Why “It Is What It Is” is a Stupid Phrase

It’s Baghdad, 2007. I’m a company commander deploying to a contentious area during the height of The Surge. As my unit starts to shadow the unit we’re replacing, and I spend time with my counterpart and his battalion’s staff, I begin to hear a new phrase pop up:  “It is what it is.

I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but I heard that response from numerous members of the unit, and applied to all types of discussion topics. My buddies and boss picked up on it, too. I heard “It is what it is” so much that I began to think it was an approved mentality of the unit, a sanctioned mindset.

It Is What It Is

Warrior Diplomat Soldiers from 85th Civil Affairs Brigade use teamwork to negotiate obstacles at the Leaders Reaction Course on Fort Hood, Tx., Oct. 9, 2014. Link to photo

Well, my observation was incontrovertibly validated the moment I heard the unit’s battalion commander speak. He led a handover brief to us that covered the major events and efforts of his unit’s tour, and I heard “It is what it is” more times than I can count. “The Iraqi Army unit you’re partnering with can’t show up to an operation on time, but it is what it is.” “We’ve got a really small post here, so parking will be tight. It is what it is.” “We took a lot of casualties in this area, so you should be prepared for that. It is what it is.”

He used the phrase to explain (or rather, excuse) action and inaction, misfortune and blessing, success and failure. And as I alluded, the phrase had evolved from words to mindset and permeated the command climate in the unit. Ever since that interaction in 2007, I’ve been passively tuned-in for the phrase and have heard it several times each year in follow-on assignments.

Why It’s Stupid

The problem with “It is what it is” is that it abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat. A leader who says “It is what it is” is a leader who faced a challenge, couldn’t overcome it, and explained away the episode as an inevitable, unavoidable force of nature (“We are at the mercy of the gods”). Replace “It is what it is” with “This resulted because I failed to do ____” and you get an entirely different discussion.

The phrase is stupid enough when rationalizing insufficient performance, but it’s especially damaging when “It is what it is” is used in framing a response to a problem. “Well, that route to the objective is blocked. Guess we can’t use it. It is what it is.” We need indirect fire support, but the terrain here is too uneven to place the guns. It is what it is.” “Those new IEDs are cutting through are vehicles pretty badly but we’re still waiting for the up-armored packages to arrive. It is what it is.”

“It is what it is” is an admission that the problem is too hard and suppresses the attitude that leads to creative, unseen solutions. Even if a leader had racked his brain and combed his own experience for a solution to the challenge, yet can’t find one…he should realize that his unit’s people contain a wealth of unique experiences and perspectives to contribute. “It is what it is” negates their value. It says “We can’t”, which is the antithesis of everything we espouse to make our military capable and lethal.

I was listening to an EntreLeadership podcast interview with Sebastian Bailey that brought home the point. He said if you show people the shape of a square and ask them what it is, they invariably answer “square.” But, if you instead ask them what it could be, then a world of possibilities emerge. The frame of a house. A baseball diamond. A graduation cap. The new question (which originated from a mindset of possibility rather than defeat) reframes the mind to look for solutions without boundaries, exactly the type of thinking we want our leaders to demonstrate.


While you’ll never hear me use the phrase “It is what it is”, there is value in maintaining a portion of your attitude that is stoic in nature. Know what you can control and what you can’t control. And the first thing to accept that you can’t control is the past. Shooting schools teach a principle:  “Once the bullet leaves the barrel, it’s gone. You can do nothing more to affect where it goes. So, let it go and focus on perfecting the next shot.”

It’s the same with life and leadership. Don’t dwell on what’s happened. Take responsibility, learn the appropriate lessons, and get moving to the next objective. Doing otherwise is a distraction.

Similarly, don’t waste your time trying to change something that won’t help you achieve your mission or stated priorities. Allocate your effort appropriately, not in crusades that leave your people worse off. For example, “It is what it is” says there’s no way that you can get the President to speak at your battalion ball, but you spend personal and organizational time and energy trying to make it happen. Meanwhile, your unit fails to prepare for the upcoming training center rotation and falls flat on its face. Not cool. Better to have spent that creative energy on finding unique ways to make your unit lethal.

Bottom Line

Followers take cues from their leaders. Leaders who adopt the “It is what it is” attitude demonstrate two qualities to their people:  they won’t accept responsibility for what has happened and they won’t get creative in shaping what will happen. That’s not the kind of leader that made our military successful.

Questions for Leaders

  • What areas have you inadvertently abdicated responsibility for and what should you do to show your people you own what happened?
  • How could you adjust your approach to problem solving to maximize the talents of your organization?
  • Do you waste time and energy on efforts that don’t facilitate the primary mission?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Whether or not you say the phrase…what’s most important is something I think commenters below are alluding to: it is CRUCIAL that leaders recognize what terrain they’re fighting on and (as Max Depree said) define that reality for the team. The leader’s mental map must match reality, or he/she will lead the team astray. If “It is what it is” helps leaders do that, then so be it. The failure occurs when leaders use the phrase to justify inaction.

