Our author today was such a pleasure to talk to, and his topic is one we can all relate to, but especially if you’re on the younger side. We live in a world that feels increasingly volatile and certain complex and ambiguous. For young people, this sense of unease that the world creates comes with some serious difficulties. Many are asking how can we lead, grow, and thrive in today’s world?
Kayvan Kian is here with us today, the author off What Is Water? and he’ll tell us the significance about that title in our chat. His book is amazing. It shifts the focus away from this overwhelm and towards the ways of thinking that will help you grow stronger through it all. My favorite part about this book is that he draws on everything from ancient stoic philosophy to contemporary examples. There are some references in here that I’m just absolutely in love with, and it is also relevant.
Kayvan Kian: Well, first of all, I think it started with myself, it wasn’t necessarily about the sharing with the world. When I first became project leader, I noticed all the challenges that I dealt with on a day to day basis leading teams, working with clients, and a changing environment.
I went to a high school where we were taught Latin and Greek, after all those years, I realized, “Okay, wow, there was some wisdom in those texts that I can use.” But I mainly also noticed that many of the clients I was working with, they were personally also struggling. So hey, I was not the only one. We came with small groups together and we shared what helps you, how do you deal with all the changes and the uncertainties in small sessions without PowerPoint, without any gimmicks or technical fancy things.
That again turned into a program where many other people would attend. A few years ago, the thought that this is very valuable for me personally, it’s valuable for many of the clients I worked with, but how can we make this content accessible to all the young leaders out there who we’ll probably never meet. It’s very nice for them to also get a glimpse of all these tools that they could apply and maybe help them as well.
The Young Leader’s Struggle
Rae Williams: What do you think is some of the reasoning behind the volatility and the uncertainness and all of those feelings that we feel, especially as young leaders?
Kayvan Kian: In a way, you could argue that volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, what we call VUCA has always been a part of life. If you go back to Buddhists, they would not call it VUCA, they would call it something like Dukkha.
Now, at the same time, you could also argue that certain times have felt more VUCA than others. On one hand, it could be that you are more exposed to everything that’s happening, but at the same time, with technology, there are many more things connected to many more things.
We are doing a lot as mankind, and it all is coming together. So, it is a sense of a lot is happening and people are exposed to it. Not only on a global scale, but also in daily life and projects, how I look at my clients, what the challenges they have to deal with.
Even when I joined the working, we didn’t have smart phones back then, already the introduction of smart phones was a big thing. Now, things are becoming more international. The reasons are you could argue, very broad. But the book and the program is very much about how do you deal with it? If on top of that, you want to change that context, of course, you can go for it, but step one is how you even thrive in such an environment in the first place?
Rae Williams: Why did you decide to name this book the way that you named it?
Kayvan Kian: It refers to, first of all, many stories that have been told in the past that the most recent and famous one is when David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech talks about two fish swimming in the water, and an older and wiser fish swims by. Asked them, “Good morning, how’s the water?” Then, one of the fish looks a bit puzzled at the other one and asks, “What is water?”
Now, the point is that A, when it comes to leaders, a big part of what is helpful is becoming more aware of the water that you’re swimming in, what is this environment?
If it’s tough then it’s good to know that, it’s nothing that has to do with you, it is the challenging environment itself. But it’s also awareness about yourself.
Who am I, swimming, leading in this water? And who are these others that I’m leading in this process?
The book is also very much focused on creating awareness. It’s not about what you should do as we shared at the beginning, it’s about what you could do. Based on that, you decide what you want to do.
What You’ll Get from Kayvan’s Book
Rae Williams: What do you say is the unique idea or story from within the book that people will remember and be able to take action on this week?
Kayvan Kian: I think there are many stories from the ancient Romans and Greeks that are weaved in, but also very practical ones about someone who is writing a wedding speech and is very happy and proud, and then gets the feedback that his uncle did not like it.
The one thing at the core of this book that we borrowed from Epictetus is very much just radical focus on what you can control. And this is a phrase that sounds simple, but in practice, takes a lot of effort and wisdom to figure out for yourself—what is it at any given moment of time that is within control and what is out?
We take this basic lens, and we apply it to a lot of themes that are important to be able to thrive in life: positive and negative emotions when it comes to strength and weaknesses to the relationship between you and others. A sense of meaning and a sense of starting things and finishing things.
In each theme, we purely focus on those things that are within your control. Each person takes I think something else out of it.
Rae Williams: Why does this actually matter for our listeners and your readers and young people? What happens if we don’t do anything with this information?
Kayvan Kian: I think the best answer comes from David Foster Wallace in that same commencement speech where at the beginning, he also shares that being conscious and aware of enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed, and this resonates with many.
If everything is going well for you, then you have confidence about the years ahead, how you’re going to lead, then this book is not for you.
But from my own experience, having worked in North America, Europe, all the way to Australia and New Zealand, working with young leaders from the public sector, social sector, private sector, every single thing that they can learn and do to thrive to this challenging times is of necessity almost: not a “nice to have,” but something that without it, one is totally hosed.
Lessons in What Is Water
Rae Williams: Tell us about a couple of people who have gotten the most out of these ideas and these stories.
