The AQ Element of Clarity is the first of the 3 Foundational Elements of Antifragility. For an individual, experiencing Clarity means removing the mental clutter and emotional baggage that block our best perspective and inhibit us from the benefit of others’ perspectives so that we might observe the present without distortion.
From an organizational perspective, Clarity is our shared responsibility, from front-line operators up to the C-Suite, in removing our mental clutter and emotional baggage that might distort reality. It’s also the express responsibility of its leaders to define the current state the organization operates from. That current state needs to, as best as possible, incorporate the undistorted perspectives from all levels and areas of the organization. This also implies that leaders are responsible for sharing that undistorted current state, and other necessary information, with employees. Hence, they have a more holistic view of reality past what their purview may allow.
Without Clarity, distortion clouds our discernment. Decision-making for people and organizations can suffer, leaving us with less strength and fewer resources to face future adversity.
Left unchecked, a lack of Clarity can lead to the compounding impact of our poor choices, leaving us increasingly fragile and poised to break from the randomness, disorder, and stressors of life.
For people, this can look like unmanageable stress levels and mental breakdown.
For organizations, it can look like dwindling cash, an inability to retain talent, and potential insolvency.
With Clarity, our distortions are removed. Decision-making for people and organizations is improved. Adversity and setbacks remain unavoidable as we’re still exposed to the volatility and randomness of life; however, to borrow a baseball phrase, there are fewer unforced errors. Our strength and resources are conserved. Experiencing Clarity also helps us thrive and grow when exposed to adversity as we see situations for what they are and become more adaptive. Rather than being merely resilient, which resists shocks and stays the same, we can move towards Antifragility.
So, what factors get in the way of our experiencing the kind Clarity that sets the stage for Antifragility?
Avoiding What We Don’t Like Inhibits Clarity
Something most of us spend considerable energy on, particularly in Western society, is our pursuit of pleasure. We live to maximize our happiness and avoid pain as much as possible. The more pleasure we have, the more we want. Pleasure’s nature is not to satiate but to increase our thirst for more. We toil tirelessly, believing that by working hard enough, we can craft carefree, happy lives void of hardship and full of pleasure. The problem is, we’ve been sold a lie. Difficulty and pain are unavoidable. Every major world religion and noted philosopher who’s touched on the subject agrees that hardship and pain are inevitable. Here are a few examples:
“In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – Jesus
“Verily, with hardship, there is relief.” – Mohamad
“Life is characterized by suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction.” – Buddha
We must first endure much suffering in order to learn how to appreciate the good things that come to us.” – Plato
“The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.” – Socrates
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” – Marcus Aurelius
Our posture towards the inevitability of pain and hardship shapes our relationship with suffering and healthy grieving when profound loss does come. If we go through life with a healthy understanding that pain, difficulty, and adversity are unavoidable, we’re better prepared to work through it in healthy ways when it comes. If we believe pain and loss can even be used to shape our character, making us better equipped to face future adversity, then we have an Antifragile mindset. But, if we think pain, hardship, and trouble can actually be avoided, then our worlds tend to get rocked when it comes. And this is where our ability to experience Clarity is diminished.
When our mindset is to avoid pain and suffering at all costs, we tend to choose paths that look easier. We optimize for comfort. With a clouded sense of Clarity, our bias will be toward decisions that we believe will produce less friction today, even when they set us up for increased friction tomorrow.
Some examples include the student being overwhelmed at the thought of Monday’s exam, so they put off studying all day Saturday and Sunday morning, only to be even more overwhelmed on Sunday night. Or the couple putting off marriage counseling because of the pain it surfaces only to later wind up experiencing even more significant pain after a divorce. Or the company founder whose business has been slipping and distracts themselves with trips and hobbies only to find the situation has worsened when they finally check back in.
In each of these examples, their lack of Clarity stemming from avoidance of what they don’t like sets them up for increased fragility. The student has dug themselves into a deeper hole, potentially with ramifications that follow throughout their academic career. The couple carries their baggage and brokenness into their subsequent relationships, more deeply entrenched in the certainty that it’s always the other person’s fault. The founder has fewer resources and less time to begin turning their business around, placing it at greater risk of failing.
