While You Wait
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” ― Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends
This past weekend I took my boys to a local park with their Auntie and Uncle. After an hour or so, we decided to get everyone hot chocolates. As we approached the cafe, my eldest son immediately saw the queue. In his wonderfully blunt way he proclaimed; "That queue is too long to just be getting hot chocolate!"
This was either an attempt to coax me to buy him something more, or it was just him not wanting to wait. He successfully convinced his younger brother that the reward for waiting wasn't worth their investment of time. So, now I had two boys standing in the cold, queuing for something they believed wasn't valuable. It was fun. While we waited, I observed a number of subtle changes in my boys’ behaviour. They began to notice their surroundings in a new way and this prompted them to ask questions about the park, the people they saw and particularly their dogs. Being forced to wait had now led to an opportunity for increased knowledge, but my boys had to first be put in a position to allow their minds to drift.
Eventually, we received our hot chocolates and began our walk out of the park. I asked them both as we were leaving, "How was your hot chocolates?"
The reply from both of them made me laugh,"The best ever, Papa."
Now I know there wasn't something particularly brilliant about these drinks, other than they both had to wait to feel gratified. Yet, this normally inconsequential event was revealing; not only do we all not like waiting, but for most of us, we don't know what to do while we wait. Technology has extraordinarily increased the speed in which we can access everything we want, but there has been a significant trade off. Our now constant state of distraction and the ability to get what we want at unprecedented speeds has subtly, incrementally diminished our ability to drift and wait.
The longer you are in the presence of a difficulty the less likely you are to solve it. This, for a leader, presents a challenge. You are tasked with constantly finding solutions that impede organisational progress. Conscious, sustained attention to the problem often can lead to frustration, or worse, poor judgment. When faced with problems that need a solution, the best action is to do nothing. This may seem completely counterintuitive, but trust me on this, the best thing you can do is leave your place of work and go for a walk. Force yourself to drift and wait.
Have you ever noticed that your best ideas, your most creative solutions come to you when you're driving, sitting on a train, or lying awake in the morning? What is happening in that moment? Your body is active but your mind is in neutral. John Adair puts it like this:
"Knowing when to turn away from a problem and leave it for a while is an essential skill in the art of creative thinking. It is easier for you to do that if you are confident that your unconscious mind is taking over the baton. Even when ideas – or hints of ideas – are beginning to surface, resist the temptation to start thinking consciously about them. Let them saunter in at their own time and place. A heightened awareness and detached interest on your part will create the right climate. All creative thinking stems from seeing or making connections. Everything is connected with everything else, but our minds cannot always perceive the links."
This is not an ethereal practice. Knowing what to do while waiting is an essential skill for any leader. Do not underestimate the power in putting your phone down and allowing your mind to drift. Pathways and new connections that you haven't seen before are often created in these moments. When your mind makes these connections and finds the answer to that unsolvable problem, obey it.
In the future, when you encounter those same, apparently unscalable problems, remember this: You know the answer, you just haven't discovered it yet.