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To everything there is a season (turn turn turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes)

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

It’s mid-January, which means that many in academia have recently returned to the classroom for the spring semester (a ridiculous misnomer for those in climates like mine where the temperature is predicted to hit 24 below zero next week). Those at institutions that run on the quarter system or that have a one-month winter session have likely been back at it for a couple of weeks already. Even so, it’s only January, and I suspect that many of us are still working to get our 2019 bearings.

Or maybe that’s just me? I have to admit that I’ve never done well with transitions. Oddly, even moving from something undesirable to something wonderful can be challenging for me. I easily get stuck in what I’m doing, possibly because I sometimes have the ability to be focused and determined (generally a good thing) and possibly because I find it impossible to leave well enough alone (not as good a thing… see my earlier post on maximizing).

I actually think that there’s more to my “stickiness” than either of these explanations suggests, though. In particular, I suspect that fear of the unknown keeps me stuck more often than I realize. Let’s face it, even when our current circumstances are less than ideal, they’re known, maybe even strangely comfortable… we’re managing somehow, and that gives us confidence that we can continue to do so in the future. In contrast, the thought of deviating from our current path brings to mind all of the bad things that might happen, and for some reason these feel much worse than the certain but familiar bad thing we’re smack dab in the middle of. Interestingly, research seems to back up this idea that people dislike uncertainty more than the actual negative outcome itself. (For a couple of examples, see here and here.)

A wise friend once compared this phenomenon to sitting on a stool covered in broken glass. Sure, it hurts, but if you stay perfectly still, you can tolerate the pain. And though you realize that things would be much better if you got up off the stool, you know that it’s going to hurt like some unknown hell to get there. Ah, transitions.

Which makes me wonder… Where is “there” for you? Is it a saner pace? A new research agenda? Stronger relationships? And what’s keeping you from getting up off the stool? In addition to fear, the shattered glass can take many forms, including everyone’s favorite scapegoat: lack of time. We often believe that we don’t have time to do the things we really want to do or to make the changes we desire. And we’re probably right. Time is a scarce and precious resource. Still, I assert with the utmost respect (and as someone who “didn’t have time” to eat lunch or go to the bathroom most days at work) that lack of time is not a real excuse. If a pipe in your house were to burst and start spraying water everywhere, you’d find a way to deal with it whether you had time or not. If your closest friend were rushed to the hospital, you’d make time to visit or at least call. No matter how horribly constraining it feels (and believe me, I know that it does), time—or lack thereof— isn’t the culprit here. So what is? Lack of knowledge as to what step to take next? Could be. Lack of help or support? Also a definite possibility. I’m sure you can come up with others.

Oddly, I’ve found that even when none of these excuses seem to apply, I can still experience a major disconnect between what I claim I want to do (e.g., eat vegetables) and what I actually end up doing (e.g., eating cake). When this happens repeatedly, it’s likely that I’ve bumped up against what Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call “competing commitments.” These hidden, largely subconscious goals compete with our stated commitments and limit our ability to make the changes we desire. They often show up as behaviors that directly undermine our conscious goals and generally stem from some underlying belief that holds us back (what Kegan and Lahey call the “big assumption”).

Suppose, for example, that you’ve made a commitment to meditate regularly (your stated commitment), but every time you sit down to do it you get sucked into helping a friend, family member, or neighbor with one thing or another (the undermining behavior). What might be going on here? We can start by looking for the competing commitment and the associated big assumption. Maybe you are committed to putting everyone else first (the competing commitment) because you believe that people will think you’re selfish and reject you if you focus on yourself (the big assumption). Or perhaps you are committed to doing something at every moment (the competing commitment) because you believe that your value as a person is established only by your actions not by your mere existence (the big assumption). Or maybe it’s something else. In any case, the first step is to identify the competing commitment and big assumption that are getting in your way.

Once you’ve hit upon the big assumption (what I’d call a “limiting belief”), you can begin to investigate. Is this belief really true? If so, is it true 100% of the time, under every possible set of circumstances? Positive psychologist Martin Seligman refers to this process as “disputation.” We might look for evidence that contradicts the belief or consider alternative points of view. We might also ask ourselves if the belief is helpful, whether it’s accurate or not. For example, what do we experience when we’re in the grips of this limiting belief? Once we’ve become aware of the big assumption and its effect on us, we can play with shifting our perspective. We might just wiggle it a little, softening the limiting belief slightly. Or maybe we choose to release the limiting belief entirely (which typically takes time and patience). Even if we aren’t ready to let go of the big assumption, simply becoming aware of it puts us in a much better position to accomplish both the stated and competing commitments without one interfering with the other.

In the end, I guess it all boils down to this: Transitions and change can be hard. Thoughtful reflection, along with courage, patience, and support can help. And one more thing to consider... Sometimes it isn’t fear or limiting beliefs that hold us back. Sometimes the problem is simply that we’re trying to do too much and we’re exhausted. Overwhelmed. We can’t possibly do our best work. If this feels familiar, why not heed the advice you’d give a friend? Slow down. Rest. Take a break. Spend time discerning whether the things you want to accomplish stem from your sincere desires or from some internalized societal expectation of what you should do.

Speaking of which, I'll leave you with what may be familiar words of wisdom from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died last week at 83:

The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

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