How Do You Keep Up When the New Normal Is “No Normal?”
Photo by Sarah Chai from Pexels
If you’d rather listen than read, go to my podcast, Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 14
I remember early in the pandemic when we were emerging from our first lockdown, people started talking about “a new normal.” We believed we were seeing the beginning of the end of the pandemic. We had just experienced what it meant to really slow down, to shelter in place, and to work from home. We had seen skies clear up as air pollution from human activity dissipated. We saw wild animals emerge on city streets.
Despite the massive disruption to our daily lives, many felt hopeful. That maybe, this global shared experience might bring about positive change, something new and perhaps better. I even wrote an article about it on LinkedIn in May 2020, called, Are You Ready for the New Normal?
While I stand by much of what I wrote in that piece, it seems in retrospect a little naïve, maybe? Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “What if there is no new normal? What if there is just no more normal?”
It may have something to do with the wildfires that have been raging across Canada in recent weeks, displacing people from coast to coast, including friends and people in my own community. And the walls of toxic smoke they sent to places like New York, Ottawa, and Toronto, making it unsafe for people to leave their homes. Or the fact that these catastrophic events and the displacement they cause are no longer anomalies. They are becoming an all too familiar and frequent part of our way of life.
It has me reflect on the profound disorientation of being displaced and how that sense of displacement seems to be everywhere.
Sometimes it’s physical displacement, due to natural disaster, war, or economic hardship. Sometimes it’s psychological, like when our circumstances or environment change so rapidly, we become overwhelmed and lose our ability to adapt.
In both cases, one of the casualties is the security we get from a sense of normal.
Vanishing normal at work.
Many of us are feeling a kind of displacement at work.
There have been ground-shifting changes in the last few years to the way we work, where we work, and the technologies we use to do our work. Many leaders are struggling to figure out how to maintain cohesive teams and cultures when so many of their employees work from home. Many are struggling to work out new, sometimes clunky, “hybrid” arrangements.
What is clear is there is no longer a single “normal” model of work life.
Many of these changes are having profound effects on organizational culture, on working norms, and on what it means to be part of a team. Many of those effects are positive, offering greater autonomy, flexibility, and freedom in how work is accomplished. Many effects are still unknown.
As AI technologies are introduced to our daily life, they promise to accelerate that disruption. For some of us, they may completely reshape our relationship with work. For others, AI could bring more displacement.
At the same time, changes in social climate and cultural norms are necessitating significant and rapid changes in corporate culture. Many of these changes are long overdue, and at the same time, cultures are complex and often either slow to adapt or adapt in ways that are unhealthy.
What has accompanied all of this uncertainty and volatility in our lives, not surprisingly, has been widespread and unprecedented levels of stress, burnout, and mental health impacts.
For humans, unpredictability and uncertainty can be unbearably stressful. We don’t like uncertainty. We are prediction machines. We rely on our ability to anticipate what’s coming for our survival and our sense of safety. We like to feel in control.
How do we navigate in a land of no normal?
I want to be careful not to overstate these points. Part of the feeling of disorientation and this creeping sense that the world is on the road to ruin, has as much to do with our media and social echo-chambers as it has to do with the quality of our day-to-day experience. And many of these changes are producing positive impacts on our lives and the lives of others.
It reminds me of an old parable from Zen Buddhism in which when faced with a series of events that seem to bring both good and bad fortune, an old farmer asks the question “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”
As a coach supporting leaders to navigate this unpredictable terrain, I am sometimes struck by how often my decades of business experience do not offer reliable parallels for me to lean into. So much of what people are facing is unprecedented. The longer I am on this planet, the longer I do this work, the more my sense of certainty and knowing fades. It is humbling. And that’s not a bad thing.
I think humility is a good place to start and, in many ways, a whole lot more useful than clamoring for a sense of certainty, easy answers, or quick fixes. Certainty is not what’s needed. Letting go of having easy answers and opening ourselves to new ways of thinking and navigating can be strangely liberating.
And still, the question remains. What can we rely on when what we used to think of as normal, no longer applies?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I will offer you three small things I still find useful when I can’t locate a sense of normal.
1. When the world is moving too fast, I do better when I slow down.
There is something powerful about stepping out of the frenzy and setting your own pace. Except in dire emergencies, most of the time, you don’t actually need to rush. There is something clarifying and empowering about refusing to be dragged along by the flurry of circumstances. You don’t have to adapt to or adopt everything. The ground will continue to shift. What you are seeing now is not likely an end state you need to catch up to, but part of a larger pattern that is still unfolding. Slowing down brings me back to myself. It gives me a sense of agency. It doesn’t bring me normal, but it does bring a sense of inner stability.
2. When my heart is beating too fast, it helps when I breathe deep.
One day, at age 5, my grandson encountered his father in tears. I don’t remember the circumstances, just a rough day. My grandson went up to him and said, “Breathe, Daddy. Just breathe.”
I have no idea where he gets this stuff. But in that moment, he was channeling wisdom rooted in human physiology. Deep rhythmic breathing can shift our nervous system out of a sympathetic state, sometimes called “fight or flight” to a parasympathetic state of “rest and digest,” bringing the heartrate down and restoring a sense of calm.
When I work with a distressed client, I will often invite them to breathe with me. I am always amazed at how quickly this remarkably simple process shifts their state.
For me, a racing heart, a quickening breath, the feeling of sweat on my skin are all invitations to pause for a few deep inhales and long slow exhales. When I feel lost or distressed, this is the quickest, most reliable way back to a sense of equilibrium.
3. When I want to have a positive impact on what is happening around me, I am more effective when I can shift what is happening within me.
After a lifetime of trying to control and fix, I’ve learned that my place of greatest leverage is being conscious and intentional about “the me” I bring to my circumstances. It might be a few moments of deep breathing and getting present before a coaching session. Or bringing curiosity and compassion to a challenging conversation. Or bringing a sense of ease and humor versus stress and perfectionism to hosting a family dinner. Whatever it is, it seems to go better when I check in with myself, notice what I am feeling and then ask myself, “What kind of energy do I want to bring to this situation?”
It is so easy to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of such monumental challenges. In a world this complex, trying to exert control is a fool’s errand. There is no controlling conditions like this. There is only nudging, influencing, encouraging, and experimenting.
I find the best way for me to find my ground when I can’t find normal is to simply be present, in this moment, breathing this breath.
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