Nine Rules for Successful Personal Change

In one of her astute blogs, Rosabeth Kanter of Harvard Business
School, writes about change and emphasizes the difficulties of what she
labels the “miserable middle.”  Put it this way, it isn’t change that does you in, it’s the transition from where you are to where you want to get to. 

My clients have spoken to me often about the difficulty of their
changes: getting a new boss, getting a new role, gaining new
subordinates, working across different disciplines–and on and on.

There are times when I think that I’ve lived a charmed life.  When I
went from parish minister to seminary professor, from a person with
fingers in every hole in the dike, to a teacher with a narrow focus and
motivated students, it was an easy transition.  I’ve talked about the
difference as a “slide.”  I just went down the slide to the teaching
profession.  After all, a great deal of of parish ministry is about
teaching.  Besides, I liked being free at night and not having to spend
Saturday preparing sermons and Sundays preaching.  I loved my weekends
with family–and occasionally, just skipped church.  In short, there was
no miserable middle, no muddling around with the transition between my
previous position and my new position.

But there are many occasions in life and in business when the
transition is not only muddy and miserable, but also downright painful. 
One of my clients worked for a promotion and a transfer to a new group
with new role and new responsibilities for over a year.  He had a great
boss and great job, but he was ready for a change.  When he finally got
what he was after, he was in for a surprise.  It wasn’t the work.  He
loved the work.  It provided all the opportunities for career growth he
wanted.  But the boss, he learned rather quickly, didn’t know how to
delegate, gave poor feedback, and couldn’t be trusted.  He’s dealt
fairly well with the endings.  He can no longer go out the door at
4:30.  He’s let go of the relationships that were important to him.  He
used to know where to go for resources and how to get help.  Now that’s
a different ball game.  But the most painful ending is that he’s lost a
boss who was a genius at development of her people and immensely
supportive of him. 

So now he has to start all over building his network of support and
intelligence, figuring out how to gain the resources he needs, and
identifying the truly helpful people in his organization.  But most of
all, and it was a shock to his sytem, he’s muddled around with one
transitional problem for six months.  He’s trying to figure out how to
work with a boss who’s not quite an asshole, but definitely a real
jerk.  He didn’t expect that problem in his change, but there you go. 
Two great bosses in his six years of work, and two real jerks.  It’s a
fifty-fifty deal, and from my perspective, not a bad batting average.

It’s been a painful experience of change, but–at my insistence–over
the months he’s gotten appropriately philosophical about the transition
process, and gradually figured out how to work with a boss that’s a
jerk.  The difficulties of change are usually about the transition
period in the middle.

I should have warned my readers.  I’ve gotten way
behind in blogging over the past few weeks because of what may be one of
the most difficult transitions in my entire life.  And over the past
two months I’ve been muddling through it.   As a result of my wife’s
illness, and with the input of my kids, I’ve downsized from a large
five-bedroom home with a long family history, into a large two-bedroom
apartment.  Dealing with my wife’s illness was an emotional transition
for me.  I’ve come a long way in the past year in my ability to manage
those emotions and my new identity.  But the transition of downsizing
was unbelievably painful, wearing and fatiguing.  It’s all the endings I
had to deal with.  What am I going to give away?  What will the kids
want?  What is no longer necessary?  Where do I donate this stuff? 
Pianos don’t sell in today’s world, so who will I give that beautiful
Baldwin to?  What furniture is going to go?  And what about all the art
work and pictures that identified us over the years? 

At last I’m settled into a practically new apartment:
multi-generational, not a senior residence, thank you very much.  My
office is in place and my study is far larger than ever before.  I’ve
hired a designer to work over the apartment with new furniture, drapes,
etc.  Funny, the most significantly warm experience was a beautiful
collage of family pictures that my designer put together in the hallway
leading out of the living room.  As soon as those pictures were up, I
began to feel at home, even though new furniture for the living room
won’t arrive for a couple months.  I’ve always puttered around in the
kitchen, and though this one is not as cutting-edge as the one in my old
house, it’s doable. I can adapt.

What have I learned about transition and muddling?  Here are nine rules that’ll travel very well.

  1. Figure out your change and just get on with it.  One of the experts in the field told me that I moved very quickly to make the necessary changes.  “It usually takes years for people to make that decision and act on it.”  Years???##
  2. Identify who’s losing what.  I realized that
    my daughters would want some of the things, so I let them cruise during
    August and take what they wanted.  My youngest wanted only one
    thing: six books.  That was it.  My eldest, who does a great deal of
    entertaing, took the large credenza and dining room furniture, china,
    crystal and sterling.  The middler took a great deal of the bedroom
    furniture.  The eldest quickly had it all shipped from Minneapolis to
    Boston.  They didn’t want to lose those things.  And as expected, there
    was not the slightest difference of opinion about any of the things. 
    Aside from me, they were the only ones losing anything, and they worked
    out the differences rather easily.  No squabbling–nor
    even negotiating. 
  3. Acknowledge your losses–openly and sympathetically.  I
    had a number of conversations with clients, friends and family about my
    losses.  Most of all, those walls talked to me.  They had a lot of
    wonderful history within them.  My friends all listened, supported and
    encouraged.  I was surprised by how many wanted to understand my
    decision process and how I took action.  One architect said she’d be
    facing that transition with her parents and wanted as much help as
  4. Just let go.  There are inevitable losses.  I
    decided to toss a lot of things that had meaning to me.  At first it was
    very difficult.  But after a few days of tossing, the pain goes away. 
    (I filled a 30′ dumpster, eight’ deep to overflowing. After all, we
    gathered stuff in that house for 36 years.)
  5. Expect to grieve.  It was damned painful.  My
    emotions were up and down.  Occasionally I found myself dealing with
    doubts about what I was doing. But I set them aside and just gutted it
  6. You’re going to miss some work days.  I’ve
    taken several days to check out.  People who change jobs and roles
    typically need a few days off to manage the transitions in their new
    life.  Indeed, I found that if I tried to work, my brain stalled.  I
    couldn’t think and had zip motivation.  So take care of yourself.  Talk
    to the friends in your network.  They’ll listen if you limit the
    conversation to less than 15 minutes. 
  7. Surprisingly, it’s also been a creative time for me. 
    Figuring out what I was no longer going to do and what I really needed
    has actually been liberating.  I gave away one of my desks, boxed
    several thousand books for eventual gifts to the University, putting
    them and a few tools that I’ll still use into storage, tossed my old
    bookshelves and bought new white bookshelves for my new study.  Most
    significantly, I’ve added 30 to 45 minutes of daily time to my exercise
    schedule.  (For a guy who usually gains weight under stress, I’ve
    already lost 15 pounds.  Not too shabby.)
  8. As Bill Bridges puts it, recognize that transition isn’t a trip from one of the side of the street to the other.  It’s a journey from one identity to the other–and that will take time.
  9. In summary, once you’ve made your decision to make change, do it.  Take action.  No acting, is acting.  Don’t dither around.  Take some solid steps and GET ON WITH IT.

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