Combating our natural inclination to avoid what we don’t like may seem daunting. And if your thought is to take a significant situation of avoidance head-on, you’re likely to fail. Our typical pattern is to set lofty goals and grit them out for a while, only to get knocked off track by a disruption in our newly established routine. And that’s where the answer lies…in our routines. As the late General Colin Powell said, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.”
The most monumental “little matter” we collectively face is our numbing behaviors. They often rule us without us being aware. This happens partly because it’s so pervasive. Large numbers of people doing seemingly harmless activities amount to justification in our minds. And sure, spending a few minutes scrolling through social media or watching your favorite show each week is benign. Until it’s not.
Social media, streaming services, pornography, email, work, and countless other activities can all be addictive. We can tell if it’s become an addictive habit if we do it compulsively when specific triggers are repeated. We might find ourselves looking through the kitchen snack drawer without ever having consciously decided to get a snack whenever stress arises. We might instinctively get our phone out whenever we flirt with the possibility of a dull moment with no thought to it. Our habit of intending to watch one 30-minute show turning into three-hour binge sessions may often coincide with guilt from being too tired to go to the gym.
If we want to keep the avoidance of pain from limiting our Clarity, we need to start by taking small steps. If we compulsively check our email or social media at night, we might try turning our phones off when we get home. It may be hard at first, but the likelihood is that it will feel liberating in a matter of days. When it does, we might build on that habit by committing to one weekend day each week with our phones turned off. Soon we’ll find the numbing behaviors associated with our phones no longer master us.
It’s important to remember that the goal here is freedom, not legalism. Yes, we need to start with a commitment, but we should aim to rid ourselves of anything that has control over us and distorts our Clarity. Once we’ve found freedom in one area, we’ll relish it and want more. We’ll seek to eliminate other habits inhibiting Clarity. Eventually, we’ll start intentionally leaning into the more significant challenges we’ve historically avoided. This is the beginning of reigniting our innate ability to grow stronger from adversity and be Antifragile.
fear clouds clarity
Buried deep in our brain, the amygdala serves as our emergency response system. It alerts our nervous system of serious threats, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into our bodies. If the perceived threat is significant enough, our blood pressure and heart rate will spike as our bodies shut down any unnecessary functions to prepare for potential fight or flight. It can even override our brain’s executive functioning, leaving us blind to anything past the desire for self-preservation.
This system is very beneficial when fleeing burning buildings or fighting off large animals that want to eat us. It’s far less helpful when we hear some performance issues at work need to be discussed, and we feel uncontrollably torn between looking for our metaphorical running shoes or boxing gloves. How often has our fear response saved us from anything like the former, and how often does it foul up situations resembling the latter?
The thing about fear is that our anticipation of difficult or uncomfortable conversations and situations is far more often worse than the actual event itself. I’d guess we can all think of a time when we got in trouble as a kid and waited for the inevitable moment we’d have to face a parent or authority figure. Think of one and ask yourself which was worse, waiting for the conversation or the conversation itself. I’ve asked this question many times. Inevitably I get a far-off look, then a wry slight smile and chuckle before hearing, “Yeah, I get it.”
The problem is that we can spend an inordinate amount of time and energy in an anxious or fearful state. And the cost to our relationships, outlook, performance, and overall health can be devastating.
The driver behind this irrational fear and anxiety is usually unresolved pain, hurt, or sometimes even severe trauma. This can look like a young adult who serially sabotages relationships after three months. They might explain that it’s because they don’t see the relationship going anywhere when, deep down, they fear rejection based on their childhood and seek to break up before the other person does. Or it can look like a leader who puts tremendous pressure on their team, continually driving high employee turnover. They might state they’re merely concerned about the company’s future and everyone’s jobs when, deep down, they feel they never earned their father’s approval and are trying to win it through success at work.
To experience Clarity, we need to understand and unpack the irrational fears that can drive us to unhealthy places and work through them. Journaling and times of quiet reflection can help in discovering their origins. Sometimes family and friends can lend insight. We might be surprised at how much they could help if we’re willing to listen non-defensively. Often it takes the guidance of a professionally trained and licensed counselor. While there unfortunately used to be a stigma around counseling, those days are gone. Becoming the best, healthiest version of ourselves possible is a noble pursuit, and we should feel no shame in getting help!
