Being Bold in Times of Emerging Change
10 Major Life Reframes to Give You the Power and Possibility of Existential Confidence
By Jim Selman
Ordinary confidence is not sufficient to overcome extraordinary problems. The crises we face today call for boldness. This 2021 article, co-authored with psychiatrist and brain researcher Dr. Srini Pillay, offers 10 ways to cultivate the kind of "existential confidence" we need to be practicing now.
What if you could deal with any challenge you encountered? What if you could trust yourself be sufficient to whatever might show up next—even if you had never seen it before?
People would probably call you bold.
Bold is the “existential confidence” we all need to practice in our real-time world.
In the midst of rampant uncertainty and exponential change, we cannot afford to indulge the blindness of arrogance. Neither can we rationalize a naive course of action and then move forward in a reckless or irresponsible manner.
Being bold today is about positively embracing:
- A mood of optimistic resolve
- The unknown and the uncertain
- Exploring life and relating to the future with curiosity
- The practice of committing to a possibility before having evidence that it is possible.
Existential confidence is the bedrock of tomorrow’s leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Here are 10 ways you can cultivate it.
1. Create problems worth solving.
Ordinary problem-solving, like ordinary confidence, is based on the past. As a consequence, it often reinforces the underlying source of the problem and often has the solution generate another new problem.
As you navigate unchartered terrain in our real-time world, your commitments can generate unprecedented problems which, while they defy solutions, create new openings for invention, experimentation and adventure. These are the kinds of problems worth solving.
2. Take your hand off the wheel.
If you believe you need control to get what you want, you will continue to get what you say you don’t want in order to stay in (or believe you are) in control. This addiction to control is a product of the fact that, in the past, change happened over long periods of time, combined with our historical bias toward the individual and individuality as the central organizing factor in society. Imagining that the ‘self’ and the individual are the same thing allowed us to function as if human beings were separate from each other and the world.
Science now knows what has always been accepted as fact in philosophy: the ‘self’ is an historical interpretation and all human beings are biologically connected to each other and the environment. Individuals create commitments but need each other to fulfill them. Technology has brought the world together and revealed that all human beings are co-creating reality.
3. Live in two worlds.
The world of “what can be” is a different reality than the world of “what is”. The predictable future is not the possible future. A possibility, by definition, doesn’t exist in reality. If it did (that is, if you could prove it was possible), it would be an example.
One of the hallmarks of existential confidence is the willingness to commit to a a possible future without any evidence for it being possible. Most people want evidence that something can happen before they buy in or commit and, as a consequence, are left with more of the same. Being clear that you have a choice about which future you will live into is the foundation for existential confidence. The question is not what do you think will happen, but are you prepared for and sufficient to prevail whatever happens.
4. Imagine—and act on what you imagine.
Every human being has the capacity to imagine, but not everyone cultivates it. Our culture is predisposed to “being reasonable”. That effectively has people drift into a skeptical or cynical attitude toward ‘what if’ thinking (a.k.a. possibility thinking) that locks us into a prison of our own minds, attached to the past and our comfort zones, and essentially kills possibilities.
Being bold means trusting ourselves—even when we have an unreasonable or contrary view that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In a dynamic and emerging reality, someone with existential confidence accepts that if they don’t have maps, recipes and handy answers, they must trust their imagination, intuition and commitments.
5. Live outside of time.
Time can be understood as a relationship with whatever is happening or whatever you can imagine happening. How you relate will open or close possibilities and frame your options for action. For example, if you believe you are the “way you are” because of the past, you are living in a determinant worldview. The present is caused by the past, and the past can be projected into the future as a prediction. Make commitments, allocate resources and act based on those projections and the best you can do will be to create more of what you already have.
There is a more powerful way to relate to what is happening, one in which there is nothing wrong, nothing to fear, and you are always at the right place at the right time (since that is where you are anyway). Consider that your brain puts things together like puzzle pieces. When you are dreaming, it does not respect the boundaries of past, present and future. What if you do whatever you are doing based on how you relate to the future? By taking this perspective, you can create/imagine a specific future and then observe what is missing in the “now” for it to be realized. In this sense, you are being “used” by that future. The question then becomes what future will use you?
