This past Saturday, the temperature finally went above the freezing mark, almost hitting a balmy 50 degrees, so I headed outdoors to exercise around the Charles River. There has been so much snow and freezing weather, that I was challenged to find “the river” among the whiteness before me. A bit of disorientation set in. The usual paths were not so easy to find. Nonetheless with hope and determination I set out for my run. A smooth run it was not meant to be. Every so often, a puddle of undetermined depth would confront me, as all that frozen snow was melting at once. I would have to stop and gingerly find a safe position in the melting ice or oversoaked grass to make my way forward. Every new puddle was an annoyance. These natural puddles conjured up all this anxiety for me, as I feared getting my sneakers and socks completely soaked by the freezing water. But unless I stepped into this unknown and took my foot off known solid ground, I wasn’t going to move forward, or anywhere. I would just stand still, feeling helpless and defeated. Amazingly, by the sixth puddle, I had found a strategy to move pass these impasses and felt less bothered after having stepped fully into one of the puddles! When I finished after an hour, those horribly harrowing puddles that I had to struggle with at the beginning just didn’t seem all that bothersome anymore. Yet it was a process. The melting and ice became a non-matter because I confronted those menacing puddles and figured out how to navigate in a new landscape. Had I turned away after the first few challenges, I would have labeled these puddles as “bad and menacing” and missed the beautiful experience of being in nature.
The run is an example of navigating change and transition. Whether you’ve just been promoted to a new position, networking to find a job, or adapting to a new life situation, you’re moving from the known to the unknown. You’re encountering a different landscape. Your old process and thinking won’t work anymore. Sure, you’re excited and optimistic about the new. But if you’re like everyone else, it can feel uncomfortable and at times, downright menacing. “Why did it have to change?” you ask. “Will I be good at this?” “How long will it take before I get it’?” We walk the new path yet we feel the nagging pull of the old. We are eager to go into the meeting as a new manager, but we question if we’re really ready and dread making a conspicuous mistake that can hurt our reputation or risk our sense of control. But like my running analogy, we need to confront the puddle. The first few encounters will rarely be a “perfect 10”, but after a few tries, we can gain an ability to introduce ourselves to a new networking contact with greater ease. As a parent, we can give our newborn a bath without the severe anxiety, thinking we’re going to drown her! Firsts are scary, aren’t they? So much unknown. So much perceived risk: Will I be ok (whether it’s looking good, feeling good, getting others’ approval, and toughest of all, getting our own approval!)? How much will this hurt me (think of a child who’s about to get a shot)? Can I really get through this?
If you choose to become a leader in your life, whether in your internal world or external world, daring to face the struggle of the unknown is the “ticket to entry” for success. Struggle need not be a four-letter-word. Struggle can be respected, even if not welcomed, as you know it is the struggle that will teach you the requisite skills and necessary approaches to be effective in the new landscape. You also don’t need to do it alone. Talk to others, get advice, unload your worries. Being a leader in your life is knowing that you can engage with the unknown in your life, being willing to feel uncomfortable with it, practicing until you get more comfortable with it, to the degree that, oneday, it may feel like a part of you. You move from wearing a new costume to growing a new skin. At a recent leadership seminar that I was conducting about “The Best Self”, professionals shared their discomfort socializing with senior management. While they knew it was helpful, many found it awkward, self-serving and difficult to do. I talked about taking on a new perspective – to own the courage to charge in, even with doubt and fear that they will make a mistake or ruin their reputation. Without doing it, you will never know if you can master it. The longer you wait to try, the harder it will become, because you’re head will tell you you, this is “too risky so back off!” But transition, by its very meaning, requires us to step from old habits to new ones.
Elizabeth Lesser, who wrote, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, states so accurately, “How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.” I’ve found that when my coaching clients expect that a transition includes necessary challenges, they are more apt to plan and strategize ahead toward success rather than denying it and getting surprised. Leadership, whether for your internal or external self, requires a willingness to step into the unknown before getting a foothold on the new situation. The good thing is that the more you encounter transitions and the more you deal with new situations, the better you’ll become at navigating in new landscapes.
When you are more open to changes and struggles, you’ll find that the world is so much more interesting and expansive than you ever thought possible. Life — professional or personal — is meant to be explored. Take that step forward and trust that you will find your footing.