“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
Few of us spend much of our lives down in the swamps of confusion, contradiction, confrontation, or controversy. On the contrary, most of us enjoy quality time on the high ground where we relish our particular version of order, tranquility, civility, and predictability. Sometimes we even get bored!
Yet at one time or another each of us will find ourselves down in a swamp, either because “things happen,” and we are pushed over the edge – or because we make unfortunate choices, serious mistakes, or do stupid things and push ourselves in – or, we have chosen work that is often swamp-like in its nature. No matter what takes us into a swamp, once there we face three challenges: how to Survive; how to Flourish; and and how to Find an Exit.
Surviving in a swamp means getting through it without paying too high a cost. We can minimize the costs by paying attention to what is happening and then responding appropriately. However, some people adopt a strategy that almost always makes things worse: They deny that they’re in a swamp. While they may admit that “something is happening,” they pretend that it’s something else: It’s “Not – a – Swamp” and label it as “No Problem,” or ”What a Great Opportunity.” Time spent in a struggling in a swamp may, in fact be a great opportunity, but that judgment can only come later and is always associated with how things eventually turn out.
Even though it is popular these days to focus on the positives and deny or ignore the negatives (and what could be more negative than being in the middle of a swamp), insisting that one is not in the middle of a swamp when all evidence points to the contrary, is a really bad idea. Why? When we deny that we are in a difficult place there is a serious risk that our attention will move to the wrong things. It’s as if you are about to go over a waterfall in a canoe and you focus your attention on “What’s for lunch!”
While it makes your life difficult, being in a swamp and acknowledging it, has the effect of focusing your attention and effort on the real issues: What’s going on and what should I do next?” If Jerome Groopman, the new medical intern whose plunge down into the swamp I described in a previous posting (Dr. Groopman Discovers the Swamp) would have denied that he was in serious trouble while he was in the middle of it, a double tragedy would have occurred: His new patient would have died, and Groopman would have been less motivated to dig in and learn what he did not know.
Survival in the swamp begins with a similar candid affirmation: Hello! This really is a swamp! It is not a bad dream! It cannot be explained away by denying that it exists, or insisting that isn’t really serious. Claiming that a swamp is not really a swamp sets the stage for things only becoming worse.
There is another defensive strategy often relied upon by people who find themselves in a swamp. ”This isn’t my real life” they say to themselves, “and once it’s over, I can get back to my real life.”
Insisting that what is happening is not one’s “real life” is also a serious mistake. Make it often enough and there may be little left of one’s real life to enjoy. Author and philosopher Alfred D’Souza found himself thinking this way and then discovered a way out.
For a long time is seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.
Just as the obstacles standing in the way of D’Souza getting on with his life turned out to be his life, so our time spent in the swamp is our life as well. At times, our stay may be brief; at other times we may be mired down for a long while. Either way, life in the swamp is real, perhaps as real as it will ever be. Denying that it is part of our life is a way of choosing not to live.
While surviving in the swamp is crucial – everyone wants to make it through and then get out – there is more to it than that. Since at some time we all will spend time in the middle of a swamp, it makes good sense to explore ways we can benefit from our time down in what a former CEO of Northwest Airlines called the “muck, the mud and the beer.” Here I begin five conversations that may open doors not only to surviving in swamps, but also finding ways to flourish while there.
Martin Seligman, among the founders and major architects of what has come to be known as Positive Psychology, asks a crucial question: “What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure, to get the most out of life, and contribute meaningfully to the world?” His answer? Learning to “flourish.” In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman identifies the five elements that, if explored, acquired, and then mastered, will lead to what he calls the “gold standard for…well-being: flourishing.”
And what are the five components that when taken together will lead to our flourishing?
- P – Positive Emotion
- E – Engagement
- R – Relationships
- M – Meaning
- A – Accomplishment
In Seligman’s view the chances of flourishing are increased when we experience satisfaction and happiness (P); when we are actively involved in interesting and challenging activities(E); when we engage in these activities with people we care for and who care for us (R); when these activities are seen by us as valuable and worthwhile (M), and finally, when we involve ourselves in activities in that have intrinsic value (A).
Seligman’s exploration of “flourishing” does not make specific reference to flourishing while foundering around in a swamp. Yet I believe there is an important connection. Once in a swamp, our chances of not only making it out alive, but of making important gains are increased if we eschew such phrases as “Ain’t it awful!” and “Why does this have to happen to me?” and put in their place “This is really interesting,” and “There is a lot to be learned here.” If we seek out other people and join with them in figuring out what is valuable, meaningful, and worthwhile about the experience, and if we come to understand that struggling effectively in a swamp is in itself a notable achievement, we can help prepare ourselves for future experiences in swamps.
