The Muselet #14: Reality doesn’t exist

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.

These are essentially the first sentences in the first book on leadership I ever read: Leadership is an Art by Max Depree, probably about 8 years ago.

“Define reality” — what does that really mean? Isn’t there just one, like, “real” reality — and some see it, and some don’t? Case study: Donald J. Trump?

It took me quite some years to realize that in fact, no: there is no such thing as #onereality, we all have our own, and we have the power to shape it.

In Buddhism, this is called “emptiness,” which Wikipedia unhelpfully describes as follows (selective quoting):

All things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature.

Ah, of course!

The classic example to illustrate this concept is the example of a pen.

Yes, this:

What is a pen, really? To you and me, it’s likely a tool we can use to write. To a dog, it’s likely a chewing toy. To an ant, it’s likely an unwanted obstacle. 

So, what is the “real” answer? What is a pen, really?

The answer is there’s no one reality. It’s different for everybody, based on who we are and our previous experience in relation to the object. The object in itself is “empty”: the only reason you and I treat it as a writing device is because of us, not the object itself.

Of course, this is not just the case for a pen, it’s true for everything.

And this brings us back to the Max Depree quote: what leaders need to do is help define this reality for people.

Something happened — how do we frame it?

Website went down: revenue lost or opportunity for a lot of valuable learning?

Somebody resigns: problem because of inevitable slow-down in work to be done or opportunity to hire somebody even better, or bring in some fresh blood into the team?

Start-up went bankrupt: all that money, time and effort down the drain or so many lessons learned?

Pandemic: end of humanity as we know it or the time we learned remote working is more viable than previously understood?

Shed burned to the ground: stuff gone forever or effective way to get rid of old junk?

Glass: half empty or half full?

Everything is going to shit: we’re doooooomed or boy, once we make it out, we will have grown so much as people!

Which one is it? There’s no “real” answer, it’s just a viewpoint and way of looking at it.

Well, not just — it actually matters a lot how we define reality for ourselves and others. One definition can drain our energy or even push us into depression, another can give us energy to do more.

Viktor Frankl, a famous Austrian psychologist said:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Same concept, phrased differently. Frankl is a Nazi death camp survivor. I would be quite comfortable describing a death camp as a “challenging environment” to keep defining reality in an optimistic manner, but Frankl attributes his survival largely to exactly this ability.

So, this is what we must do as well. And this is where a lot of our energy should go. That’s why Depree describes it as our “first responsibility.”

There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now that most people would label as “not great.” It’s our job to make sense of it all, and find the framing, the definition of this reality to keep us going, and ideally even pushes us to be better getting out of it than we were going in.

Is hard? Yes. It is energy draining? Absolutely. Can we always keep this up? Who knows, but let’s try anyway. There’s a learning opportunity in everything.

Thank you.