Kayvan Kian: Indeed, the book starts with—this book contains exactly zero new ideas. So that is out of the way, but all that remains if I look, it’s very broad. I have people who say that they were having a very tough times leaving without formal authority. They are not able to tell people what they should do, and all of a sudden in the book they realize that creating a sense of meaning for people who might be working on the same thing for different reasons is something that is within their control, empathizing with the challenges that others are facing.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them, but you do understand where they are coming from, and with a few very practical applications, they were able to get many people on board for an initiative that they started as a young leader. On one hand, on the professional setting, but I also got a lot of stories back from people who said,
“This helped me at work, but it equally helped me at home. And before I go home, I used to always come maybe stressed or I would bring a lot of negativity with me. Before I walk in the door, I know do what we call clearing out the noise. I know how to do that.
“I focus on the things that I am grateful for. I realize better what a unique position I am in, and the way I show up at home is so much better.”
People asking them what has happened. The same person, same job, same everything, but it is a different way of thinking about what is going on in your life. So, it is very broad.
Lessons in Myths
Rae Williams: I know you mentioned it in school, it was taught to you, but what do you think we can specifically learn from a lot of these stories and what value do you find with these?
Kayvan Kian: There is a lot of symbolism when it comes to these old stories. And the fact that after thousands of years they still fascinate us, there is something about it that is almost difficult to put into words that’s why just sharing the story by itself often says enough without any extra interpretation.
They boil things very much down to the essence, and for me, it’s these specific phrases that very much stick. So, when it comes to old stories, I would look at the mythology and old stories that are passed on.
It is these specific phrases, so for instance with a man called Agrippinus, how calm he was and how he would deal with bad news. His life motto really translated to, “I do not add to my troubles.”
That will be how it would happen in the afternoon, will happen in the afternoon, but I refuse with my own two hands to add anything on top of it. So who is up for some nice exercise or elsewhere? And it’s this phrase, “I do not add to my troubles,” that I noticed for myself and many clients and people I work with, sticks.
And then a year later when we see each other, it is the phrase that people will bring back again. And the same goes for many of the other stories and somehow, yeah, it’s this deep symbolism and phrases that have been filtered overtime that the people really gain value of.
Exercises in What Is Water
Rae Williams: What would you say is your favorite exercise in the book or the exercise that you find that people would get the most value out of?
Kayvan Kian: I would say I really enjoyed many of these exercises, and just because they’re in the book and I have done them many times doesn’t mean that I am done with them.
I have a few that I focus on more. I would say one of them if I would pick two, I would say one of them is about the very beginning called Your Favorite Things, and as simple as it sounds, it is very much about what are the favorite things that you’d like to experience at work and in daily life.
And all the business, I could leave that up to chance, but you can actually find ways to incorporate them, and just because I like something doesn’t mean someone else does. So, what are the favorite things of the five people you work with? What is a way that I would say is a fun way to celebrate? That could mean something else for someone else again. So, it is this idea of what are your favorite things, I like a lot. Very simple exercise.
The other one that is the most helpful for myself in all of these, and I practice it daily, is the exercise around meaning. Having that sense of meaning, not because you decide to do something different in that moment, but given what you are doing anyway, how can you turn on the lights and see what you are contributing to? So that you can say that which I am doing is contributing to something larger.
This could be for the people that you care for. This could be for the organization you work for. This could be for society, because it is quite easy to lose sight of that when you are completely into the nitty-gritty work. It could be something around your administration, it could be around a presentation that you are creating. It could be around anything that you are doing that might help make you lose sight of that bigger piece that you are contributing to, and when that might not even be that evident that you are contributing to something outside of you.
The exercise is very much around, “Well, what virtue is this contributing to? How are you building your own character?” You are standing in line or you are doing things that you’d rather not do, well maybe you are practicing patience? For when is the only moment you can practice patience when you really don’t want to. Just like you can only practice courage in the face of real fear.
And this thought around meaning about how can you turn every single moment into something that is contributing to something of value to you has been tremendously of help for me, but many young leaders I have seen and work with to make sure that independent of what’s happening where they are, how they are, they have a strong sense of why that, as Nietzche would say, helps them bear almost anyhow.
A Challenge from Kayvan Kian
Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to people reading your book, what would your challenge be?
Kayvan Kian: I would say, take this very basic lens in the context of that VUCA word, of a radical focus on what you can control, and really apply it to one aspect or all aspects of your life that you find important. How much of your heart, energy, time and effort are you indeed investing in those things that are within your control.
That is a very simple exercise, a very simple lens, a very simple thought experiment that is quite to say it again, always within your control, but play with that.
That would be the challenge. You could do this while hanging at work, while you are commuting, it could be at home, at any given moment at time, what is within my control and how can I focus my attention on that in making the most out of it for myself and the people I care for, for my community and beyond?
Rae Williams: How can people contact you if they want to learn more?
Kayvan Kian: People could follow me on social media, on LinkedIn for instance and personally, I am always very open to emails as well.
So, if anybody wants to send a message, if they have questions around the book or anything else, I am very open to that as well.