As we expose and resolve our irrational fears, a journey that can take time, we’ll gradually gain power over our fear response system and the behaviors it once triggered. We’ll be better able to pause and listen non-defensively in conflict. We’ll be able to reduce or even eliminate the time we spend anxiously looking towards uncomfortable situations and uncertainty. We can ask ourselves questions like; what’s the worst that can happen? Might I learn something beneficial to help grow? It’s a significant step in our growth toward Antifragility!
Overattachment to Our Point of View Inhibits Clarity
We all start with a default point of view on various topics. This can range from parenting to decisions in relationships or on leadership teams. We speak and act as though our points of view are carefully crafted from the current information at our disposal. And while there may be some truth in that, research shows that our decision-making is far more biased than we’d like to admit by our long-standing beliefs. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as confirmation bias. The technical definition is our tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.
In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes extensively about confirmation bias. Kahneman describes a study in which doctors were given a case history and a set of symptoms and asked to diagnose the patient. When the doctors were given additional information contradicting their initial diagnosis, they tended to discount it and stick with their original diagnosis, even when it was incorrect.
Not surprisingly, this kind of decision-making takes place in businesses as well. In another study, Kahneman and his colleagues found that hiring managers were more likely to hire a candidate who was similar to themselves, even when that candidate was less qualified than other candidates.
So, what’s driving our decisions if we tend to ignore new information? The answer is our existing beliefs driven by the complexity of nature and nurture. We all have behavioral and motivational tendencies that were formed in us to an extent at inception. These were then dramatically shaped by our upbringing and early childhood development. For example, the behavior we were praised for, the behavior that may have led to us being ignored, and the behavior that potentially led to us being reprimanded.
So, when faced with what appears to be an urgent matter where one person says, “We need to act fast,” and their counterpart says, “We need more information,” their differing points of view have much less to do with logic or the context of the situation and much more to do with their upbringing and what they’ve learned to get along to this point in life.
The first mistake we make in letting these behavioral and motivational tendencies cloud our Clarity is to be unaware of them and how they drive us. I don’t know that much needs to be said about the importance of understanding our tendencies. If you’re unaware of yours, feel free to take our complimentary AQ Assessment and email me at email@example.com, and I’ll be happy to unpack your expanded results with you.
The second and more common mistake we make in allowing our behavioral and motivational tendencies to get in the way of experiencing Clarity is to assign virtue to them. We inherently see ours as “right” and others that counter them as “wrong.” If you have a bias toward action and haven’t developed the skills to evaluate and manage that tendency, your Clarity will be impaired, moving you toward greater fragility. If you have a bias towards control and let it run unchecked, experiencing Clarity will again be inhibited, moving you towards increased fragility.
So how do we counteract the wide range of hardwired preferences that can drive us? The first step we already mentioned is learning your behavioral and motivational tendencies. The second and more pivotal step is to shift your mindset in seeing them for what they are, gifts. We didn’t earn them. We didn’t even choose them. They were given to us at birth and developed over time by people and circumstances that shaped us. When we shift our mindset away from these tendencies being right or wrong, they lose power over us. When we see them as gifts given to us, we give ourselves the power of choice and mastery over when and how to use them.
Like any gift, we should be grateful for them. There are no excellent or bad gifts regarding these behaviors and motivators. There are only well-used and misused gifts. Some situations call for action, while others call for seeking more information. Some cases call for asserting control, while others for letting go of it. If your tendency is toward control, you can be grateful for being given that gift when needed and choose to lay it aside when it’s not called for. Clarity comes when we learn which to do.
It helps me to ascribe actual gifts I was given as a kid to my primary motivators that run the risk of steering me wrong. For example, I relate my tendency towards high control to the cool ski jacket I got for Christmas. It’s fantastic for when I’m out on the slopes. But I’d look like a buffoon wearing it on a 90-degree summer day. It’d be uncomfortable too! This simple mental picture reminds me to run my biases through a filter that says, “Does this situation call for that gift?”