    The decisive point of the discussion is what happens AFTER leaders identify the situation they face. An irrecoverable in-flight emergency, stage 4 cancer, disastrous weather…these are all horrible situations, but whether an individual chooses to surrender, fight, or simply make the best of the time left is an indicator of that person’s character. I wrote this post to encourage people to take charge of the situations they can influence and make the best impact they can in situations they can’t. Hopefully that message comes through.

  • Dell Wilber

    The author of this piece obviously has never been in a precarious position, not of his own choosing, with limited resources and not much time to “get it done”. In those situations “it is, what it is” is perfectly acceptable, because you have no other choice. Think of “situational awareness”. You’re in an airplane with two engines out, you’re on fire and looking for a safe place to land and there is none. So, you think uttering, “it is, what it is” is a stupid idea? You only have so much time to make a decision, before the airplane, God, or gravity are going to take over. So-called “military leaders” who write this kind of tripe, really need to re-think their content before putting fingers on keyboard.

  • Yann Galtski

    As a mercenary charter pilot and consumer of government services in the form of civilian and military airport security misapplied to Alaska’s third-world infrastructure, I find the phrase “It is what it is” to be useful for morale. When forcefully compelled to observe sporadically enforced controlled entry points and pretend security exists on one corner of an airport, while caribou, and atvs roam the unsecured runway environment, for example, it is what it is. “Got a badge? Let me see it, and detain you. No badge? You’re free to go about your business, citizen.” Idiots rule. “It is what it is” is my way of turning disillusionment into a punchline, and salvaging a scrap of human dignity for myself and my coworkers when dealing with authoritarian b.s. and imposters. Flying a 2-star ACE General and his entourage into ADAK, I had to jump a razorwire fence to let them into the semi-abandoned terminal since the airport-side is kept locked while the street side is always open so the foxes can get out. When all seven of us got locked between a set of glass double-doors arriving 1700 at Valdez terminal for want of an unlisted keypad code, and the ERA gate agents just looked at us, closed up, and went home, I confided in the General what I suspected his staff was afraid to say: “General, I’m afraid the terrorists have won.” He maintained a stiff upper lip, however.

  • Madison

    I haven’t been able to stand this phrase since the beginning of my personal military journey. I don’t like how it allows people to abdicate responsibility for creative problem solving.

    Though I WILL say my frustration with this mentality did actually help me on a personal level. During training, I sucked at PT. A cadre member said something along the lines of “you’re a larger-bodied woman. It’s always going to be difficult for you. It is what it is.”

    Screw that. I got fitter and ran faster. I solved the problem when I was unwilling to accept mediocrity.

    • Nice! I like your response. Sometimes we need a dead-end to see that there’s actually another way around. Or…you just get so mad at people’s ignorance that you become obsessed with proving them wrong. Either way works, I think.

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  • Nate

    I just came across this article and I couldn’t agree more with your position. This phrase has driven me crazy for the past few years but for different reasons than you point out. I most frequently encounter this phrase when speaking to people who tend to absorb the idiosyncrasies of those around them rather than speaking in their own way. So I could say that if you took my observation and applied it to your logic, this phrase easily identifies people who lack leadership skills.

    • Terri

      What about people with disabilities or life threatening illnesses? How does that apply to lack of leadership skills? The circumstances are what they are. You deal with it the best you know how and move forward. “It is what it is” does not always imply acceptance of the situation or complantence. Cancer is what it is. I did not ask for it but I certainly did not sit back and let it control my life. Losing your hair to chemo….it is what it is. Does lack of leadership cause that?

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  • Matt K

    Thank you very much for writing this. I nearly cried after realizing that your message is what people have been telling me when I failed to get my bachelor’s degree in engineering and do the projects I always wanted to do.

    • Thanks for commenting, Matt. Glad the post resonated with you. Engineering was my nemesis in school!

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  • Kevin

    it is what it is
    (literally sometimes philosophical) This thing has its own distinct nature; this thing is itself.  [quotations ▼]
    (idiomatic) This circumstance is simply a fact and must be accepted or dealt with as it exists.  [quotations ▼]
    (This circumstance is simply a fact and must be accepted): so be it, that’s life

    • Terri

      Thank you. Cancer…”This circumstance is simply a fact and must be accepted or dealt with as it exists.”

  • Kevin

    It is what it is!

  • Reco

    Thank you for finally putting a specific definition on this. I hate the phrase too and I’ve printed it out. It’s up there with my top pet peeve phrase: “Let’s just agree to disagree”!

  • Don

    One hundred precent agree. I hate the phrase and urge others not to use it.


  • Paul Terranova

    SOLID post.

    • Thanks, Paul! Appreciate the feedback!
      Have you come across this mentality in your circles?