This post is written for all who are feeling stuck or unsure how to navigate change.
If you accept the assertion that we are all dealing with design challenges https://marabhuber.com/2017/10/28/redesign/, then resetting is simply a process of realignment. When the context surrounding our lives or work changes dramatically, our patterns of behavior and contributions may no longer fit or be valued. What was once satisfying may feel constraining or even dysfunctional.
I call this dissonance- the state of being out of alignment. It happens at work, in relationships, in virtually all aspects of our lives. Change can be thrust upon us through external events like death, infidelity, shifts in leadership or organizational structure. But it also happens from within, often subtly, compounding over time. Regardless of the source however, change is completely natural and unavoidable, and yet for many, terrifying.
We expend a great deal of energy, strategy and emotion trying to prevent change or slow it down as we grasp for security, sustainability or permanence. And in doing so, we fail to recognize that when viewed through a different set of lenses, change is actually a portal through which we can access growth, humility and perspective- all necessary ingredients for the fulfillment and connectivity that we universally crave.
You see, the secret to resetting lies in developing a sensitivity to the universe of change and differences that spins around us. But rather than trying to stop, prevent or judge the change, it requires a sense of honor and respect as we work towards deeper insights, appreciation and acceptance.
Put another way, resetting requires emotional distance, the ability to remove our feelings and needs when assessing the world around us. Once we release ourselves from our analysis we can begin to observe broader patterns and trends, issues and forces that shape constraints and opportunities, impacting the people and places around us.
As we develop an ability to “feel into” these contextual forces, we can gain insights into opportunities for our own growth and development while releasing the negativity and fear that threaten our success and happiness.
How to reset? Begin by looking around you, considering the internal and external landscape, the ecosystem of structures and people that comprise and influence your world. Start to formulate questions and observations, framing them through words and phrases that convey respect and care. Speak these words out loud in front of a mirror, noting your body language and the way you feel when you say them or imagine the conversations. As you try out different words and observations, work to release any tension or tightness, letting go of negativity, fear or hurt and embracing a more caring and open demeanor. And take the time to observe and reflect on the differences.
Here are some conversation starters with which you can experiment.
Things feel different lately, have you noticed any changes?
What does it feel like to be in your position? What are the pressures that you’re experiencing? What are you most excited about?
I can feel things changing but I’m not sure I understand how or why. Can you share your insights?
I get a sense that the context (of our work) has shifted, what do you see as the new direction? What are you concerned about?
I sense that our relationship is somehow out of alignment. I’d like to understand how things have changed from your perspective.
Once you are able to receive insights about the world around you, without personalizing or getting defensive, you will discover new spaces and opportunities to flex your talents, skills and contributions in ways that add value and feel inherently better. While your relationships and experiences may be different than what you originally expected or even hoped for, you will feel a renewed sense of alignment and stability, and an awareness of the universe of possibilities that is always there but always changing around you.
Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.
In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the world changes and thrashes around us.
And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.
Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.
Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.
And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.
What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.
As I prepare for the New Year, I find myself combing through past posts, searching for poignant memories and lessons learned. Perhaps ironically, I am drawn to one of my earliest musings, a piece that details an encounter with a homeless woman temporarily living in a neighborhood park. Her image has become indelibly associated with the place, and I find myself thinking of her often.
Unsure what is befitting my 100th post, the final day of a fascinating year, and the beginning of unknown adventures to come, I re-offer Dorothy’s Gift, originally posted in December 2013.
Happy New Year everyone, and thank you for being part of my journey.- Mara
The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt. The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks? I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious. She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.
My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed. The impression was one of a mystical tree. Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth. Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.
Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self. I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture. As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.
But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.” I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile. In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.
Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home. She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather. She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.
Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable. She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed. I pressed on, determined to offer something of value. When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.
When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year. I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings. I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp. And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time. I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag. They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store. Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing. They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.
When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth. I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings. Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag. Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.
We have such a paradoxical relationship with change. On one hand we long for it, yearning for new opportunities and growth, and yet we often completely miss its inherent powers.
Two fundamental errors keep us in the dark.
First, we believe that change is driven by the boundaries. If we think of our lives as series of categorical shifts, it’s easy to see the categories themselves as the primary levers of change. New jobs, new relationships or homes- if we can achieve movement between categories, we assume the details will fall into alignment, like magnets propelling us forward or upward, creating stronger and more healthy patterns. Because of this belief, we either wait for opportunities to materialize or try to force change through giant leaps or starting over. But either way, we often miss the most powerful drivers of change, the millions of seemingly minute decisions and choices through which we can reset our interactions, behaviors, and perceptions toward more positive and meaningful results. These deceivingly powerful changes can ripple and reverberate around us, transforming not only our own experiences but also impacting those of others, in essence flipping our realities and catalyzing seismic change.