Once we learn to see our behavioral motivators, along with the proficiencies they develop, as gifts. The next step in this mental journey is remembering that others you’re living and working with were given gifts too. You can imagine them as teammates on one of those reality-based shows where you must quickly get to some far-off destination. In that case, would you want teammates who all had the same set of tools? How well would it work having to scale a tall rock wall together if everyone on your team possessed rope but no one had any carabiners or cams? Or would you want to be with people with diverse gifts and the humility to know when and how to use them?
Often, our biases are so pervasive that it’s hard not to keep falling into the same traps. Once we’ve identified our preferences and consciously see them as gifts to use as needed, seeking help is wise. We might consider partnering with a mentor or coach to help us on the journey of mastering our gifts. It’s also helpful to develop practices of shared accountability regarding our biases within the teams we are part of. Highly functioning teams should have the confidence and trust to share their strengths and weaknesses as they work together to manage gaps. This would include exercises aimed at understanding and honoring our collective biases so they might be appropriately addressed, giving us optimal Clarity.
When teams operate with broader toolsets and expanded knowledge bases to draw upon, along with humility and trust, our shared experience of Clarity increases. We become more adaptive and better equipped to face future adversity on our way toward the Antifragile mindset.
Taking Things Personally Inhibits Clarity
To varying degrees, we all take things personally. It might be the guy running checkout at the store who questions our intelligence for asking what we see as an obvious question. Maybe the woman who cuts us off in traffic as if she needs to get where she’s going more than we do. Or a colleague who keeps hoarding admin resources to push their projects through the system.
But what if we pre-judged these scenarios without all the facts? Maybe the guy running checkout doesn’t think your question is stupid. Perhaps he’s frustrated because he answers the same question twenty-five times daily, and leaders won’t listen to his feedback. Maybe the woman who cuts us off in traffic is in a bigger hurry than we are. Perhaps she’s a single mom whose childcare provider no-showed again, leaving her scrambling, and she’s afraid she’ll be let go from her job if she shows up late one more time. Maybe our co-worker who keeps hoarding admin resources is under pressure from the CEO because their vertical was deemed a strategic imperative, and they wished they had a more low-profile assignment.
Should the guy running checkout respond to us like that? Probably not. But we should ask ourselves if we’ve ever inflicted frustration on someone who didn’t deserve it. Was the woman wrong to cut us off, and might she have been even later if she’d caused an accident and potentially hurt someone? Yes! But have we ever cut someone off in traffic in a hurry? Should our colleague hoard admin resources? Maybe not. But have we ever fought to get more than our share of resources when the pressure was on?
If we’re being honest, the answer to at least a couple of these questions, if not all, is yes. With that, the even better question to ask ourselves is, was it ever personal? Do you do things like that to spite or offend the other party intentionally? I doubt highly doubt it. Or at least I doubt you’ve done it very frequently. And there are very few people who do. The reality is that we all make regrettable choices under pressure that affects others.
The problem with choosing to take things personally, and it is a choice, is that it emotionally loads what are often benign situations. Our anxiety and anger flare up, sending stress hormones into our system that linger. We show up to ensuing interactions in a heightened state of alert, ill-prepared to handle any challenges in a clearheaded fashion.
To avoid this trap of undermining your Clarity, consider developing a mindset of curiosity in your discernment instead of pre-judging. Ask yourself questions like, “I wonder if the guy running checkout is having a bad day?” Or “I wonder what’s going on in that woman’s life that has her in such a hurry. I know I must be pretty frantic to drive like that.” You might even go so far as to ask that colleague, “Are you okay? Do you need some help?” What would our lives and workplaces look like, and how would our Clarity improve if we did that?
What Do You Have to Lose?
Any time we consider change, we should consider the potential cost and what we may lose. So, what could the pursuit of experiencing greater Clarity in hopes of living and leading in Antifragility cost?
What loss might come from letting go of your numbing behaviors? It’s possible you might miss out on some details in the lives of friends and family if your time spent on social media is curtailed. But how much meaningful content from their lives are you gleaning from it now? Reducing your consumption of streaming services could cause you to feel less rested. But did you feel recharged the day after binge-watching television the last few times?
