I love Fridays, and not because it’s the last day of the work week for most of us. As any working parent knows weekends and days off merely signal a change of tasklist! No – I like Fridays because it’s Law of Detachment day in Deepak Chopra’s, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success the day on which I was first introduced to the strangely comforting concept of the ‘wisdom of uncertainty’.My husband Tony and I were married in Paris, 25 years ago. A few English friends showed up for the ceremony in the Australian Embassy and my sister, Marg, flew all the way from Brisbane to witness the event and represent the McDonald clan. Afterwards we all retired to a nearby bistro for a celebratory lunch where the menu, of course, was entirely in Français. As some kind of sly joke after we’d all consumed way too much Champagne, our French host declared that we’d get no help from her negotiating the menu.
When the waiter arrived Marg very confidently pointed to her choice. Her meal then materialised as a mountain of rice with some wizened, blackened little scrolls artistically placed on top. She’d ordered escargots – snails – not escalope of veal as she’d thought. Much hilarity all around the table but Marg’s nothing if not a good sport. She ate the snails with good grace (even though she confessed later that they were a bit chewy) and to her own amazement, she really enjoyed them and the buttery, garlicky rice mountain accompaniment.
What’s does a set of snails (chic, delicious, French snails but snails nonetheless) have to do with detachment? The way Chopra describes it, detachment could be the universal panacea for disappointment and despair when things don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. My sister Marg, being one of this world’s natural optimists, demonstrated this law quite effortlessly by enjoying a very different meal from the one she intended to order.
Interestingly Chopra points out that detachment or “relinquising our attachment” to a particular outcome doesn’t mean giving up on our intentions or desires. He describes attachment as a being based on fear and uncertainty that “freezes our desire into a rigid framework” and actually “interferes with the whole process of creation”. Detachment, on the other hand takes the pressure off – big time. “When things don’t go our way we can let go of our idea of how things should be,” says Chopra. What a relief.
A few years ago Blackie McDonald was asked to re-pitch an account that we’d worked on happily for eight years. While disappointed by the client’s decision to do this after the many successes we’d had for them, in my heart of hearts I reluctantly acknowledged that it was probably time for a change. Still, the prospect of losing the income suddenly turned what should have been an amicable parting of ways into a ‘must win’ competitive situation for our agency. Add to this choice little scenario a de-motivated team who felt the client’s insistence on a re-pitch was a vote of no confidence in their abilities, and a disgruntled Financial Controller who resented the amount of non-billable time we were spending on a pitch proposal for business we already had on the books!
Instead of stepping into the “wisdom of uncertainty” (which is code for doing the work, setting my intention for an outcome that would benefit everyone, no matter how unlikely that seemed, and letting go) I pushed myself and the pitch team really hard in a bid to achieve my outcome – winning back the business and avoiding the loss of revenue and face.
Of course we didn’t win the re-pitch and worse, I was devastated by the clinical thumbs-down phone call from the client who, until recently, had been both loyal and happy. In the ensuing 30 day notice period as we tidied up loose ends and prepared the handover meeting, I worried about how to keep the account team occupied once this client departed.
Then the phone rang with a new client prospect. Within a week we were on the shortlist. By month’s end we had won a new account as the Asia Pacific lead agency an international telecommunication company. The pitch team out did themselves on the proposal for this new account – time and effort they surely could not have afforded had we won the recent re-pitch. Funny how things turn out in an uncertain world right? “Hindsight” I hear you all shouting at me. Well maybe, but I can’t help thinking that worrying about the perfect outcome (heck, worrying in general) robs us of perspective, peace and cramps our creativity.
That and many subsequent experiences, particularly in business where livelihoods and mortgages are always at stake, have made me more than ready to hear Chopra’s message about stepping into the wisdom of uncertainty. In fact it’s become a survival mechanism much like acceptance and relinquishing the struggle against reality covered in a previous post – The Zen of surf rips. With humble apologies to Scott McNealy former head of Sun Microsystems I’m replacing the word ‘privacy’ with ‘certainty’ in his famous quote, “You have zero certainty anyway. Get over it.” We live in a world where uncertainty reigns – GFCs happen, businesses go bust and jobs are lost, people get sick, children grow up and start driving cars and going overseas. You can plan, intend and even micro-manage all you like but who really knows how it will all turn out? And fear of uncertainty is no way to live. Trust me, I’ve tried it.
By giving the Law of Detachment a red hot go I’ve discovered that it really is possible to embrace uncertainty and even be a bit excited by it. For a 100 percent, certified control freak this is a very welcome and calming realisation indeed. Here are some tips from the good Doctor alongside a few of my own to help you experience it:
Actively practice detachment: In his very instructive handbook The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents: Guiding Your Children to Success and Fulfillment, Chopra concedes that “because it runs counter to our cultural bias, detachment is not the easiest principle to teach”. I’ll say and that’s why I found his ensuing list “what detachment isn’t” so helpful:
1. Detachment isn’t not caring
2. It isn’t saying something is not your responsibility when it is
3. It isn’t ignoring the needs and feelings of others
4. And it’s not detached to only look out for number one.
And my additional tip?
5. Detachment is not doing nothing.
Coupled with all the talk of relinquishing attachment it’s probably safe to say that there’s a hefty dose of letting go in the concept of detachment. Not a ‘leap and the net will appear’ sort of letting go but a ‘do the work, set your intention and don’t stress about the how’ sort of letting go. In striving to practice detachment, so that I might experience the relief that comes after it, I’ve found that planning, action, setting one’s intention and being grateful for the opportunity are essential precursors. Without them the letting go is nigh on impossible for someone like me. Furthermore, the long struggled against realisation that I’m not supposed to know how every outcome will play out is, very simply, liberating.
Embrace uncertainty (I like to call this tip problem-solving with a twist): Chopra’s comment that within every problem “is the seed of an opportunity for some greater benefit” and that forcing solutions on problems merely creates more problems, pulled me up short the first time I read it. How many subsequent problems could I have avoided if only I hadn’t succumbed to my impetuous desire to ‘fix it – now!’ so many times in the past? Sometimes problems resolve themselves. Sometimes the solution, pointers to a solution or even just a different perspective on the problem emerge when you least expect – while cleaning the bathroom floor, walking the dog or watching Shakespeare In Love for the umpteenth time. I love the little exchange between theatre owner Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush) and the money man Hugh Fennyman (played by Tom Wilkinson). This says it all to me about the wisdom of uncertainty:
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Relinquish your rigid view of the outcome: According to Chopra this rigid view keeps one locked in past experience and not open to the new, the different and the unexpected. Sort of like when a plate of snails turns up instead of an escalope of veal. The Rolling Stones put it so eloquently when they sang, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. But if you try some time, you might find you get what you need”.
Oh, and one final thing. Be careful how you order in places that only have menus in French particularly when you are actually in France. As that great philosopher of our time, Forrest Gump said very often during the film of the same name, “Momma always said life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Yours in uncertainty and Fridays.