But while our individual choices are indeed powerful, they do not occur within a vacuum, which is why our second fundamental error is so dangerous. This is the false belief that we can somehow resist or protect ourselves from the change and flux that surround us. Without even knowing it, many of us cling to the status quo, manifesting a deep sense of rigidity, fear, or vulnerability. We surround ourselves with those who will maintain our illusion of control. And yet the truth is unavoidable. The world is constantly changing around us, including the people with whom we work and live, and our communities and systems that frame and support our lives. And although we may be able to temporarily ignore these changes or judge them as unacceptable or unfair, our long-term inability or refusal to adapt or respond will eventually leave us irrelevant and obsolete. For change will not stop, instead our worlds will simply flow around us.
Interestingly, these two errors- missing opportunities for internal change, and our lack of responsiveness to outward change- are both the source of our collective stuckness and the vehicle for growth and prosperity. By embracing the myriad choices and opportunities for growth and becoming more responsive and sensitive to the shifts and flows that contextualize our lives, we can become more nimble and effective, both as individuals and communities. And in doing so, we can enjoy greater fulfillment and connectedness along the way.
Clearly, this state of heightened responsiveness represents a new frontier that calls for the development of new sensitivities, tools, and paradigms. But at its core is the simple acceptance that nothing stands still. Every day brings infinite opportunities to fulfill our potential and touch souls with those around us toward a better and more actualized world.
I’ve always loved the New Year. The anticipation of things to come, new goals and aspirations, and the promise of growth and fulfillment- I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities. And yet, despite our dramatic chance to do something big and bold, we continually miss the mark, setting resolutions that are inherently underwhelming and even counter-productive, sending ourselves back down into the weeds from which we came.
If you follow my blog then you already know about the weeds. They are the scary dark regions of our inner world where we tend to go and stay. If you think of our minds as expansive networks of concepts, memories, and ideas that stretch out in all directions, the very lowest levels are the weeds. They are filled with personal and emotional details that are highly charged and interconnected. Once activated they quickly trigger related experiences and memories, creating a pin-ball effect that consumes our energy and resources, preventing us from accessing higher levels of thinking and decision making, and their associated benefits.
Higher is definitely better. Free of contextual details and hyper-connectivity, the higher levels allow us to think critically with emotional distance from the minutia that can paralyze our growth and deplete our resources.
But getting out of the weeds is tricky. Because our patterns and emotional triggers are so deeply ingrained, even as we inch our way up through positive choices and behaviors, one false move can send us back down, strengthening the very patterns that we’re trying to break. Like tendrils wrapping around our ankles, the only way out is to disconnect ourselves entirely, removing their source of sustenance and support.
Although the process can be challenging, the underlying logic is quite simple. To emerge from the weeds we must create powerful goals that are less specific and detail oriented, far enough away from the weeds that they’ll stretch us higher while mitigating the risk of falling back down. Finding the right goals takes some practice. Want to lose weight? This is too specific and risky, tied to past issues and emotional triggers. How about making healthier choices, or being stronger? You might have to clarify what these look like or mean. You might ask yourself why you want to be healthier, is it just for you or for the people you love? What example do you want to set? Who is the person you want to become? By doing this additional clarification work, you can create new associations and roots that are positive and powerful, moving you beyond your insecurities towards growth and actualization, even in the face of struggle or uncertainty.
This process is equally powerful for professional goals. Are you determined to get a better job, or to get paid more? Such commitments can enhance your vulnerability and unhappiness, leaving you at the mercy of uncontrollable forces or decisions. How about better utilizing your strengths, or finding ways to stretch or grow, or associate yourself with more positive and professional colleagues or initiatives? Any of these will open up spaces to move and gain satisfaction, which in turn will lead to new opportunities within or outside your current roles.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can feel yourself elevating, your energy and outlook moving higher and brighter. And while set-backs and bad days will continue to be inevitable, you’ll find yourself less responsive to their triggers. And eventually, when you barely notice them at all, you’ll know that you’ve truly emerged from the weeds, with nothing but expansiveness and possibilities ahead.
I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.
I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.
Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.
I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.
My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.
By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.
The books I am rereading
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (early college)
The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)
Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)
West of the Night by Beryl Markham (adulthood, Tanzania project)
The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)
The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)
Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)
*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way
Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?
For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.
So here it goes…
During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.
But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.
When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most. It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.
It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves. How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth. How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.
Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.
In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.
I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.
But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, “helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.
When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.
I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara
What do you hope for your daughter?
I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.
“I hope she is humbled.”
Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.
I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.
My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.
My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.
How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.
Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.