Reprinted with permission from Michael Carroll from his book, “Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos.”
Many of us come to work with the hope that we can control our jobs. We want to be the capable authors of our work, not helpless victims of unplanned circumstance. We want to feel on top of our game and in command of the details, and we want work to stay in place so that we don’t need to worry.
Yet work will not stay in place, despite all our efforts. Financial reports and spreadsheets bring the appearance of order. Routines and schedules seem reliable. Our computer systems and management abilities offer a certain kind of predictability. But what we set out wanting to do at work is never what we end up with. Work, by its nature, is unpredictable and messy, chaotic and surprising.
Such chaos can affect us very directly and very personally. We go to work expecting one thing, and we get quite another. We may accept a new job with all its promise and challenge. Then when we get there, we find out that the manager who hired us is leaving for an opportunity elsewhere. We are left with a new boss and a different challenge altogether. Or maybe we have launched a new and promising product line — say a game to teach children how to name countries around the world — only to discover that the packaging instructions on the one hundred thousand units are in French and we thought we had ordered English. Perhaps we have convinced our boss to invest in a new project; we build a team and create momentum. Then we find out midstream that the budget is cut and we must fire our newly hired staff. Such untidiness can seem to put our routines, financial security, sense of accomplishment, and much more in question.
This kind of predictable unpredictability happens every day to thousands of us. And yet we somehow end up relating to these very common circumstances as threats and disasters, losing our sense of confidence and creative challenge. Typically, we treat work’s surprises is merely mistakes, missteps, or blunders that should have been otherwise, events that we should have prevented. We so much want our world to run smoothly — no uncertainties, no surprises, no uncomfortable conflicts. We want to be on top of our game, not striking out for dropping the ball. If work’s messy surprises are not just mistakes or liabilities or weaknesses, what are they? And how can we better respond to them?
The reality is that there is no solution to work’s inherent chaos and messiness. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain. The good news is that work’s messiness and uncertainty need not be distressing. They may, in fact, be just what we were looking for.
In the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, the renowned strategist-general Sun Tzu gives the following instruction:
When in battle,
Use the orthodox to engage,
Use the extraordinary to attain victory.
While our workplace may not be a battlefield, Sun Tzu is explaining to his warrior leaders that they should come to battle with the “orthodox” strategies in place. This means that they will have studied a wide range of tactics and disciplines. They will have devised plans ahead of time — anticipating the enemy’s maneuvers and predisposition. Soldiers will have been trained in combat and weaponry, officers drilled in battlefield tactics, weapons positioned, and offenses fortified. It is from this, the orthodox, that they will engage battle.
But victory, Sun Tzu points out, does not come from such preparations. Victory is obtained from the “extraordinary.” Here Sun Tzu is revealing to warrior leaders a powerful reality of war: it is unpredictable and chaotic — and it is in this untidiness that the warrior general finds victory. A change in weather, and error on the battle-plan map, a weapon that discharges prematurely — all unanticipated yet inevitable — are what the warrior general remains constantly alert for and ready to exploit to his or her advantage. According to Sun Tzu, it is the infinite unshapable variations of war that offer the strategist the levers for victory.
How the warrior leader remains ever alert for the extraordinary is of the utmost importance to Sun Tzu. We cannot sit at the edge of our seats waiting to pounce on surprises like a cat on a mouse. Being greedy for success or victory is not the point. Rather, Sun Tzu stresses throughout The Art of War that the warrior leader must possess victory in the very fiber of his or her being from the very start, before the battle even begins. Sun Tzu teaches that the warrior leader must be relaxed and open to the present moment at all times. The more at ease the warrior is with the situation at hand, the more open and powerful and fearless he or she becomes as a leader. Sun Tzu’s instruction on engaging the extraordinary is to first “know oneself” and, through that knowing, to work directly with conflict, appreciate the immediate moment, and let natural intelligence arise. In short, be awake!
Sun Tzu’s use of the orthodox and the extraordinary can be applied to our experience at work. We use routines such as our business plans, financial forecasts, staff meetings, and monthly reports to engage our work. We train ourselves with MBAs and CPAs — the orthodox. But according to Sun Tzu, we will never succeed at work if we rely exclusively on such things. Only by remaining alert and open to the extraordinary events — the untidy and unpredictable — and engaging them directly and openly can we truly succeed.
A talented employee recruited by a competitor becomes an opportunity to promote new talent from within — and have a friend within the “competitor’s camp.” The economy slumps, our profitability is down — but so is our competitor’s, who now is ripe for acquisition. Accusations of unfair work practices provide an opportunity to refresh policies top to bottom. A lack of new product ideas becomes just the chance to reach down into the lower ranks and listen to the unheard potential innovators. The conflicts and difficulties at work hold the possibility of success if we are open enough to engage with them without resentment or fear.
If we were to adapt Sun Tzu for the workplace, we might translate his three-lined instruction a bit differently:
When at work,
Use established routines to pursue objectives,
Use messiness and surprises to innovate and succeed.
“Work is a mess” encourages us to first recognize that we can never have a completely neat relationship with our livelihood. Treating work’s messiness as if it were a mistake or liability only creates further unnecessary distress and resentment. By developing the attitude that work is a mess, we can learn to relax and be curious about the surprises and interruptions. By engaging the messiness of work directly — appreciating both the advantages and disadvantages — we become fully equipped to engage such events in all their variations. We have the ingenuity, good humor, and curiosity to adapt and innovate — to be victorious, no matter what the circumstances.
Michael Carroll is the founding director of Awake at Work Associates (www.awakeatwork.net), a consulting group that works with organizations and individuals to help them rediscover balance and well-being while pursuing professional success. For over two decades Carroll worked in major corporations such as Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. He is also a longtime student of Buddhism and an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.