Living, Navigating and Surviving in a VUCA World.
If you are like me, then you have not yet come across the term VUCA. It’s kind of a trendy little acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. So why did this business term capture my attention? Well, because, as with everything else in our life, it screams out “It’s a crazy world out there” and maybe there is more to this than we all think.
Not only were we already in a distressing time of increasing technological advancement, deteriorating environmental conditions, poverty and an imbalance in the distribution of wealth, we are also now faced with a pandemic. And I can see how the psychology of the changing world is affecting my clients and new clients that have started therapy recently. With an increased degree of interconnectedness and patterns that are created and rapidly changing in this world, we are no longer able to assess, develop, and implement viable strategies, techniques or even perhaps defense mechanisms that we once could from our past experiences. The type of difficulties that arise lately is something we need to zoom out of to look at the effect of a pandemic felt in every aspect of life; every aspect of our waking day has been surrounded with uncertainty and volatility.
Let’s break this up into manageable chunks. Today’s world is changing at a pace that we cannot keep up with, the pandemic is creating a VUCA world where:
1. There is a certain amount of knowledge available about what is happening in the world, but it is unexpected, it is unstable, and we have no idea of the possible duration, creating a sense of volatility.
2. Despite the lack of information, the basic causes and effects are known, change is possible but not a given and this creates uncertainty.
3. The complexity of the situation is characterised by many interconnected parts and variables and some information is available to us about this. However, the volume or nature of this pandemic (any pandemic) can be overwhelming to process.
4. Ambiguity is the unknown of unknowns. No precedents exist for how we live and interact in this VUCA world, it is completely unclear.
The pace at which we are living now creates new experiences everywhere we look. A lot of people are connecting to childhood traumas during these uncertain times - or any type of previous trauma. The world we knew doesn’t exist, so we don’t have the same anchors that were keeping us from thinking about or connecting with possible underlying, unconscious distress. Some of us are not as busy as we once were to keep away from our own fears and insecurities. Our sense of certainty has been threatened, it puts us in a state of survival.
As with all survival instincts, it uses energy only where it is needed. And so far, what I’ve learned about the brain (a tiny drop in the ocean as it is truly unbelievably complex and beautiful), it is powerful, but sometimes, it can also be lazy and impatient. It allows for the “auto-pilot” to take over whenever it can to conserve energy. We immediately categorize, judge and then condemn, we constantly see information that triggers our fight, flight or freeze reactions – survival! But this isn’t always the greatest way for our primitive brain to react, it doesn’t give us the chance to adapt quite yet, so in this ever-changing, complex and ambiguous world, we need to stop relying on the primitive brain. We need to stop, take a moment to reflect and think again, we need to activate out critical thinking. Luckily for us, this is something we can change. The important thing we need to learn is to constantly question and challenge our thoughts.
If I have now sufficiently freaked you out about the world we live in, firstly, I am sorry. Secondly, there is hope. There are actions we can take. And in saying that, here are some of what I call my “antidotes” to a VUCA world.
1. Antidote to volatility is that we need vision to counteract it. Volatility is unnerving as it creates rapid and unexpected change. When I talk about vision, I talk about reassessing your goals. I am sure (as we all were), that you had a clear view of where you were going, what your life was going to look like. But instead, BAM, pandemic hits and everything is upside down, and so we need to adapt, we need to create an alternative narrative for ourselves. This alternative narrative needs to equip you with a new vision for the future, with many smaller goals to help you navigate through the volatility of the landscape.
2. We need to gain understanding to counteract uncertainty. Personally, I feel that that this is the most important skill we can learn - taking time to listen to ourselves and to question our thoughts, our reality. Using this uncertain time (while stuck indoors mostly anyways) to seek and understand the problems that are arising and that we are facing in our uniquely individual ways. As I mentioned before, it is something that I am noticing a lot in my clients (especially my new clients), that the VUCA world has allowed for their unique experiences to bring up past (or present) trauma. It changes how we act and react. Our patterns are shifting and we don’t understand it. We need to gain insight into our uncertainty by providing understanding through thoughtful insight.
3. We need simplicity for too complex situations. Out of all the components, complexity of the VUCA world has the most potential to trip us up. The truth is, we don’t really understand the complexity of ourselves and the intricate pieces that make us who and how we are today, never mind the complexity and nuances of a global pandemic. Although we have some personal knowledge, the complexity of the situation can truly drive us into a negative spiralling dynamic. Instead, we need to provide ourselves with clarity through simplicity. We need to perhaps collaborate, with our partner, with our friend, with our parents. We need to work on a simple understanding of how we can work through this complex world. We need to chip away at the complexity piece by piece and allow ourselves to look at the simplicity of acts such as setting up boundaries in the home during a pandemic. How much we interact, how much we work, who makes the food on what night, who needs to run the errands on what day. We need to focus on the simplicity of creating boundaries.
4. We need movement and action to address ambiguity, because right now we are just stuck. Despite the term simply being defined as a situation that is open to or has several possible meanings or interpretations, actually, we are feeling stuck. Overcoming this needs action, movement. We need to experiment with different actions, try different things, we need to have an agile mindset that allows us to pursue a goal in a way that is adaptive, flexible and responsive.
It seems a bit airy fairy – but actually, research has shown that these types of “soft skills” are what help people thrive in an unknown world. We need to recognise the importance and the need for skills such as flexibility, resilience, reduction in impulsivity, growth mindset and mental toughness, to be able to relate to the ability to persevere toward meaningful outcomes despite discomfort.
If none of my antidotes made any sense so far, here are some of my suggestions for overcoming this pandemic:
1. Counteracting the volatility of the pandemic: Create a new vision board. Write an alternative narrative for your life. Create new goals with new timelines for yourself. Set small, achievable goals for the day, week and month. Keep it small and simple.
2. Counteracting the uncertainty of the environment: journal, journal, journal. Write about your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Notice changes in yourself. Challenge negative automatic beliefs you have. Allow yourself space to meditate. Do breathing exercises (my personal favourite are guided one nostril breathing exercises). Use the space of uncertainty to create CERTAINTY. Certainty in what your day and week is going to look like, what you can achieve and what you can control.
3. Counteracting complexity with simplicity. Working, living, eating and sleeping at home is difficult. We weren’t made for this. So, set up boundaries for yourself. Set times for work and be rigid and strict with yourself to put the laptop away once the “work day” is done. Don’t eat at your desk, don’t let work spill over into personal time. Go for that jog, take a walk, boundaries! If you can and have the space, try not work where you also relax and sleep, so that when you walk away – you truly walk away.
4. Counteract ambiguity with actionable steps through experimenting with different things. If you usually work at the kitchen table and then hate cooking lunch and dinner, go work in another room. If you usually sleep in, trying waking up early and going for a run. If you usually skip lunch, try making time for a good healthy, nutritious lunch. If you usually go for a run with your partner or your housemates, try doing it alone. We need to experiment with trying different things because we are living in a DIFFERENT world. If you don’t experiment with different things, nothing will change, you will keep coping with things in the same way and just maybe, you haven’t been coping with them in the healthiest of ways. If you usually do things by yourself…try collaborating, try using a support system, try doing things with someone.
This VUCA world may seem crazy and out of balance right now, but with some positive action we can adapt, we can change and we can grow out of the old habits and ways of thinking into something more in tune with the world as it is becoming.
If these are things you are perhaps struggling with, or if you are not sure about anything, please do reach out on my contact form or email address. I am always here!