Opportunity is a
the word Chameleon made transparent to overlay the image of the chameon
By Mac Bogert
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring

W

e all still hear the echo of our distant fear. In the entire human story, our relative safety is still a tiny fraction, a recent anomaly. We’re still at risk from falling trees and drunk drivers and people with ill intent, yet the sleep-with-one-eye-open-and-your spear- handy mantra may be less necessary.

Coupled with a world, a country, and your neighborhood in turmoil, this echo produces cynicism, mistrust, resentment and anxiety. We can each fall into a defensive crouch. We can equally well choose to explore and create. As the great songsmith Leonard Cohen suggested, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Opportunity cloaks itself in whatever background we create. It has no inherent character. If we embrace a cognitive, emotional, and spiritual place of curiosity and possibility, that’s the color opportunity wears.

The Ladder is not what it seems
I often use The Ladder of Inference* in my leadership work. Think of a ladder that’s sitting in a puddle of water. For us left-brainers, the puddle is available data. For the rest of us, it’s what’s happening. The ladder has five rungs:

  1. Decide what to do
  2. Explain/evaluate what’s happening
  3. Name what’s happening
  4. Paraphrase the data
  5. Select the data
Seems pretty logical and strategic, right? The rub is that each of these steps is bound by as well as directed by our biases and fears. Some think this tool serves to demonstrate a comforting series of rational footwork toward successful planning and implementation. It very well may. However, that comfort is too often generated by a misunderstanding. Our desire for answers overshadows our embrace of questions, and we mistake the results of inferential thinking for the truth. Actually, it’s not the truth but our truth.
a guy with a graphic of a bunch of arrows above his head

As an exercise, let’s start with the puddle. Each of us identifies the puddle’s features through the filter of our inductive bias. My logic professor would be proud of me for remembering that inductive reasoning always must include the possibility that the conclusion is false. After all, the puddle that you see is different from the puddle that I see because we notice different things. So the selection, paraphrasing, naming, evaluating, and deciding are all subjective in turn. Subjectivity compounded. When we induce ourselves into a conclusion, it’s too easy to not be skeptical. Certainty is very attractive when we mistake uncertainty for threat.

sticky notes with "What's Next?" written on the top
“For the most part, we do not see first, and then define, we define and then we see.”
Walter Lippmann

A quick story here. A few years ago, I was working on a project that went south. I called my friend John, and he asked me how it was going. I said, “It didn’t work out.” Silence. Then John gave me just what I needed in order to understand: “Oh, it worked out.” He was right. It did.

At this point, I’m sensing a little Pollyanna suspicion. Maybe a little Candide mixed in. I’ll come back to that at the end.

I’m a businessman. I help people in organizations change their understanding of leadership. I’m very practical and happily skeptical. A few years back, I was working with a group of line workers in a factory. They wanted to boil down “this leadership thing” because I sounded like I was making it too complicated. They booted me out of the training room and told me to get some coffee and come back in an hour. So, I did. When I returned, they had written—in chalk on an actual chalkboard!:

Vision.
Courage.
Influence.

They nailed it better than I ever had. We lead at every point of interaction with another human being. These wonderful folks gave me a gift of understanding, just like my friend John. When I speak of what is yet to come, I create a vision. When I change my own attitude and behavior, I model courage. When I help people move from their resting place, I exercise influence. Can this method create harm? Sure. We can lead astray as well as toward the light. Our inside development affects our outside reaction.

“We must cultivate our garden.”
The final line of Voltaire’s Candide

Whatever you have concluded (or induced, I suppose) to this point is a reflection of what lens you brought to the article. Right now, we find ourselves in a sudden universe of ambiguity and quicksand—we’ve stepped out our front door into an alien landscape. Politics, economics, class and race, virtual learning, climate, disease, the opioid crisis, all have arrived at the station in droves and simultaneously. I do not list these to add to fear. I list them because they are all part of the puddle at the base of the ladder. Each of you can add some things I’ve missed—I define before I see as well.

Sting once sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” If you and I sat and talked candidly with each other, we would build an edifice of connection. You might say tomayto and I might say tomahto, as the lyric suggests. And I’m sure we’d still be talking about the same thing.

“The Internet is a mine field.”
“The Internet is a blessing.”
“Zoom sucks.”
“Zoom is what holds us together.”
“Vaccination is a scam.”
“Vaccination will save us.”

We’ve all heard the tangential list of inductive bias. We move toward the magnet of our attitudes in order to feel safe. And if an illusion provides that safety, that’ll do.

I see a sunrise as a miracle, it’s the same sunrise. Choose.
a man moving the curtain aside to watch the sun rise

I work with other people, and with my own narrow universe, in the hope of being honest, competent, and dependable enough to nurture sanity and health. However, I blunder along on that path, I need to tend my garden every day. Opportunity is not a thing, it’s an attitude. It wears the guise of my attitudes. If I see a sunrise as another OMG I don’t want to get up event or if I see a sunrise as a miracle, it’s the same sunrise. Choose.

*https://thesystemsthinker.com/the-ladder-of-inference/

About the author

Mac Bogert is president of AZA Learning, and a leadership columnist for some of the leading education media platforms. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, he is a musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer, and author of “Learning Chaos.”