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The Times are a Changin': Tune up your uncertainty skills

03 July 2020

In my last article, I wrote about my friend Gavin Robertson and his experience in dealing with grade 4 brain cancer. The week after posting that article, I saw a new tv series advertised on Netflix called Lenox Hill. It’s about a team working in neurosurgery in an inner-city New York hospital.  It took me back to my time working in the east end of London at Hackney Hospital and the south of London at Kings College. Wonderful people, highly skilled helping those in deep need. “your life in their hands.” Gavin’s life was in Charlie Teo’s hands on the day of the big operation. The operation was successful as was his response to the medication and treatment plans. In hospitals like Lenox Hill, such cases are an everyday occurrence.  Training, experience, a great team and the right equipment provide a fighting chance for many on the edge. Every effort goes into supporting and saving every person that connects with Lenox Hill.  It’s a demonstration of how fragile and important human life is.    

The brain and the mind have intrigued me for most of my life. Particularly how it can affect our behaviour and our performance and how we can manage this to have a better life. I’m still learning and working hard to find better solutions to help people deal with the most difficult of situations. In the last decade, I’ve swamped myself with study and learning on much to do with the unconscious mind.  Anything I can get my hands on. Much of this has served me well in order to pass on what I have learned to those who need it. Large and small companies. Sports teams. CEOs and Executives. Elite athletes. Friends. Family members. Whoever wants something to improve the way they see and experience the World. I’m there! Lenox Hill is my latest piece of learning. Not just because of the neurosurgery but observing how great teams work in harmony in a life-death situation.

One thing I’ve learned over the years that being calm before a major moment is very important. I have used a technique I’ve developed called Calm time with many elite athletes and teams including the WBBL Sydney teams, Sydney FC, Socceroos and more recently the players and staff at Western Sydney Wanderers too.  Neurosurgeon John Boockvar leads his team at Lenox Hill in a mindful session before every operation. A fine-tuning moment. A moment to ensure everyone is at ease, calm, collected, connected and ready to go.

Check out this YouTube Clip Featuring their Preparation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq1lft1CzEA

What I also noticed that when I’m calm, relaxed then I can adapt much more effectively. The more I can adapt, the easier it is for me to deal with the curved balls that are thrown my way. Anyone who’s watched the Bear Grylls shows will know that adaptability serves him well in difficult and uncertain conditions. It’s also true of neurosurgery. Whilst there is much known, there are things to trip the team up at Lenox Hill at every operational procedure. Surprises or unexplained events. One thing’s for sure. It’s no good panicking or freezing when someone’s brain is open on an operating table! Great planning is so important but so is the need to accept the certainty of uncertainty. This is a term I started to use a long time ago but now seems more useful given the environmental conditions we now face. 

THE CREATIVES AND IMPROVISERS ARE GOOD WITH UNCERTAINTY

Most recently I’ve become fascinated with how the mind changes when we’re in a creative zone. For example. What changes occur in the brain when we move from reading the notes on a musical stave to move into a zone of improvisation. What about writing an article like this without a specific topic. Truthfully, that’s what I’m doing now. Not sure where this is taking me. You might think the same too. However, I’m realising more and more that it is important that we give ourselves time to experience these things. The time to improvise. The time to explore.  

When we go into a creative space, we remove self-observation and self-monitoring. We look outwards. Brain activity also shifts from the frontal areas responsible for more logical and sensible thoughts to the back of the brain. Other things happen too. Lower brain signalling chemicals (noradrenaline) seem to open up the communication networks in the brain. Using different rhythms of the day seems to help too. Talking to some of the World class creative people I know, they seem to have this connection with feeling when it’s worth writing, developing, building something new. Strangely enough, the most recent tv series, articles and programs I have written have been on a Sunday or Monday morning. This wasn’t planned. It just felt right. I also started baking banana bread after writing!!

When I was a kid, I was encouraged by my mum to study music. I thank her for giving me this gift. I chose the guitar. The thought of joining a band seemed very cool although studying Scarlatti and Frescobaldi wasn’t exactly Santanaesque or in the Eric Clapton stable!  Anyhow, I remember an early concert piece. Greensleeves! I learned all the notes and accompanied an older kid at school. Halfway through the piece, he went into a free form of Greensleeves! I wasn’t expecting this, so no doubt looked surprised to all the audience around me. How was he able to do this? I asked him. I remember his response so well. “I move into a World where I have no fear. Everything slows down. All the noise disappears. Everything is in flow.” I didn’t understand this for many years. From there it took me into a new World of music. Santana; Jimmy Page and James Burton -Elvis Presley’s incredible guitarist. I began to study Paul Simon’s and Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, trying to understand how they could be free in their thinking. Then there was Miles Davis. Still, my “go-to” when I have brain block. 

THE CONTROLLER OR THE CONTROLLED: HOW IT AFFECTS PERSPECTIVE

I started working in the mental health world in 1985. Whilst it doesn’t feel so long ago, when I see “1985” written down, it is another era. One year on from Orwell!

Hackney in the east end of London was then the poorest and most deprived borough in Europe. Hackney hospital was an old Victorian hospital with buildings originally constructed for the old workhouse days. Out-dated and outmoded, it was still the home to many in-patients with mental health issues. The amazing staff did their best in juggling new methods of caring, new legislation in mental health and the plans to close Hackney hospital along with many old institutions and asylums. The face of it, this seemed like a great idea. Give all people the freedom to live in the community. Only those who met the requirements of the “new” Mental Health Act of 1983 would be in in-patient facilities and typically for short periods of time. Parallel strategies were to be adopted and adapted in many other countries including Australia. 

