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  • Jan Rybeck

Its Only Hard If You Expect It To Be Easy


I know a bit about complexity.


As government contractors it’s the water we swim in.


What this means is that my colleagues and I jump through endless hurdles, check off countless boxes, meet rigorous qualifications, and deliver scrupulously over and over again to win and keep our jobs with no safety net assuring us of future work. Add to that the disruptions of government shut down, political changes, and DC traffic that can turn an 8-hour day into 14 without an ounce of added productivity, and, well, some days it just seems so incredibly hard.


And I am not complaining…. It is an honor to serve and support all it takes to make this country what it is. There are days when, just as the bureaucratic beatings begins to wear me down, I’ll have a conversation with a client that brings me back to what matters most, a beacon reminding me of what is possible.


If it were not for that compelling horizon of possibility, the swirl of the day to day would quickly take me down, a treacherous whirlpool in an uncertain sea. Often confounding and always complex, the dynamics of politics, power, and people can be incredibly difficult to navigate.


And especially so if you expect them to be other than how they are.


You’d think I’d have gotten this by now.


Like the one program we stood up for an agency that resulted in tangible positive outcomes, accolades from the client, and a promotion for the government lead only to be lost on re-compete. The new contractor hired our staff to deliver the work.


Or the other contract that we won, built up to triple its size and then lost when another contractor tried to deliver at a third the cost. It didn’t work out well for them. You get what you pay for.


For anyone who has been in this world, these stories are not only common, but known threats.


Seasoned folks in this contracting world do not expect it to be easy at all.


The best in the business, I have observed, actually don’t expect.


They attune, attend, and anticipate.


They attune to what is going on with others and the situation. They notice their own biases, wishful thinking, and assumptions…wiping their lenses clean in order to see clearly what is going on in front of and around them. This requires unflinching self-honesty and willingness to continually ask, ‘how might I be wrong’ in order to discern how they might be getting in the way.


They attend to situations with proactive inquiry and a keen balance of authenticity and discretion. They know to get their love at home, not expecting their clients to be their friends while at the same time bringing a genuine care and interest to every interaction. This is not an easy balance to maintain. Those who do this well have a clear inner sense of boundaries and a robust support system to center them.


And they anticipate. They cultivate systems and situational awareness that provides information and insights to understand what is possible. They push on assumptions to get the real facts on the ground. They also build relationships before they are needed, continually cultivating connections that are both authentic and constructive.


If there is one thing I have learned in this business, it’s that expectations come with a false sense of security. They lead us to believe we know something that we could not possibly know… what the future will bring.


Truth is, it’s not about easy or hard. Working with complex realities is about being present with what is…and doing it in a way that recognizes the fears and other emotions involved without being swayed by them.


As Leonard Cohen (of blessed memory) once said ‘until you become the ocean, you will be seasick every day”.


Being the ocean is about staying with the rise and fall of the tides, attuning, attending and anticipating, while recognizing that, while we may not, ultimately, be in charge, we can certainly navigate towards the horizon of possibility.


Here are some questions to help in navigating complexity:


  • What expectations do you hold about how something should be, how you should be, or what you should get for what you do? If you can’t tell, consider when you feel disappointed, what is the expectation that was not met? Where does that expectation come from?

  • How does that expectation serve you? How might you move the expectation to the side for a brief moment in order to consider what else is going in that is worthy of attention?

  • What do you notice about what works? How might you leverage more of that?

What enables you to be more present with what is? What will provide security that makes it possible to be with ups and downs of uncertainty?

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