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Lions, and tigers, and bears…Oh, my!

Well 2020 was quite a year, wasn’t it? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was noticing more and more references to VUCA. VUCA is an acronym - volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity - and it is a lens through which to view the world for strategy setting purposes. The usage I've seen is something like 'now that we live in a VUCA world,' as if volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are new to the scene. To be fair, 2020 was extraordinary as far as the VUCA elements.

But it concerns me less that the VUCA elements are accelerating, my primary concern is the the perspective we adopt. Is our perspective, 'oh, no! what'll we do?' Or is it, 'oh, my! where's the opportunity here?'

The former reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy (and Toto too!), the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, following the Yellow Brick Road, enter the dark forest. Lots of unknowns, lots to be fearful of. The Tin Man was of no help:

Dorothy: Do-do you suppose we'll meet any wild animals?

Tin Man: We might.

Dorothy: Oh!

Scarecrow: Animals that-that eat straw?

Tin Man: Uh, some. But mostly lions and tigers and bears.

Dorothy: Lions?

Scarecrow: And tigers?

Tin Man: [nodding] And bears.

Dorothy: Oh! Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

The three then begin walking. Taking tentative steps, arm-in-arm as they repeat Dorothy's last line in unison: Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

In short order, the three (and Toto too--sorry, can't help it) DO meet a lion.

Here is the full scene:

Notice what happens when they encounter the lion. They are all fearful, of course, and the Lion preys on it. When Toto barks the lion fixes his attention on the little dog (too!). At this point Dorothy's entire perspective changes. Now her focus isn't on her own personal safety it's about something outside of herself, the safety of Toto and her new friends. And she summons up the resolve to do something about it, slapping the lion on the nose, thereby revealing the lion as the Cowardly Lion.

A couple of things are in play here. First, Dorothy stops acting out of her basest instincts. She shifted from autopilot to engage a higher order of thought. Her freeze and flee instincts are sublimated and her executive functioning enables her to make a value judgment. This is the second element in play, making a judgment call more aligned with her values. The safety and well-being of her friends became more important than her personal safety. While it is rational to flee from a (seemingly) fierce lion, fleeing was not in alignment with her deepest values. Her having the presence of mind to pause and reflect, if only for a second, enabled her to shift into a different mode. So, while she may have still been fearful, she was still able to act in a way that could only be called courageous. This is important. The fear was still there, but the fear was no longer dictating the action.

In a TED talk last year, Cara E. Yar Khan, after being diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, was told she'd have to limit her career ambitions and 'dial down' her dreams. She instead continued pursuit of her biggest ambitions. Her parting words to the audience: "Life is already scary, so for our dreams to come true, we need to be brave. In facing my fears and finding the courage to push through them, I swear my life has been extraordinary. So live big and try to let your courage outweigh your fear. You never know where it might take you."

Living big, despite her disability, has enabled Ms. Yar Khan to accomplish more than many of us do in a lifetime. She’s become an accomplished filmmaker, a writing, has live in 12 countries while working with the United Nations, and has become a leading voice for people with disabilities

How many of the things we fear--the fierce lions--reside in our thoughts, our self-talk. The 'oh, I could never do that' tendency that can become habitual. The next time you hear that voice, counter with 'oh yeah? Just watch me.' (or, 'hold my beer' if that's your thing)

Vincent van Gogh once said, "If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

It's easy enough to imagine this advice as offered casually, as if someone asked if they could help themselves to a cup of coffee. "Oh, by all means, help yourself" That sort of thing. I like to think that van Gogh was much more earnest, imploring almost, in giving this advice. "If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint! And that voice will be silenced." In other words, make painting THE priority, because in doing so you reveal the voice to be a liar, and a coward. And when you discover that that voice is a liar, or certainly an exaggerator, it gives you more license and courage to question the next certainty that the voice shares. And you can extend this courage can to encounters you have with other, external voices, the so-called experts, who denigrate or downplay your ideas, or your chances.

By all means, summon the courage to face that fear down. Slap them in the nose as Dorothy did the lion she encountered. It doesn't matter whether it's painting, rock climbing, singing, writing, presenting; it's all the same.

These fears, that we all have, and are personal to our own unique circumstances, are like dragons to be slain. Be the hero that seeks these dragons out, and slays them, one by one. In doing so you gain the treasure that the dragon is greedily hoarding. Treasures that rightly belong to you.


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