Facing Uncertainty by Shaping it — Reflections from ShapeNA

Uncertainty is a funny concept — it’s present in every single aspect of our lives and yet, from a very young age, we’re taught to fear it, we’re taught to be wary of it and when it comes down to it, we’re taught to dismiss it and “overcome it”. The last part in particular supposedly makes us courageous, makes us stronger, teaches us our identity and “what we’re made of”. But what if all of this was just plain wrong? What if uncertainty needed to embraced, not avoided; what if it to truly “overcome” this concept, we all needed to lean into it instead of resisting it?

When people ask the age-old question “what is the meaning of life?” — what if uncertainty was the answer to this, to this question mark — what if uncertainty was life, with all the walls and the masks and the ingenuity stripped down?

Earlier this month, the Sacramento hub of Global Shapers put together the epitome of an “anti-conference” — where attendees were forced to dig deep and reflect, precisely on what this foreign definition of uncertainty was to them.

The idea was for everyone to grapple with this often neglected topic in order to build the best version of themselves, and in turn, their communities. Four days of this internal form of “shaping”, lovingly guided by the Sacramento hub, led to dozens of piercing revelations and internal shifting. Here’s how the weekend went down for the half a dozen Toronto hub shapers that attended this sunny anti-conference.

Sacramento Shaper Kelly Rivas’s riveting personal story about some of life’s biggest uncertainties — death and fear and humankind’s resilience and fortitude despite it all to persevere — set the tone of the weekend at the very beginning.

Heartened by Kelly’s highly poignant opening, the rest of us had no choice but to align ourselves to a stance where discourse and vulnerability were not only encouraged and sought after, but also the norm expected from all.

What followed was a carefully orchestrated series of events meant to follow the “hero’s journey”, with a lot of open declarations of love, vulnerability, fear of failure and the determination to acknowledge all of the above in an effort to shape uncertainty within all of us.

Perhaps this may sound cheesy to an external audience, but for those of us attending the weekend, it was like being at the receptive end of a warm hug, one that was all about inclusion despite, in spite and because of our fears and failures, peppered with ambition, self-realization, and a whole lot of self-acceptance … all in an effort to do our absolute best for ourselves and in turn, our communities.

From de-stigmatizing immigration to developing a shared sense of empathy; from a thorough observation of the forces of identity, power, and privilege at play and the concept of inclusion in a divisive time, to an astute understanding of what it means to be an ally; from finding each of our roles in the global fight against climate change, to brainstorming ways to shape our communities through civic engagement and aligned action ….every single choice we made this weekend gave us some means through which we can face off uncertainty.

We sharpened and added so many tools in our toolbox — some were more tangible perhaps, i.e. steps to take in building an entrepreneurial muscle or how to engage in some radical storytelling but so many sessions revolved around blurry lines.

In so many ways, it was refreshing and humbling to see many awe-inspiring leaders open up and acknowledge their share of the impostor syndrome or embrace vulnerability or come to the realization that the pretty little lies we tell ourselves are but temporary self-sabotaging distractions we force upon ourselves in the face of uncertainty or failure.

How many of us can say with certainty that we take the time to self-reflect and observe the choices that we make on a daily basis?

We may think that we do not have the time for this self-reflection, but how we can afford not to? If we want to keep moving forward, if we want growth as individuals, if we want to be better equipped to handle all that life throws at us, it’s critical for self-reflection, in light of all the uncertainty that we face.

Self-reflection can happen in many stages, as Campbell’s Hero’s Journey points to, and regardless of where you find yourself in it, ShapeNA taught us that it’s okay to be where you are. It’s not a competition — if anything, life is a completion of many of these circular journeys — and it’s critically important to jump on every single hoop of this path of uncertainty, to face failure instead of dismissing it, and to acknowledge the role that we have played and continue to play — consciously or unconsciously — through every decision we make, every thought we believe in, every emotion we feel.

There’s a saying that if you fall off a horse, you should jump right back on it to “overcome” this latest difficulty. Interestingly enough, ShapeNA defied this statement : for me, it was about choosing to take a moment to stay on the ground and observe the horse, feel the terrain on which you’ve fallen, reflect on the whys, the hows, and the ifs… and ultimately choose to either get back on the horse or carve your own path — and fly or drive or run or even take a leisurely walk, towards your next step.

It’s tough to acknowledge failure, we all do it and yet why is it such a taboo topic? ShapeNA really drove it home when they taught us to observe the concept of failure in a different light.

One of the highlights of the weekend was a group activity we undertook where blindfolded, we were asked to hold a rope on one hand and make our way around a room, following its route. After several minutes, it became clear to most of us that the rope led to nowhere and simply went round and round and yet, the majority of us persisted in trying to find our way out. Very few of us lifted our hands to ask for help — those that did, were the ones that “found their way out”.

Even when blindfolded, i.e. metaphorically lost, we would rather keep going in circles than take the humbling approach to seek help.What is it about failure that drives us to persist, set in our ways, rather than take the approach of self-reflection and acceptance of help?

As a new Shaper, I signed up to attend ShapeNA because I wanted to get to know this community better — after Sacramento, and all the love and the self-reflection that came out of it, I have no doubt that joining this global community is one of the best things I’ve done for myself and for the people around me. As it turns out, being a global shaper was more than taking on projects to better a community, it was also about finding your place in society, understanding the ins and outs (and the necessity) of internal reflections, and of course, making sure that your actionable items led to sustainable and compassionate impact.

Self-reflection is of course highly personal and the path to it is not something that can be mimicked from one individual to another. But in four days, the Shapers around me really pushed me to think more about my thinking than I have done in a long time. Thinking about thinking … a vastly underestimated deed. I also never thought I’d put optimism side by side with uncertainty and yet after rubbing shoulders with some of the most ambitious and compassionate individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting, they somehow seem to align.

In a world catapulted by ‘fake news’ and distressing breaking calls, the search for optimism can be difficult but I found so much of it in a community that is willing to take four days out of their week to pause, self-reflect, and acknowledge that self-improvement is the first step required in improving any community.

The big take-home from this weekend? Uncertainty is malleable and even if it cannot be controlled, Sacramento hub taught us that it can most definitely be shaped.

[For another narrative on Shape NA 2018, please take a look at Montreal Shaper Miguel Rozo’s detailed account here.]

Prativa Baral, active member of Toronto Hub of the Global Shapers Community since March 2018.

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