It Is What It Is

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.

19 Reader Comments

  1. I recognize that I am the victim, apprentice and master all in one meeting. Is that odd?

    Great article. Already ordered Ariely’s book. Look forward to more of your writing.

  2. You know that feeling when you’re reading something and you’re so focused on it that all the background noise sounds softer and someone taps you on the shoulder and you don’t even feel it because its so interesting. Well thats what happened with this article when I read it.

    Couldn’t have said it better. Thanks!

  3. Very helpful stuff. One thing I might add, in relation to all your bits about cognitive stuff, is to tread lightly. Sometimes it seems like we can go there and fail to see the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and simply dismiss shortcomings as “science”.

  4. As a (former) victim, now transitioning from apprentice to master I can only say big thanks for taking the time to share your insight all of us can relate to.

  5. Great article! You had a great opening that fed into a lot of very important points. There were personal moments of defeat and finally of personal victory!

    This article for me came about in a moment of serendipity. You call it “clues from the Universe.” Without a lie, I was formulating a speech this morning about mind, body and brain, and I was focused on the amygdala. I was at Wikipedia researching about the amygdala and learnt that it is responsible for emotional and memory processing. It is not responsible for the flight-or-fight response, that is the role of epinephrine. I did not find any cross-references in the Wikipedia articles of amygdala and epinephrine.

    That said, your article touched upon what I think is a new era where we have so much information and knowledge at our fingertips (the Human Web) that if people don’t wake up now they are going to wake up one morning to a kind of culture shock! For those who are open to seeing the Universe (knowledge and creativity) will start seeing strange new coincidences and serendipitous acts. Yet, do not confuse Jungian synchronous events with the event, only play along. The synch may be a lie! Or is it? Maybe someone else can help us understand this strange evolutionary trait.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity#Criticisms

    You are on the right path, my friend. Keep it up.

  6. Thanks, all.

    @Brenden — Couldn’t agree more. I plan on writing about that. A rookie mistake of embracing this line of thinking is, “I can’t be wrong because I know the science. Hence, you must be.”

    @FuzzyBit — Yep, I was going to point you at some hijack resources. That said, you hint at a broader point: it’s tough to pinpoint what happens where when it comes to the brain. So many regions of the brain are involved in so many functions. Even with the fancy fMRI’s we have today, analyzing brain function is largely a mystery. At times it feels like analyzing life on earth while you’re sitting on the moon with nothing but a pair of binoculars. The amygdala (at least form everything I’ve read), originates the command to fight or flee, but most of it occurs due to the resultant chemistry in the limbic system. That said, the buck has to stop somewhere, and neuroscientists all seem to agree that that buck stops at the amygdala. Eagleman’s Incognito has some of the more fascinating stuff I’ve read about the amygdala of late. For instance, when the amygdala takes over, it numbs the neocortex (the part of the brain largely responsible for reasoning through emotional bursts). Brilliant design 🙂

  7. I, too, held my fork (am eating lunch at my desk) while reading this article. Eerily similar to my own experiences. Unfortunately, it took me a lot longer than Nishant to figure this out and I caused myself way too much pain. Clipped to Evernote for re-reading. Very much looking forward to more posts.

  8. I felt calmer and after reading this. Things fell into a perspective, a feeling that I can move forward with. I got up from my chair, into the next room and asked my dear friend to read it. A while later, he walks back into my room looks at me and simply nods his head acknowledging the same feeling I felt a few minutes back as we bump fists.

    We work together. “Lets become masters..” I say. Thank you for the honesty that came through this article, it means a lot.

  9. The article gives a great insight into how the human mind functions. It’s so true that everyone can bear upto a certain limit only and after that they enter a defensive mode which may lead to violence and quarrels. This world would be so much better if only the people learned basic values like ‘compassion and tolerance’ accompanied by ‘anger management’!

    Sandra V.
    Bolee.com

  10. I like how you talk about the theories we make up about everything, about how the brain thinks it decodes, when what it actually does is create. i like the idea of the three roles.

    Yet I think it’s fascinating how some people can get you mad in less than 30 seconds, while others are able to convince you to do things you don’t want to do, you shouldn’t do and sometimes said you won’t do in another 60.

  11. When the implications of “it is what it is” leave me in a state of fearful dissonance, I can recenter by simply remembering “I yam what I yam.”

  12. This article is wonderful. I am exiting (perhaps a little late) the idealistic mentality. After realizing that although there are many trustworthy people there are also individuals who will throw one under the bus I want to change how I interact with the world. I am going to read Predictably Irrational but I was wondering if you could direct me to other resources for reforming my idealistic nature. I believe your articles will be very insightful but I really want the mentality that you have! What are some of the books/websites you would suggest for reforming idealism?

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