Being Strong in Strong Situations
Having agency even when your choices aren't fully your own
At my undergraduate institution (one of the three big U.S. military academies), every cadet was required to take a class called “The Behavioral Science of Leadership”. In this class we discussed something called strong situations. Strong situations are environments in which a person’s options become limited and there is a lot of external pressure to behave in a certain way or to do certain things. Things that they wouldn’t normally do if left to their own devices. This sounds bad. No one wants to think that their actions are out of their control. I certainly don’t.
And yet, strangely, sometimes it is in strong situations where we are actually making the decisions we want to make. Sometimes we purposefully put ourselves in strong situations so that we can rid ourselves of choices we don’t want to make. Sometimes strong situations encourage us to become who we want to become. Unless I am feeling especially passionate about something, I probably won’t stay up until the early morning hours working on it. I may instead think, as I do about so many things, “ah, that’d be a cool thing to do if I had the time”. Being at MIT forces me to make time and to become a person capable of doing those things.
Some of the coolest strong situations are those that will help you overcome fear or uncertainty or lack of confidence. For instance, when I agree to go up in a plane that I’m supposed to jump out of (with a parachute, of course), and everyone else on that plane is counting on me to do so (if you don’t jump they have to land the plane), I have raised the stakes of backing out. So I will jump out of that plane. All other options have become much less attractive. At MIT, when I first look over a challenging problem set, my reflexes try to steer me clear of attacking problems that I have no grounding in. But with deadlines looming and expectations from professors, TAs, family, administrators, and peers for quality work, I force myself to imagine that I can understand enough to reach the solutions. So I do (and you can too, because I am nothing special). And that, for me, is a very powerful, even if somewhat painful, experience.
In those examples, the limitations in choice were good, and something I reluctantly desired. But it seems that more frequently the limitations of a strong situation actually stall or slow progress towards personal goals. How can I still have agency when the options I have are all at various odds with me? Although I chose to pursue a master’s at MIT to improve my credibility, being at MIT requires effort that limits my progress towards some of my other goals. One of my biggest conflicts was continuing to fight my introversion so I can stop adding to the cultural feeling that “the-world-is-too-big-for-you-to-matter.” Having been there, I don’t want to feed that sentiment, but when I am walking home from class exhausted, I rarely have bandwidth to be pleasant to the people I pass on the street, and often ignore those who seek, or even need, interaction.
But there is hope! After months of feeling conflicted, I found that instead of giving up on one goal or the other, I needed to be unlimited in interpretation despite being limited in choice. I reinterpreted my strong situation for what it was: something stronger than the me I was, but not necessarily the me I was going to be. My progress might not have been as great as I wanted. But, once I became aware of the pressure to be ambivalent, each interaction became an exercise in learning to be kind. I knew that if I could figure out the extra effort required in this strong situation, then I could apply it in any situation. This motivated me to tackle the challenge, one tiny step at a time.
Staying in a strong situation can be hard — especially on the days when you feel like a machine running from one point to the next, trying your best to get everything done without collapsing. In my example, I trust that my self-from-the-past was looking out for my best interest when she selected MIT as a place that would force present-me to develop the skills that she wanted to develop. Although the mountain looks a lot bigger up close, at some point, I knew that I could do it, even before I learned any of the new skills at MIT. And you-from-the-past believed in you too. Even before you made a decision you must have felt the possibility.
Leaving a strong situation can be hard, too. Among other obstacles, the expectations of the people around you and the expectations you have for yourself limit your ability to leave. It’s important to remember that if things are getting out of hand, there are always other ways for you to achieve your goals. You are not trapped, even if fit feels that way.
Back in undergrad, when life was much harder, I would tell myself, “never regret anything, because at one point, it was exactly what you wanted”. I’m certain that there are exceptions to that rule, but when it comes to some of the challenges I have faced and face today, this little statement helps me remember that I do not need to blame myself for putting myself in strong situations. There is probably much that I intended to learn. By reflecting back on that, I can identify the strong situations I’m in and why I feel like my agency is limited. Can I still achieve my goals? Can I gain things from this experience that I didn’t even consider before? Am I making the choices I wanted myself to make? Am I braver? Stronger? More accomplished? By continually asking myself these questions I find that I can learn even more from my experiences and find personal solace in knowing that I am in the place I am at for a reason, as well as recognize when it’s time to leave, if necessary.
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