Take a Stance
During World War II, American author Norman Mailer received his draft notice to report for military duty. Preferring not to serve, he requested a deferment on the pretext that he was writing a novel about the war that would make an important contribution to the war effort. As it turned out, he would not get to his novel until after he was drafted.
After his request was denied, he found himself with the 112th Calvary Regiment of the U. S Army in combat in the Philippine Islands. While Mailer never engaged in much combat, he found his experience so traumatic that he doubted that he could survive. He was deep in a swamp, both literally and figuratively. Then, in a flash of insight, he decided that rather than fight the war, he would write it. He would write a novel about soldiers in combat. Suddenly everything was different. Rather than experiencing the war as a soldier, he now saw it from the different perspective of a novelist who was busy keeping a journal. And this stance allowed him to see everything with different eyes. The noise, the blood, the suffering, and the dying that previously were experiences of human trauma and tragedy, suddenly became material for his book, events to be observed and written down. Everything was now grist for a new mill.
Mailer not only survived the war, but valued it. It made the book possible. After the war, he published The Naked and the Dead to positive reviews, and his career as an author was launched. Years later, publisher Bennett Cerf remarked that there were three 2oth Century novels that everyone should read: Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder, and The Naked and the Dead. There is no doubt tha Mailer not only survived his time in the army, but flourished in it as well.
Just as Mailer learned to flourish as a soldier by choosing to see the war through the eyes of a writer, so we can learn to take advantage of our time in the swamp by finding a place to stand and then “see differently,” to understand what is happening from different perspectives. Though this process, we may even come upon a project that interests us, one that we could become committed to and that we could continue to pursue after things returned to normal.
Swamps are Incubators for Problems
The beginnings of problems in relationships, in families, in organizations, and in nations have their roots in the swamps of confusion, disagreement, failure and misunderstanding. Being in the swamp and observing these embryonic problems begin to emerge, then gather momentum, and move toward becoming serious issues and disruptive controversies, offer us unparalleled opportunities to get into the game at the beginning, before opposing arguments are defined and conflicting positions are hardened. Having been present at the creation of a problem, gives us the advantage that history always bestows: A broader and more complete perspective of how things get started. Later, we may be able to use this knowledge to help tackle these problems that we observed as they were beginning. In our continuing struggle with difficult problems, having valuable knowledge about sources and roots is an important way to add value.
In his novel Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett writes “To be buried in lava and not turn a hair, it is then a man shows what he is made of.” Lucky for us, being buried in lava is not the only way for learning “what we are made of.” It is when we struggle with problems that matter to us, those we have not seen before, and those that seem beyond our capabilities, that we are able to take the giant steps that lead us to a greater understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the movie Islands in the Stream, adapted from Hemingway’s posthumous novel, the protagonist, facing impossible odds, and pushed far beyond his abilities was overwhelmed with how much he was learning about himself. ”My God,” he said, ”I was learning fast there at the end. I know now that there’s no one thing that is true. It’s all true.”
After that harrowing experience with his first patient, Jerome Groopman became acutely aware that in spite of he had learned in medical school, he had a serious problem: He knew next to nothing about taking care of real patients in real time, especially when they were facing a life-threatening crisis. His intense experience in his Swamp of Incompetency opened up a problem he had been unaware of until that moment.
Mark Twain once observed that “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Struggling and grappling with difficult and complicated issues in a swamp is very much like carrying a cat by the tail: As we struggle, opportunities open up to us to learn not only about our inadequacies and incompetencies, but also about our strengths and capabilities, lessons that cannot be learned any other way.
In my opinion, no one has captured more clearly the significance of the self- knowledge that can be gained while spending time in a swamp than the French writer Albert Camus:
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Dig, Dig, Dig
Struggling with the challenges to be found in a swamp not only offers us a chance to increase our store of self-knowledge, but also offers us a bonus: The opportuntiy to learn a great deal about other people, about the wide array of potential problems that can occur in a relationship, a family, a team or an organization. How can we take advantage of this? Mindfulness is first: We can stay in touch, stay connected, refuse to hide our eyes, turn our back, or stay on the surface. And then we can dig and drill down into the depths of whatever is happening. We can ask questions, listen to answers, and organize what we are learning into stories that we can return to later and, with the help of others expand and enrich into a meaningful narrative. What kind of stories? Ones that describe us as we struggle under unbearable stress, stories about others, about relationships, about work, about the nature of swamps, and about the strategies can help us to survive and flourish. And all of this can enable us in learning a great deal the nature of problems themselves.
In an important book published in 1970, Economist Albert Hirschman identified three ways to respond to “decline in firms, organizations and states:” Exit, Voice and Loyalty. His basic argument was that when things are getting off track, when one finds oneself getting mired in a swamp, a person can either choose to be Loyal – stay and hope for the best – give Voice to one’s concerns and hope to influence things for the better, or find the nearest Exit and leave.”.