And if letting go of numbing behaviors led to no longer avoiding what you don’t like, what bad might come of that? You might start taking on more significant challenges in life and fail at some of them, which could be hard for a time. Consider reflecting on your last days before dying, however. Will you regret limiting the amount of television and social media you’ve consumed? Will you wish you had spent more time with your phone or with your family? Will you wish you had avoided more hard situations, or will you be grateful you did what was challenging in hopes of growing in character, even if it meant some additional failure and hardship?
And how much good has your fear done outside situations involving your physical safety? If unsure, take a thorough and honest pass at making a list. In one column, note the times fear has saved you, but be careful here. Don’t mistakenly include situations where you were afraid, and everything happened to turn out okay. Remember to include only cases where your fear was critical to the outcome. In the second column, list times and ways when your fear hurt you. Remember that anxiety and its effects on our health, decision-making, etc., is a fear when making your list. To be thorough, think through interactions at home and work that may have gone poorly because of fear or anxiety. Are there any fractured relationships or missed opportunities in life where fear played a role? As you quickly consider the exercise, which list is longer? Is it even close?
A willingness to let go of your point of view could cost you not getting your way as often. You could become a pushover trampled on by those around you. But how likely is that? Do you believe that’s what the people in your life want to do? Do you desire to trample over them?
You also might worry that you have the best ideas, and letting go of your point of view could mean results could be better. Consider looking back at the most significant achievements you’ve been a part of. Did they happen because everyone listened to yours or any one person’s point of view exclusively? Or did the best outcomes you’ve been part of achieving result from teams coming together to develop a shared point of view that benefited from the strengths and wisdom of the whole?
And how might choosing not to take things personally negatively impact you? Maybe you’ll feel like the world is worse off from your lack of attentiveness in addressing the poor behavior around you, as if your vigilance is positively impacting the planet. I would ask how that’s going for you so far.
What Does Experiencing Extreme Clarity Look Like?
Experiencing extreme clarity looks like a person continually in the moment. They are self-aware. When the urge for numbing behavior emerges, they don’t judge it as “bad.” They instead choose to observe it. Rather than giving in to it, they consider what might be driving it and address the underlying frustration with self-compassion and resolve.
They have no misconceptions about the inevitability of pain and hardship or the uncertain nature of when or how they will appear. Comfortable in not trying to control the uncertainty, which can’t be controlled anyways, their strength is preserved for the challenges at hand. Having Clarity around their past, they are keenly aware of the times pain and hardship have been used to shape their character and help them grow stronger. They can see how it’s equipped them to thrive during more significant challenges that have come. This gives them the confidence to lean into challenging situations that could otherwise be avoided but are worth pursuing in hopes of fruitful outcomes.
They learned long ago that most fear is unfounded. They have Clarity around the isolated situations where fear alerts them to real danger. They can also observe where it stems from current circumstances rubbing up against past wounds because they’ve spent the time and worked to understand those situations. Free of the desire to control the world’s uncertainty and fear stemming from untreated past wounds, they are primed to experience the Second Foundational Element of Antifragility, Purpose.
They are present to who and what is around them. Undistracted, they can attentively listen to the conversations they are part of. Self-aware, they know their tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses that stem from them. They value and show appreciation for the strengths of those around them. They don’t judge themselves or those around them for their natural shortcomings. Comfortable with whom they are, they welcome constructive criticism and freely receive it as an opportunity for growth.
When conflict arises, they do not pre-judge the situation and instead choose the path of discernment, allowing them not to take things personally. Because they don’t get defensive or take things personally, they respond to conflict instead of reacting to it. They have the Clarity to view the conflict for what it is and contribute towards healthy outcomes for everyone. Together, these attributes significantly increase their ability to experience the Third Foundational Element of Antifragility, Connection.
With the ability to experience the Three Foundational Elements of Antifragility, they are on their way to growing stronger from whatever future uncertainty and adversity they might face.
What Do You Have to Gain?
There’s much to gain in following the practices that lead to greater Clarity. There’s the escape from numbing behaviors that dull the senses and occupy countless hours in the week that could be applied to more meaningful pursuits. Confidence to take on challenges that previously would have been avoided can be found. Relative freedom from the anxiety and fear that commonly plague is obtainable. We can enjoy the fruit of relationships where we value and strengthen one another, free of judgment and defensiveness. I think it’s safe to say the potential upside is far more significant than any real downside!