A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

It Is What It Is

A note from the editors: We're ridiculously excited to share Nishant Kothary's astute observations and endearingly personal stories as he helps us understand and work with other people—and ourselves.

One of my first managers — we shall call him Bob — had a saying that used to drive me nuts. To most of my complaints about workplace dysfunctions in our manager-employee one-on-ones, Bob would respond, “It is what it is.”

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Whenever I heard those words, my amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” instinct — would take control of my mind. And the next thing I knew, I was fantasizing about myself as the American Psycho, ridding myself of demons with an axe to the soundtrack of Hip to be Square by Huey Lewis.

To the idealist whippersnapper I was at the time, Bob’s words reeked of apathy. They implied, “Don’t bother trying to change the world.” Of course, that’s not quite what Bob meant.

What Bob usually meant was, “You’re driving yourself crazy (and going in circles) over how things should be, but if you settle down and look at how things really are, you might figure out how to change a few of them.” This was Yoda-caliber advice, but given my beliefs back then, I suspect I’d have reacted badly even if he’d uttered those exact words. I was often at an emotional standstill: I was deeply disappointed at the dysfunction, e.g. a coworker throwing me under the bus in the daily scrum, and I had a value system that wanted things to be done “the right way.” I didn’t want to accept that the world was just what it was. And if it really was, I wanted nothing to do with it.

This was hardly unique to me. The reality is that it’s quintessentially human to hate the notion that the world is just what it is: that the world is too chaotic for us to control. That’s because the core function of the brain is to create a sense of control for its human. What most of us don’t know is that the brain achieves this mostly by lying.

Indeed, you don’t have to look very far into neuroscience to learn an alarming fact about the human brain. One of the primary functions of our brain is to confabulate. That is, to fabricate things. To make s#!t up. The brain must continuously create theories that it can act upon, and most of these theories are born of very limited information: some sensory stimulus paired with a few innate capacities, a thing or two that we may have read or heard on the news, and when we’re lucky, a personal experience in the domain at hand. What’s more, these theories have to be bullet proof, at least in the short term — otherwise the self-aware brain itself will discard them, leaving the body in a state of inaction. In the best case, the cost of inaction is negligible. In the worst, it’s fatal.

Fortunately, we rarely have to worry about the worst case. The brain is fantastic at its core job of quickly creating believable theories about everything and anything. I write this with a deep sense of admiration and gratitude (at least in this moment). The brain can connect seemingly unrelated dots to create sense out of nonsense. It can deduce a potential break-in from an out-of-place sound in the backyard, or an imminent stock market crash from a pattern in a complex set of charts. And the results have sustained us as a species. As it turns out, the brain is actually fantastic at exerting control over a chaotic world.

So why, when faced with a statement like “It is what it is,” does the brain get all apoplectic? Shouldn’t it just shrug it off? As counterintuitive as this seems, it makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The brain solves seemingly impossible problems without knowing that these problems are impossible to solve. Sure, it has this eerie sense at times that a problem is going to be really hard to solve, and maybe even impossible. But it can easily confabulate (we’re loosely speaking of denial here) its way out this uncomfortable line of thinking, putting focus back on its job of creating a sense of security and control for its human.

But, when it is informed that the world is just what it is — that is, no matter what we do, nothing is going to let us tame the chaos — it flips out because it is suddenly stripped of its confabulatory framework. Most often when this happens, it simply throws its hands up (am I the only one that pretends that the brain has skinny gray arms with long pointy fingers?) and goes, “Alright, folks. Pass this one to the angry old guy in the back.” And before we know it, we either find ourselves running around swinging an axe or fleeing to the mountains, compliments of our paranoid amygdalae.

This is why you should never share with your college roommate and best friend the “undeniable fact” that the girl he’s dating is going to ruin his career aspirations. Unless you want him to dig his heels in deeper, marry her, and prove you right. That’s just a hypothetical situation, of course.

Coming back to the point, the real problem isn’t that some words trigger a paralyzing reaction. The real problem is that it is what it is is a notion that we are confronted with constantly, sometimes hundreds of times in a day, in non-verbal forms: a curt email from a peer, a questionable decision by our leadership at work, a user’s visceral reaction to one of our designs, a contrarian post about “flat design” in our RSS feed, the absence of a promotion where one was expected, the repeated inability to get the best work out of our employees. Each of these situations serves the same function as hearing “It is what it is.” They challenge our confabulatory framework.

In short, it is what it is, in all its forms, threatens the minute-by-minute security that self-deception bestows on us. And how we respond to and learn from these threats ultimately charts not only the course of our lives, but more importantly, who we ultimately become and how we feel along the way. The key, as with most things, lies in realizing that these threats are blessings in disguise. They are clues from the universe about how things really are. Recognizing these clues is the first step to formulating a solution, and this is where most of us never achieve any proficiency.

I’ve found that our reactions to the universe generally fall into three categories, each more desirable than the previous:

  1. Victim — We see the clues as attacks. Consequently, we lose sight of the long-term, and focus on the short-term by either fleeing or fighting back without rhyme or reason.
  2. Apprentice — We are fairly good at embracing the clues, and turning them into meaningful outcomes. But since we don’t have all of the necessary experience and knowledge, we don’t always succeed.
  3. Master — We are experts at recognizing the clues. We are able to draw from a vast base of experience and knowledge in the context at hand to turn most situations to our favor.

I was prone to being a victim at the start of my career. I hid behind the comfortable cloak of my idealistic nature, and rejected the simple realities of a work environment (and more generally, life): coworkers will lie to your face, your boss won’t always protect you, promotions aren’t necessarily given to those who deserve them, everyone has a hidden agenda, leaders often care more about results than about employee morale. At my first job, the more I dug my heels in — the more I didn’t recognize the clues — the more I sabotaged myself. By the time I quit, I was overweight, tense, and bitter.

The universe had won. I couldn’t parse it.

Then one day a friend of mine recommended Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. I read it in a breath because it had answers. His bibliography led me to another. And another. And another. I haven’t stopped since.

When you’re invited to write a column, particularly one for a prestigious industry treasure like A List Apart, you’re bound to lose a little sleep. Unlike an article, a column has a distinct identity complete with its own title. Its constituent pieces must function together at some level to paint a bigger picture. As I brainstormed with my wife, Pita, and editor, Rose, I created a list of fictitious titles for pieces I could see myself writing in the hopes we may find a pattern.

And, I think we did.

We found that I wanted to write about minimizing our time as Victims, becoming comfortable with spending most of our time as Apprentices, and relishing the few moments we’ll spend as Masters. In a moment of revelation, Rose even came up with a title for the column: The Human Web. It stuck like brown on rice.

So, that’s what you can expect from this column: discussions on taking control of our destinies at work (and play), with the occasional tangent every now and then. If that sounds like your thing, grab a seat.

For now, here’s your first lesson: it is what it is.

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