When in a swamp, Loyalty may be a useful response, but often things have moved beyond that possibility. Voice – speaking out and hoping to make things better – is also problematic since in the midst of chaos and confusion, few people are ready to listen. That leaves Exit – getting out of the swamp.
Exit decisions, always involve knowledge and timing, as Kenny Rogers elaborates in these well-known lyrics:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.
Should one stay at the table? Or should one walk away? Or run?
To make things even complicated, before one can actually “fold ‘em and walk away,” two questions need to be examined: Can you leave? and Should you leave?
Can you leave? If the the swamp is the result of economic, social, or political forces that are beyond the control of any one individual, then you may have no choice. Making a choice to leave may not be possible. During the Recession that began in 2008, many people would have liked to leave, but had no means to make that happen. The only option available may be to hunker down, stay out of trouble, and wait for changes to occur. As Abraham Lincoln was fond of saying during the Civil War, “This too shall pass away.”
Should you leave? If it is possible to get out, then you may have a specific decision to make: Should you quit your job? Drop out of law school? Get a divorce? Join the Army? Move to Bolivia? Any decision must be framed by at least two issues: Is this the right time to move? And what will be the consequences for oneself and for others?
Choosing to leave the swamp is a judgment call, one that will be influenced by timing. Is this the right time? Too early? Too late? ”Timing is all” said Hamlet as he was facing the prospects of being killed in a duel. How does one know if it is the right time? Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure. Timing is almost always determined by the consequences that follow the decision. The timing was right if it turns out well, and it was wrong if it doesn’t.
The consequences for oneself and for others are equally complicated. Who will gain? Who will suffer? What about those who may be left behind in the swamp? Are there promises and obligations that need to be examined and renegotiated?
In this kind of discussion, there are many questions and few answers.
Here are some of the questions that are central in any decision to leave:
- Am I ready to leave?
- Have I learned all that I can learn?
- Have I made every effort to work things out and make them better?
- Are there ethical or moral issues involved?
- Are there obligations and promises that I made in good faith and that others are relying upon?
From Despair to Making Cheese: Craig Ramini, a 57-year-old software consultant, was successful, well-regarded, financially secure – and miserable, depressed and frustrated. Finding himself in that well-known swamp that goes by the name of ”Mid-Life Crisis” he knew he had to get out. Here is his story.
He took a year off, and spent it reading and reflecting on when he was happy and why. For six months he listed his passions on hundreds of Post-its and pasted them up on the wall in his dining room. Finally, after spending time considering each one, keeping some and discarding others, he narrowed them down to five:
- Being around animals;
- Working outdoors;
- Being involved with food;
- Doing something unique;
- Being an entrepreneur.
“When he laid them out on the table,” his wife said later, “they spelled cheese.” But not just any cheese. If he were to be true to his principle of uniqueness, it had to be a special kind of cheese. So, more searching, more exploring, more including, more discarding until finally he came to his answer: Mozzarella di bufala.
Never mind that when he started he had never milked a cow, knew nothing about making cheese, let alone mozzarella. And never mind that in order make mozzarella cheese of the highest quality, he would have to use the milk from the water buffalo. ”Coaxing an unaccommodating, 1,500-pound, nearly feral water buffalo into giving milk and then coagulating the watery fluid into ambrosial balls of cheese,” reported the New York Times, “…was a challenge that could make a fledging farmer weep.” In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Ramini as “the latest American adventurer hell-bent on making fresh buffalo mozzarella – one of the very few people in the United States currently brave enough or foolish enough to do so.”
And yet Ramini made it work. In 2014, he milked a herd of 41 buffalos, most named for venerable rock stars, and produced about 65 pounds of cheese a week which sold for $30 a pound in California under the Ramini label.
Ten Principles for Surviving the Swamp
- Never forget: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
- Accept that you are in a swamp. Pretending that it is something else doesn’t help.
- Embrace the swamp, Live it fully. It is as real as life ever gets.
- Avoid saying: “Ain’t it awful!” or “Why me?” Statements like these sound like whining, never a good idea.
- Say Instead: “This is important. This may be my only chance to learn something really important. I will pay attention.”
- Find other people you can rely on. Make a posse: Search, examine, learn, drill down. Protect and support each other.
- Find a Stance that allows you to see the action with a different lens, yet doesn’t distort what is going on.
- Collect data about future problems that will be useful later, when the situation improves.
- Find a project to work on, preferably one that connects to your most important passions.
- If you can’t leave, hang on; if you can, make a careful decision about what is best for you and for others as well, and when is the best time to work your way out.
The world pushes us around, and sometimes breaks us, but that need not be the end of the story. Earlier I quoted Camus’ insight that came to him as he was being pushed around by the world: ”..I found that there was, within me, an invincible summer.” The words that follow are equally important: ”And that made me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”