Title: A Failure of Nerve || Author: Edwin H. Friedman || Published: 1999 (Revised 2007, 2017)
Defining the Context: The Fog of Anxiety
We’re all swimming in a fog of anxiety right now. I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to navigate the world amidst the uncertainty, fear, and chaos caused by a global pandemic This book applies to the context we live in; it helps us to navigate the murky waters of the present.
But I don’t want to think about the big picture right now. I want to think about Georgia Tech Football. I was born in 1987. I’ve been a conscious Georgia Tech Football fan since 1990. If ever there was a good case study for an anxious system, it is Georgia Tech football.
Anxiety rose up and reared its ugly ahead during the UGA game in 1997, when we drove a late kickoff out of bounds, made another series of blunders, and let Mike Bobo find Hines Ward for the go-ahead touchdown, securing our seventh straight loss in the series.
Anxiety rose up and paralyzed us in 2003, when we had FSU on the ropes for our first victory over the ‘Noles since they joined the ACC. With thirteen minutes left, we scored a touchdown to make it 12-0. But in our fear and anxiety, we kicked an extra point. Final score: FSU 14, GT 13.
Anxiety rose up again in 2004, after we had fought back from a 16-0 halftime deficit that felt worse than that. It was a one possession game late. We had the best college football wide receiver of the generation. First and Ten from the UGA 21 with 1:24 left. Then this: pass complete to PJ Daniels for no gain, Reggie Ball sacked for an 11 yard loss, pass incomplete across the middle, 4th down pass incomplete into the stands. Remember, Calvin Johnson was on our team.
I could keep going. So let’s apply a serious book to a less serious outlet that we all love.
The Perils of Leadership in a Fog of Anxiety
In the foreword to the book, Peter Steinke sets us on course: “Anxiety and the search for rapid solutions always result in a failure of nerve. Needing to be right, certain, and pain free, we narrow our thinking and put our courage on pause.” In 2008, the hiring of CPJ gave a hint of breaking out of our fog of anxiety. Every aspect of that decision went against the need to be right, certain, and pain free. But the anxiety hadn’t left. Of course, everyone freaked out after the Gardner Webb game, forgetting that we played our fourth string quarterback in that game. I remember sitting in the student section in 2008 during a painful 24-17 loss to UVA listening to brilliant commentary like, “Quit running the ball Paul.”
Literally every loss seemed to bring a chorus of “that’s it, they’ve figured it out,” ignoring that the opposing defense was employing future first round draft picks at defensive tackle or outside linebacker or safety.
But then it felt like even CPJ himself began to give in to the chorus of anxiety, making decisions to please the squeakiest wheels. We started hiring washed up defensive coordinators instead of taking a risk on a young up and coming guy. We tried to run the diamond formation out of the pistol in 2013. If you don’t remember that, you’re lucky. Our fans freaked out after an injury-laden 2015 and began more loudly demanding a change back to something more stable and predictable (hopefully, these same fans remember that the previous head coach beat UGA exactly 0 times).
As Georgia Tech students, alumni, and sidewalk fans, you would think we would be better at navigating this. The engineering core disciplines and related sciences that many of us have spent years of our lives trying to understand should have prepared us better for this challenge of being Tech football fans. Our lives at Tech were not pain free; our senior design projects always included a measure of uncertainty. But when it comes to football, something falls apart. We start catering to the most anxious and loudest members of the group, even if they don’t know what they are talking about. Friedman identifies five aspects of chronic anxiety: “reactivity, herd mentality, blaming, a quick-fix mentality, and lack of leadership.” Sounds like section 106 of BDS@HGF.
Edwin Friedman wants to help us. In the core of the book, he identifies three strategies that won’t work for fixing an anxious system.
Friedman puts it this way: “the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data.” And I thought, yes! That’s why head coaches won’t go for it on fourth down or go for two or any other risky endeavor, even when the spreadsheet says so. Because they’re afraid of criticism from the local paper or getting fired or losing by an extra possession.
We see this when our friends are vehemently opposed to the triple option even when we show them FEI or SP+ data that shows us having a top 30 or top 15 or top 5 offensive performance in a given year. I don’t know how many times I had to say over CPJ’s decade that “the offense isn’t the problem.” But for the risk-averse, no amount of data will convince them.
Friedman identifies that “acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” We should hang a banner that says that on the Wardlaw building. Data can help us when we acknowledge uncertainty; it can’t help us when we think we’re omniscient.
In my personal life and in my professional life, empathy is a valuable currency. But I agree with Friedman that on its own, it can’t fix an anxious system. When empathy enters an anxious system, Friedman identifies that it is often turned “into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for the failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive.’”
Here’s how that plays out with your GT football friend: he insists that we get rid of CPJ and you try to understand where he is coming from, but he can offer no possible better option of who we should hire. When empathy turns into a failure to encourage others to take responsibility, ti only exacerbates the anxiety already present. Here’s the takeaway: stop listening to your friends complain about GT Football who have no proposed solutions. Just stop. It’ll be better for you and better for them. You know who needs to be out of the group text. Just do it.
Pathologizing of Self
The pathologizing of self happens when we refuse to stand out from the group. It happens when we go with the anxious flow, believing we don’t have anything better to offer. In contrast, as Friedman observes, “The well-differentiated member of the institution will probably always have to be the one to take the initiative to enhance the functioning of the togetherness.” That is, well-differentiated GT Football fan will be the one to take a stand in an intense emotional system and to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of ridiculous text messages.
Take a stand. When the guy in your season ticket group starts freaking out about benching a true freshman quarterback after one interception this year, gently let him know that he is being reactive and unhelpful. Don’t forget that you have something to offer the anxious crowd around you.
Leading through the Fog of Anxiety
Friedman wants to leave us better equipped to lead through the fog of anxiety. Here’s what to look out for as we (hopefully) approach the 2020 GT Football season:
- Fans and offensive coordinator alike are going to be tempted once again to believe that the backup quarterback is better. Let’s pick someone, stick to it, and support that decision.
- If we end up 4-8 this year (with an insanely hard schedule), you’re going to have a friend who just can’t believe it; we signed the 26th ranked recruiting class this year! I thought things were going to be different! You probably don’t want to watch games with this friend.
- If we somehow go 6-6 because of some close game luck, you’re also going to have a friend who somehow insists this is more impressive than anything CPJ ever did. You don’t want to watch games with this friend either.
- This year and this decade, there will be magical GT football moments, and there will be brutally painful ones. Friedman’s closing appeal to us is to find a way “to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously” in the midst of the anxious fog. What does that mean? Don’t over-react to the ups or downs; don’t be afraid to stand out from the opinions of your friends; and above all, just enjoy it. It’s great to be a Yellow Jacket.