Old certainties and new realities

Future success will not be determined by positive thinking or blind optimism but by understanding and implementing thinking skills to emerge from crisis, writes experienced strategic advisor John Kennedy.

As 2020 moves to its end there is little doubt it has been a steep climb for all of us. What began with a hazy news story of an odd form of the flu on the other side of the world suddenly became a vivid and all-consuming reality at the core of everything we do.

Now the initial shock is over we are again peering into an apparently hazy and unknown future.

But while the future may hold unfamiliar challenges you have more control than you think.

A ‘new normal’

There is a story about two people on a walking tour to explore new and unfamiliar places. The first person has found themselves on a route they had not expected and they find the path is becoming steeper and more challenging. They can see a village above them in the distance but can find no reference to it on their map or in their guidebook.

As the path becomes more challenging, they begin to wonder if it is really worth the effort of continuing to reach the village. Just at that point they see an old man sitting at the side of the road. They ask him: “What will the village be like? Will it be worth the effort to make the steep climb?”

In response the old man asks: “What do you expect to find there?” The traveller thought for a moment and said: “I have been walking for some time and seen many villages so I expect it will be much the same as the others.”

The old man replied: “That is exactly what you will find.”

So, the traveller thanks the old man and turns back to find their way down to the familiar path they have just come from.

Sometime later another traveller finds themselves on the route up toward the same village. Again, as the path becomes steeper, they begin to wonder if they should continue, if the climb is worth the effort.

At the same point they encounter the same old man.

The second traveller asks: “What will the village be like? Will it be worth the effort to make the steep climb?” The old man responds: “What do you expect to find there?”

The traveller thought for a moment and said: “I have been walking for some time and have seen many villages where I have met new people and found important insights that have led to new opportunities.”

The old man replied: “That is exactly what you will find.”

The second traveller thanks him and walks on up the path toward at the village.

You have more choice than you think

This insight has never been more important. Never has there been any year when so many people have had the same experience. And never has how you look at things been more important to how your future will evolve. Your year may have begun with hope, expectation, resolutions and commitments but as the spring arrived so did the impact of the Coronavirus.

And since then you have experienced your own version of the long climb. The last six months may have worn you down. Or you may be able to see a village ahead and find yourself wondering if it is worth the effort to make the next stage of the climb.

Whatever your own experience this is true. Those who expect the effort of making the climb to be worth it will be the ones who find the new, more interesting, more rewarding future. And if you decide to turn back you will never know.

One of the most important things you will ever learn to do is to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at things. The key is to learn how to reshape and restructure your experience and expertise, so it is more useful to you in the new surroundings.

Whatever your role or your task you are facing new surroundings. You need to reshape your thinking to understand that you still have control of the most important aspects of the situation.

You may feel stuck, perhaps seemingly impossibly stuck. But you have complete control of your ability to create a clear image of the future.

You can use your points of reference from the past and concentrate your attention and energy on all of the things that will no longer be true, will no longer work. Or you can move perspective and create a new image.

This is not about hope. Hope is a poor strategy.

If you are to get what you want, you will need to understand that a successful strategy has two elements. Firstly, you need to create an image of a destination that is both clear and clearly worth the climb. And then you need to know how to take the specific steps to reach that destination.

The single most important influence on your success

So as this most challenging of years moves toward its close it is important to realise your future will not be created by vague optimism, positive thinking or whistling to keep your spirits up. Your future will fundamentally depend on the image you create of the destination you want to reach and the specific steps you are going to take.

So, let me ask you this question, as you emerge from this crisis what will success be like for you? Can you set out a clear image or are you going to depend on trying to reproduce the past? What specific things will you need to see, to hear, to experience to know you have overcome the challenges brought by this year of crisis and successfully worked you way to a better place? Unless and until you can answer those questions, you are engaging in nothing more than worthless worry.

This is not about hope. Hope is a poor strategy.

Worthless worry undermines your future and consumes your thoughts with vague, pointless, unclear issues, and it is all too common in the current circumstances. It is a complete waste of your energy at a time when you need it most. Worthwhile worry is completely different.

It is about knowing how to invest your attention and energy so you can get from where you are to a very clear, specific and worthwhile destination. Until you learn the practical skills to shape your thinking and create an image of uncommon clarity you are in real danger of being dragged down by worthless worry.

This is not about positive thinking or blind optimism, but about understanding and implementing the specific thinking skills that will guide you through this challenging phase.

And it is the single most important element that will determine your future success.

John Kennedy is a highly experienced strategic advisor who has helped leaders and managers increase their success by becoming clearer in their thinking, more effective in their actions and more influential in their writing and presentations.

To find out more you can contact John Kennedy at

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