Two days ago we had an eleven hour drive followed by a two hour ferry trip and another hour in the car. There were four of us – my wife Kendra, her parents and I. Yes indeed a road trip with the in laws! Apparently this was the source of some humor at our weekly management meeting at work.
So let’s get that gossip out of the way! I love my in-laws and the road trip was great! To top it off, we had some good conversation that was the seed for this post. Ed and Eleanor are in their 80’s and have been married 59 years (!!!). They have lived in the same house for most of those years and are starting to think about when it might be time to move on from that home to somewhere that is less work.
The conversation turned to the difficulty associated with moving on from a house with 60 years of accumulation. While we were discussing accumulated “stuff” in this case, there was also an undercurrent of the accumulated memories and experiences that are also there. Kendra and I could relate to this entirely as we contemplate entering retirement and moving more than 1000 kilometers from our current home, our children, granddaughter and friends. We also have both types of accumulation – physical “stuff” and emotional “stuff”.
It struck me that this is symptomatic of most of the transitions we go through in life, whether physical or in the internal realm. When we think of moving on in life from a chapter of our life that no longer serves us, it is often the clutter of accumulated habits, memories, attachments and/or emotions that makes it difficult. This could even be true of more common life events such as a change of jobs, a promotion, getting married, getting divorced, arrival of children, etc. As we shift from one state to the next, there is likely an accumulation in the current state that needs to be dealt with in order to successfully transition to the new state.
For example, a promotion may take us from an individual performer role to a leadership role. We are excited to make the leap as it signals progress to us and success to others around us. However we may not settle into this role easily as we are burdened by the accumulations of our successes as an individual performer. We were likely someone counted on heavily to perform tasks directly and we learned to value ourselves in that way. As a leader, we need to find new ways both to create value and to value ourselves. All while doing less hands on work.
Entering a committed relationship is similar. We need to move on from our patterns as a single person and create new habits that embrace the needs and wants of both parties, not just our own.
So what can we do to help us navigate the process of shedding our accumulated “stuff”? I’m part of a group called the Next Chapter Associates where we are working on programming to help people make transitions between chapters in our lives. A part of our model speaks of four steps in dealing with the accumulation. I’d like to use my in-laws physical accumulation of stuff as a metaphor to describe the process.
- Hold On – as we contemplate a move to a new residence, we face our accumulation. As we start to make decisions, we identify things that we definitely need to bring along with us. These might be new and very useful objects, they might be rich in memories and past experiences or they may be highly valuable things that make no sense to leave behind. So we first set these aside. We make sure we have room for them in our new surroundings as we want a comfortable base for our future. In a life transition, we do the same thing. We first look to our experiences for what will be fundamental moving forward. When in a change at work, we may identify the types of work that give us inner energy. We may look to certain values and insist that no matter what the job change we will not compromise them. Perhaps we look outside of work to our family and commit that no matter what happens, work/life balance has to remain.
- Let Go – where hold on is comfortable and positive, let go can be very uncomfortable. At this point, we are looking at the stuff that didn’t qualify as “hold on” stuff yet we are struggling with getting rid of it. No matter what the means of disposal it doesn’t feel good to let go of it. The inner rationalization starts to flow. “That’s still in good shape!” “What if I need that again?” That belonged to my dad and I’d feel bad if I got rid of it.” It’s the same with change in our emotional world too. Back to that shift to a leadership role, we might feel like we got promoted because we were good at getting things done so it’s tough to let go of that. We might like the certainty of giving answers to people instead of the uncertain results associated with asking questions to coach team members looking for solutions. The trick here is to listen to those same internal conversations. What are our inner critics trying to tell us? Things like: “You are responsibe for this so do it yourself.” “What if they don’t get the right answer?” “If you stop doing real work, people won’t see any value in you anymore!” Most of what we need to let go of will be found in the untruths of some of these thoughts. They aren’t malicious or crazy – it’s more about our instincts trying to preserve the status quo. We already know how to be who we are right now, and that feels safer than moving on to something new.
- Take On – the reason we want to let go of some of our old “stuff” is so that we can make room for something new. Think of that – it’s exciting! We look forward to new things, new, new experiences. These are the fruits of our dreams that we look to bring into our lives. Same thing happens in with changes in our lives … we really start to look forward to what is coming and we prepare for it through training, practice, investing increased energy, etc. But we have to make room for the new by clearing out the old. The process can be iterative. We see what we need to let go of and we let go of a little. We start to take on the new and we realize that we still have too much of the old. We begin to feel overloaded with “stuff” and it begins to drag us down, so we have to go back and let go of some more. Sound familiar?
- Move On – when we feel like we are ready to move on, this really might be an indication that we have the hold on, let go and take on steps pretty much right. In the case of my in-laws, they might find that they have just enough of their old “stuff” to make their new life comfortable, and they have plans to acquire a few new things to accent their new place. They might have some things that they aren’t quite sure about yet on both sides – things they aren’t quite ready to let go of and other things that are attractive to them but have held off on acquiring, so they decide to move on to their new place and make the final decisions there. The same approach can apply to the example of a job promotion. We hold on to a few elements of our past work, we don’t compromise our values, we begin to experiment with delegating our authority and start reaching out for mentoring on leadership. Moving on is a time of possibilities and experimentation. We probably don’t know exactly how it will turn out, but we’re pretty sure we’ve got something good in front of us. The important part is to move into it and see what comes next.
How does this process resonate with you? Have you experience where it has worked for you? Are there examples in your past where this process may have helped make a transition more successful?