6. Embrace the WHOLE, including opposites.
Language allows you to think and to think about thinking because your brain works with dichotomies. There must be a ‘yes’ to have a ‘no’, an ‘up’ to have a ‘down, a ‘right’ to have a ‘wrong’. These lead to paradoxes. Yet opposites do not exist.
A large aspect of having existential confidence is the capacity to tolerate “what is” without falling into the kind of either/or thinking that can lead to argument (even within ourselves), conflict and resistance. A both/and perspective allows you to always have whatever you need to move in whichever direction you choose. So rather than defend a single point of view, embrace the whole by “owning” multiple points of view.
7. Trust the process of life itself.
Appreciate and acknowledge that what is happening is just what it is. As the famous Serenity Prayer tells us, sanity is “changing what you can, accepting what you can’t, and having the wisdom to know the difference”. Existential confidence is another way of talking about that kind of wisdom. It isn’t about controlling: it is about doing what is needed and wanted moment-to-moment. It is about navigating the world, having a life you love, and caring about others.
When you are always prepared to act, always open to possibilities, always caring about others, your own well-being and the environment, you are sufficient to whatever is required. You can act, learn from mistakes, apologize when appropriate, and enjoy living in real time. This kind of trust is rare and requires a person to know who they are, to be authentic, and to focus on their vision and possibility.
8. Learn the power—and freedom—of language.
Human beings create their reality in language. Based on this observation, JL Austin distinguished and, later, Fernando Flores expanded upon a theory of speech acts as the basis for all human coordination. They showed that some verbs describe action, while other performative verbs are action. A promise, for example, does not describe a commitment: it is a commitment. An assessment describes something in the form of a judgment, conclusion, point of view or opinion.
Assessments tend to objectify reality and, once embedded in your worldview, separate you from the world. The existentially confident person is clear that assessments are never true or false: they are always a point of view of the speaker. With this clarity, there is nothing to defend or protect. Other people’s assessments do not threaten your thinking or beliefs. This clarity frees you to navigate—without reacting—even when disagreeing and allows you to align, commit and coordinate action in a world of differences.
9. Exercise your capacity to care.
This may be one of the most constitutive aspects of being human. Philosopher Martin Heidegger asserted that caring is central to our nature: it is the core of an authentic ‘self’. Without some care or concern in the background, you end up being reduced to a self-centered machine, striving for more, better and different variations of what you already have.
Civilizations tend to organize around one or two values or beliefs that orient people to reality. These core ideas give meaning and purpose to the culture and practices of a particular era. In the Middle Ages, personal salvation was the primary concern and organizing principle of most people. In the Renaissance, this shifted to a broad concern for beauty and power. In the Enlightenment, to reason, learning and a passion for understanding the natural world. In the Industrial Revolution, the organizing principles were control and productivity. In today’s real-time world, this is shifting to caring—caring for the planet and the future, caring for our communities and other human beings. It is now abundantly clear we are entering an era in which humanity sinks or swims together.
Choosing is not deciding. Decisions are based on reason (as in “I am doing this because…”). When you decide and something doesn’t work, you can blame the reasoning. Choosing, on the other hand, is not a function of rational analysis or even of individual will.
When you choose, you commit to being responsible for what you’ve chosen. You have no one to blame. If things don’t work out, you are able to acknowledge a mistake and move on to creating and choosing whatever is next. Tom Robbins expressed this beautifully in his 1980 novel Still Life with Woodpecker:
“The word that allows Yes, the word that makes No possible.
The word that puts the free in freedom and takes the obligation out of love.
The word that throws a window open after the final door is closed….
The word that the cocoon whispers to the caterpillar….
In the beginning was the word and the word was
In the midst of emergent change, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to run from fears, live up to other people’s expectations, avoid unnecessary risks. Perhaps the question to ask yourself each day might be, “Am I choosing the life I am leading?”