Despite the frenetic pace of 21st Century living, the prospect of a major transition still has the power to slow us into deep circumspect behavior. Although we live in an age where it seems anything is possible, where more and more people are chasing dreams, navigating transitions has the tendency of taking our eyes off of the long-term prize to focus on the short-term.
The fear of taking those first few steps into hazy territory can be so overwhelming that we become possessed with judging every step we take versus keeping our focus on the finish line. And if those first few steps don’t go as planned, boy isn’t it tempting to quickly retreat to known territory?
Mark Nepo, in Finding Inner Courage narrates a wonderful parable that’s relevant to navigating transitions:
There is an old Hindu story. In it, there is a boy who wants a drum, but his mother can’t afford a drum, and so, sadly, she gives him a stick.
Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he shuffles home and begins to play with the stick. Just then he encounters an old woman trying to light her woodstove. The boy freely gives her the stick.
She lights her fire, makes some bread, and in return she gives him half a loaf of bread. Walking on, the boy comes upon a potter’s wife whose child is crying from hunger. The boy freely gives her the bread.
In gratitude, she gives him a pot. Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he carries it along the river, where he sees a washerman and his wife quarreling because the wife broke their one pot. The boy gives them the pot.
In return, they give him a coat. Since the boy isn’t cold, he carries the coat until he comes to a bridge, where a man is shivering. Riding to town on a horse, the man was attacked and robbed on everything but his horse. The boy freely gives him the coat.
Humbled, the man gives him his horse. Not knowing how to ride, the boy walks the horse into the town, where he meets a wedding party with musicians. The bridegroom and his family are all sitting under a tree with long faces. According to custom, the bridegroom is to enter the procession on a horse, which hasn’t shown up. The boy freely gives him the horse.
Relieved, the bridegroom asks what he can do for the boy. Seeing the drummer surrounded by all his drums, the boy asks for the smallest drum, which the musician gladly gives him.
There are many, many lessons to glean from this charming story. In context of transitions, the key insight I’d like to propose is that transitionary periods simply require the patience to let things unfold.
As Nepo points out in his analysis, if the story ends when the boy asks for the drum but gets something else, we’re left with a lesson about “not getting what we want, but accepting what we are given.” Similarly, if you end the story at each point where the boy gifts his possessions, the lessons learned are quite different. It’s only when the whole story unfolds that we’re given the treat of complete closure.
By “letting things unfold” I don’t mean to imply that deep thinking and planning aren’t critical, of course they are! It’s just that plans are created to help people and organizations achieve a goal. The goal should always trump the plan. Plans are developed using the best available information at the time of their creation. As plans are executed, new information is captured, markets shift, things change.
I used to work for a CEO who loved to remind us that, “You never make the plan the way you planned to make the plan.” The point being, the road to your finish line will be filled with unexpected turns, twists, and surprises—embrace them. Smooth transitions rarely happen; expect rough patches and embrace a spirit of flexibility and resilience.
Early on in my adult life, my Father taught me to work through important decisions and transitions by folding a piece of paper in half and creating pros and cons lists. It’s a simple exercise that worked effectively on several occasions and I still use it today. However, during the time when I was leading a corporate innovation team, I began to add another layer to the exercise: visualization.
The pros/cons list might be effective in helping to make decisions associated with transitions, but navigating the execution of a transition requires a more holistic view. Take the time to visualize and write down what success will look like and feel like if you effectively transition from point A to point B. Similarly, capture what failure would look and feel like. Ask, “Why will I succeed and why might I fail?”
When you complete this exercise you position yourself to let things unfold. You’ll be able to recognize emergent shifts or events that indicate you’re heading down a wrong path and need to course correct. Similarly, you might determine that although you’re not achieving results as fast as you’d like, you’re still on the right path, so steady as she goes.
Some might not like that last sentence; most of us are hard-wired to make things happen on cue per our predetermined timeline. We all want our drum, right now. But, sometimes, maybe often times, there’s great learning and growth in achieving what you want when you’re forced to take the long road and let things unfold organically.