Infinity Minus One Possibilities
Saturday, October 16, 2021
Career changes come in different forms, some of which are more socially acceptable than others. For example, you find a new job and call the break between jobs “funemployment.” It’s safe; you figured out the next steps and arranged to take a break. It appears to be the most socially acceptable style. Although less common, it is also socially okay to quit your job, take a break for a few months, and explore new opportunities. In terms of acceptance levels, though, it falls slightly behind funemployment. But one of the less socially acceptable styles is for someone to part ways on their employer’s terms and then take the time to explore possibilities. My recent departure from my prior employer fell into the latter category. There it is.
My situation is not unique — many people go through such career-changing events with far worse ramifications. I have the luxury of time and space to write about it and some friends and family to lean on. Yet, here is why I’m writing this article.
First, I have a choice to make. I can stay ambivalent about my departure and imply that I chose to depart without saying so clearly. I could even call it funemployment. Alternatively, I could choose to acknowledge that the choice was not mine, and yet I’m genuinely curious about what lies ahead. I’m choosing to go with the latter option to face myself with clarity and remove any ambivalence from my mind. You might say that it takes courage to do so, but I think it opens more doors.
Second, I want to break the stereotype that such breakups are bad. I want to highlight that it is perfectly okay to acknowledge such a change and then operate from the point of strength and not weakness.
Third, I’m sharing the mental models I used to process the change, which may be of value to others. Once I realized what was happening, I struggled over a weekend to regain my equilibrium. I concluded that what happened was a gift for me to explore possibilities that I may have been ignoring. But that conclusion was not instantaneous — some mental wrangling preceded it.
Over the last several years, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of playing with different mental models to influence how you feel about and react to events around you. For me, this is a way of building resilience and agility. I’ve been able to apply this technique to address several ambiguous technical and leadership problems when I felt stuck or noticed others stuck. I got out of difficult situations with more than one possible option when no option seemed to exist. If there is only one thing I could take away from my last job, it’s learning this ability and applying it at scale.
I think of a mental model as a pair of tinted sunglasses. You swap one pair with another with a different tint, and the world looks different.
As Lisa Feldman Barrett says in her 7½ Lessons About the Brain, “we all live in a world of social reality that exists only in our human brains.” This social reality is neither innate in our minds nor fixed. She adds that we “create the social reality with other people without even trying because we have human brains.” Per her research, one way to create the social reality is by “reliably copying one another to establish laws and norms to live in harmony.” In other words, we seem to learn about how we feel about events around us from others. We copy both the useful and not so useful mental models from others.
Thanks to such copying, in most cultures, we default to mental models like below when faced with such situations.
- Victimhood: With this mental model, you think something awful happened to you, and you’re a victim. You paint certain people as perpetrators that worked against you and took something of value from you. You feel hurt. You feel right to believe that those perpetrators are wrong and that you’re right. You’re confident that they willfully did this to you. You think that they mistreated you. You wish that, if only those perpetrators cared, were thoughtful,
and acted accordingly, this situation wouldn’t have happened.
- Self-doubt: With this mental model, you attribute whatever happened to your incompetence. Once you start judging yourself, you will find several examples of your incompetence. All your prior mistakes dance around you. You worry that you’re not good enough and that you failed. You wonder if you could ever recover from this.
- Entitlement: I find that “feeling entitled” is a companion to “feeling like a victim.” They go hand in hand. As you fight against victimhood, you will begin to remember all the good things you accomplished and wonder how they could harm you despite those good things. You feel that you deserve better and are entitled to a better outcome.
- Rumination: In this model, you start to guess what might have happened and why. You want to find out who said and did what to you and why. You want to understand all the events that occurred and the rationale. You will have so many questions, and you keep thinking about those questions till the cows come home.
- Heroism: You could also think that the place is burning up, and you were going to leave anyway, but perhaps not yet. You feel good about what happened because you know they were wrong, incompetent, etc.
These are some examples, and there can be more. All such models seem valid and justifiable. You may vacillate between these models to feel discouraged, helpless, angry, confused, etc., for a while. Depending on the culture you grew up in, and the traits learned in life, you may go through these for minutes, days, or even weeks.
Unfortunately, such mental models do nothing but close doors for future possibilities. They make us stuck in the past and make us carry that burden into the future. But it does not take much to find that you can form a different social reality with a different set of mental models.
- Things generally don’t happen to you; they occur around you. Nobody did anything to you. You’re not a victim. You happen to be there when certain things are happening.
- In a complex system like a workplace, you know that there is no single root cause. You’re okay not to know what happened and why. You know you can choose to second guess what might have happened, but recognize that you can’t do much with those guesses. You let go of rumination.
- You admit that your employer, instead of you, making the first step is no different. A divorce is a divorce. You recognize that timing of who says it first is of little consequence in the long term. You question why it is okay for you to plan your departure to land elsewhere on your terms, but not the other way around? You challenge the notion that the former is superior to the latter.
- You recognize that your current working identity is undone (see Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity). You realize that you’re free to explore, unencumbered by your current work identity and the daily grind that comes with that identity.
- You are aware of your strengths and areas of improvement. You know your accomplishments and what you stand for. You know that when one door closes, you still can discover and open a million other doors.
Unlike the first set of models, these models create a different social reality in which you don’t glue yourself to the past but are genuinely curious and excited about what lies ahead.
But discovering such alternative models can be challenging, particularly when emotions due to the first set of models overtake you. Most of the difficulty is being aware of the mental models you’re currently using. It takes practice to remind yourself that there are other mental models to explore. For me, journaling helps.
When things happen, you get to choose — entertain mental models that close doors or only consider mental models that open new doors. You can choose to carry the burden of the past or choose to be present, enjoy the moment, and build for the future. One weakens your backbone with the weight of the history — the other strengthens your spine for the next phase. When putting this way, the choice is simple. The faster you become aware of this choice, the better for you. That’s the gist of what I learned over time at work.
In the end, you might ask if I’m spinning a negative into a positive story and rationalize. Yes, that’s the point of choosing alternative mental models to aim for the outcomes you want. Our social reality is malleable. Conditioning the mind is an essential element in life to improve resilience. It involves picking up mental models that work for you and discarding those that don’t. I could not have gotten certain things done in my career if I hadn’t taken that approach, and I know it is valid for millions of others. That’s the ability I’m taking with me to explore possibilities.