During the planned closure of these large mental institutions in London, I undertook a piece of work which included sharing information on the perspectives of the current in-patients. At the time, I recall being staggered by some of their thoughts. The majority were unhappy about being given the opportunity to live in beautiful homes in the City. How stupid was I and the many who had set up this program? Of course, they were unhappy. May elements of this Care in the Community program were a disaster because these human beings had become institutionalised to know that every morning they would get up in the same place. Have the same process. Have the same experience with the same people. One expert told me – these people are being given skills to adapt. How ludicrous. Twenty years of living one way and a few skills offered to be ready for the outside world.  

Do you notice the parallel? Our next period of life looks rather interesting then, doesn’t it? How much control have we got? How much control have we lost? How do we deal with this?  When we’re in control of the change, everything is just fine. When we’re not in control, or feel like we’re not in control of the change, deep anxiety can set in. 

Whilst I’ve taken on a variety of roles since Hackney days, I have continued a consistent journey in trying to understand and help individuals and teams overcome challenges, find new opportunities, recalibrate, retune and win the game of life. In all this time, I have noticed something. The less we know or can predict the future, typically the deeper our fear and anxiety. The stronger is our commitment to hold on to what we have. 

I often hear people describing themselves and others as control freaks. A rather derogatory term yet truthfully as human beings we all want to be in control of our own destiny.

In the journal of Anxiety Disorders, R N Carleton defines the fear of the unknown (FOTU) as “an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing”.

He also defines intolerance of uncertainty (IU): “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”

Fascinating and ironic that the very thing the Care in the Community strategy was established to impact had the opposite effect in many instances. Now we know more. We know that we are hard-wired to move into survival mode when facing uncertainty. We need to learn from such experiences. Now leaders of teams have the opportunity to harness their teams of people to get ready for the next stage of the journey. A journey which will undoubtedly include plenty of uncertainty. 

BE GOOD AT DEALING WITH UNCERTAINTY

So how do we deal with this? We become better at knowing what uncertainty feels like and how we work individually and as a team to tackle it. This is a reality. Who knows where Covid will take us? This morning I saw that the State of Victoria has now had a further 75 COVID 19 cases. After very successful management of the situation by all, this throws more uncertainty, more fear. More confusion. More anxiety for those who struggle with uncertainty and struggle to adapt. It’s back to creativity. Back to innovation. We need this for our survival. 

As an expert on financial markets told me last week: we won’t have clarity until we have a vaccine. We have to accept this. I agree. So. What are you and your team doing to build skills to deal with uncertainty? What are you accepting as events beyond your control and those aspects you can control and your responses to them? Avoid dealing with such matters and don’t be surprised by the results. Your anxiety levels will continue to increase. Deal with it and our greater flexibility will lead us to more Santana and less Scarlatti!

SOME LESSONS FROM XV MIND GAMES

In the months since COVID 19 reared its ugly head, the team at XVenture has been helping build “Uncertainty and ambiguity skills” for individuals and teams around the World. We’ve done this using the state of art virtual reality Mind Games program. Teams enter the competitive environment of the Mind Games virtual World not knowing what they will have to do to be successful in the challenge. Initially, every one of the two hundred plus teams who have experienced XV mind Games, need or want more information. They need more clarity. They feel on edge before it starts. Remember my conversation about Hackney Hospital? This is a human condition. However, after sixty minutes of Mind Games, all participants have become much more comfortable with the unknown. Their neurons are already firing   Taking the Australia Women’s World Champion cricket team into our XVenture Mind Games World was a special moment. The initial explanations we give to team leaders demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about. More information is needed to feel comfortable. The more the better. Yet if we give too much information away, it defeats the object. Learn to deal with uncertainty – TOGETHER. Once we start the program, team members relish the experience. Something new. Something different. Applying new skills. Learning. The team needs to understand that uncertainty is certain. The more we practice the better we get.

We noticed that those who performed well in Mind Games programs, seem to relish and enjoy the uncertainty and ambiguity of the experience. They tend to be tuned or become tuned to anticipate changes, finding creative solutions as well as encouraging others as well as themselves towards action in such settings. 

We’ve also noticed some other aspects of great teams which have emerged in the XV VR Mind Games environment.

·      Leaders and teams who consistently communicate openly and honestly, do well.

·      Leaders who are with their teams and do the hard yards throughout the experience are more likely to succeed.

·      Leaders who show their vulnerability and communicate the uncertainty of the environment get a greater commitment from their team. (No-one knows the answer under uncertain conditions.) This is worth acknowledging.

·      Leaders and teams who discuss and encourage sharing ideas openly about the challenges of a new environment seem to do better.

·      Teams who acknowledge team-mates fears and provide support are likely to get stronger

·      Leaders who provide an environment for their team to build skills to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty and encourage open communication have greater success.

One thing is certain. Things will be uncertain. Where nothing is certain, anything is possible.

I close with this quote from Barack Obama:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. “

Now seeing the appetite and growth of people dealing with uncertainty through XV Mind Games, I’m more optimistic than ever! I am an optimist for the future.

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