Tide-turning

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Still in holiday mode, I thought about a fabulous walk I did last week along the coastal path in Wales. On one side of the headland, you look down the 100-foot drop to the sea below and all is calm and still. A few minutes later, as you reach the other side, the water is very different. A rolling, boiling cauldron of white foam and noise smashing against the dark rocks. The fast-moving tides and currents are treacherous if you don’t know the area.

It occurred to me that these strong forces of nature could be seen as a useful metaphor for what happens during the process of change. Imagine that you decide to make a change in your life. You decide to write or draw or practise an instrument every day. Or change career, or start your own business. Or develop a new strategic direction for your organisation. Whatever the change might be, you consciously begin to imagine how the new ‘you’ would be. You see yourself living differently. You might even plan some steps to get you from where you are now to where you’d like to be. It’s all really vivid and exciting and possible.

At some point however, the tide turns. Suddenly you find the sand is shifting under your feet and pulling you back into your old life. This is your unconscious brain telling you loud and clear that what you want to do is foolhardy, risky and downright dangerous. What Seth Godin calls the “lizard brain” and Daniel Pink describes as the “chimp brain” has listened to all your grand schemes and nodded sagely. Now it leaps into full red alert and, like an Over-Protective Parent, starts telling you all the reasons why it will never work, what will everyone think, you’re not that sort of a person and look at what happened last time you tried some crazy idea like this. The instinctive drive to keep you safe from all harm (and change) is very strong. Only problem is, that same drive can result in fear, anxiety and paralysis.

So you need to reassure the OPP that you can handle this. The way to do it is by proving it through a series of small experiments. As American psychologist and psychotherapist George Kelly argued, we need to act like scientists:

“Both seek to anticipate events. Both have their theories, in terms of which they attempt to structure the current occurrences. Both hypothesize. Both observe. Both reluctantly revise their predictions in the light of what they observe …” (Kelly, 1980)

Kolb’s (1984) learning theory advocates a similar approach. So you might look at making a change in terms of experimenting. You don’t need to make a big, dramatic, overnight change (which will really throw your OPP into disarray). Instead, you can do some tests. How would it be to write for 10 minutes a day at 9.00 am from Monday to Friday? On Saturday, you could observe how that experiment went and revise the next experiment accordingly. Maybe write for 15 minutes if all went well. Maybe write every other day if things didn’t work out.

If it’s a career change you’re after, rather than hand in your resignation on Friday afternoon before you’ve done your homework, you could make your experiment to track down one person to talk to who does the job you want to to do. See what works. In baby steps. After each mini experiment, you learn what you need to do next. And you don’t frighten your lizard brain out of its skin.

Change (like creativity) is a process of persistence and patience and practice. There is nothing magical about it. I think some of the more extreme proponents of the ‘you only have to imagine it and the Universe will leap to deliver it’ are misguided. (I do think that if you are determined and focused, you will notice opportunities you might have missed before.) But the real way to create what you want is by doing, not (over) thinking. And the only difference between you and the people who have already achieved what you want to achieve, is courage. In large dollops. I reckon Picasso had it sussed: “Action is the foundational key to success.”

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