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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

"It is what it is": Misleading and maltraining the mind

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Several years ago, I worked at a toxic company. My boss, himself not a toxic guy, frequently said, "It is what it is." 

I strongly dislike the underlying implication. When my boss said "it is what it is," he seemed to be saying, "I acknowledge it's not the ideal situation, but there's nothing we can do about. We'll just have to suffer through it. Now put your head down and be quiet about it." 

That attitude is at best uninspiring, at worst psychologically damaging, and just lazy all the way around. 

Are there forces and situations that are truly out of your control? Yes. And in this cases, the statement "it is what it is" and its implicit corollary "there's nothing we can do; let's suffer through it" is actually oddly empowering because it puts the focus on your ability to bear with difficulty. 

But most of the times my boss said this, my impression was that wasn't the case. He would say it not to buoy up his team but to dismiss a bad or poorly-communicated decision by top leadership. 

That method of managing the emotions of the people under you just really chars my cheese. I'm all about taking non-ideal marching orders when needed. But to resign yourself to them (and to tell others to do the same) without firm attempts to improve, or at least more clearly understand, them is a form of emotional death. 

The right response, I believe, is to pitch a better decision to leadership. Then if they stick with the original direction, and you can see that the decision is not up for further debate, you can say, "I did my best. Now it's time to do the best I can within this situation." 

This may seem identical to "it is what it is." It may seem like "just semantics." It is just semantics, but semantics matters in self-talk and manager talk. The phrases we say and think become the scaffolding for our thoughts, our thoughts shape our worldview, our worldview limits or liberates our actions, and our actions change our and others' reality. It is in everyone's best interest to refrain from (and ultimately retire) statements that influence us to assume that we can't do anything about things we actually can do something about. It trains our minds to see ourselves as ineffectual, with no power to make positive changes in the world. It trains us to become passive, reactive objects instead of the active subjects we inherently are. 

The difference here is whether there really is nothing—literally nothing—you can do to improve the situation. Most of the time, there is something. But even if there is truly nothing to be done, you can't truly know that until you have tried every conceivable possibility over and over and all of them have failed. "It is what it is" is, or should be, a last ditch attitude. A stoic tool for when a situation really is that grim. 

Of course, I could be wrong on this (the more I learn about stoicism, the more intriguing and resonant it appears), but this is my view at the moment. 

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