on the moon, stuck in orbit, run out of fuel. Failure was always an option, but he says “if its worth doing, we must take calculated risks.”

    FWIW, I enjoyed the technical lunar landing part of the story. The rest of the story is a personal, humanitarian tale of how he struggled to find meaning in his life when he returned from the moon. He represents a dichotomy in that he was so driven and successful as an astronaut, but his personal life had so many issues.

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