Three Essential Principles for Clarity

Last week we covered the practical side of how to turn confusion into clarity – you can read it here if you haven’t had a chance yet.

It introduced the basic process of: Awareness of confusion → getting curious → reorienting to intentional goals → experimenting.

In this week’s Sensemaker we’ll be taking a deeper cut on the underlying principles required to create and sustain clarity over time. These include:

1. Seeing what’s true
2. Accepting what’s true
3. Taking experimental action.


THINK

1. Seeing what’s true

Because confusion emerges at the limits of our mental models — where our expectations and the reality we experience don’t match — that’s where the clarity search must start. What isn’t working the way we expected? Why were we holding those expectations in the first place? What stories are we telling ourselves to make sense of it and what facts might point to another interpretation? Where are we assuming, versus actually seeing? And in the end, what actually matters?

One of the hardest parts of “seeing what’s true” is recognizing that the very idea is not an endpoint, but a constant exploration — an infinite, rather than a finite game. “What’s true” is, in effect, a moving target, perhaps better defined as a more likely and relevant picture than whatever we had before. Given the speed at which we live, there can never be a point at which we know everything. That’s ok. We can make guesses, assumptions, and jumps into the unknown. What matters is how we do it. Given this, “seeing what’s true” counter-intuitively often starts with humbling ourselves enough to take on all the things we don’t actually know. It means looking squarely at what confused us to begin with, at the evidence we can gather, at the assumptions we’re making, and at the expectations we’re holding that might be standing in the way of a new way of seeing. It means looking at the big stories we’ve spun about how the world works and our place in it, and pulling the threads to see what holds up (and what doesn’t). It means getting clear about our goals and commitments, and how we can take responsibility for reaching them.

2. Accepting what’s true

The eminent therapist Carl Rogers had a saying; “facts are friendly.” This is a difficult sentiment to truly embrace. After all, we can find all kinds of horrors just by poking at our phone. But to see facts as friendly doesn’t mean seeing the world is as we wish it to be — rather, it means having the option of actually dealing with it, rather than distorting it for our comfort. There is nearly always something more to see, to understand, beyond the horizon of what we think we know. To live fully in the world often takes letting go of how we fear it is and wish it to be. This is equally true of ourselves. Clarity often lies on the other side of what we tell ourselves about ourselves to feel safe — these are often the very stories that, until now, have offered some sense of order and direction to our lives. It means accepting that, at times, we behave in ways that make us ashamed; that we are imperfect; that we may be very different than the person we imagine ourselves to be. Most importantly, it means accepting that there are great gifts within us, if we are willing to explore without judgment and accept the ways in which they may be different from what we had demanded them to be.

This acceptance doesn’t apply only to ourselves, but to others as well. One of the most common sources of confusion comes from others behaving in ways we can’t understand. When we cease to expect others to behave with constant coherence — when we accept that they, like us, are confused beings trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world — we open ourselves to the possibility of finding win-wins that were unavailable to us when we could only imagine them as possible foes to be judged or overcome. This is not to say that cruelty doesn’t exist, or that there are not times when our path requires us to no longer engage with those who consistently bring out our worst. Rather, it is only by accepting that that is true — that people, including ourselves, often behave contrary to what we would want — that we gain the clarity to take responsibility for our own actions. Thus, we become able to see paths to our goals that aren’t predicated on changing others, or on proving that their behavior is what’s standing in our way.

3. Taking experimental action

Sensemaking as described above only becomes true clarity in the moment it is put to practice. We discover reality by engaging with it — by testing, trying, learning in bits and pieces what works for us and what doesn’t. When we drop the expectation that we’ll analyze our way to the perfect answer, we open the possibility of discovering it through what we do. Of course, we can try to imagine the limits of our current way of seeing — but it is only through trying new ways of being that we find out whether we’re full of… nonsense.


REFLECT
  • Consider your most significant failures. What did you fail to see or accept was true?
  • Consider your current confusion points. What do you suspect might be true, but are struggling to accept?
    • For whatever you’ve found you’re struggling to accept, can you articulate why? What could be in danger or at risk if you were to accept it?
  • Think about one or more of your most recent, critical insights. How have you put them into action? If you haven’t, what is a small experiment you can run to explore it?

TRY
  • Take the time to sit down and write out the answers to the reflection prompts above and / or share them in dialogue with someone you deeply trust.
  • Complete the loop – pick an insight, match it to an experiment, run it, and evaluate what you learn.

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