Change is a book burning.
It stands at the podium in all its righteousness and altruism and asks you to willingly throw your stories on the fire. The well-worn chestnuts you’ve told a hundred times. The stories you’ve clung to and retold for decades. Stories that have garnered you attention, laughter, applause, love, and connection.
Change asks that you give all of that up in faith that new stories will arrive. That new stories will magically fall from your lips, pour forth from your soul, or be woven together by a community of people that doesn’t yet exist.
I always tell the story of change in personal terms. When I stopped smoking I lost a few friends. You know the ones. The ones that don’t want to see you change. The ones that would rather see you suffer (or die) with them rather than confront change in themselves. I don’t miss those friends so much.
But then I got married and I lost a few more friends. The ones that weren’t ready for serious relationships or were struggling to find a part of themselves they could truly give to another.
Then, I had children, and I lost most of my friends. Choosing to bring a new life into this crazy world is a bridge too far for some people. And, it added to my responsibilities, making my precious spare time all the more precious.
In 2012, I founded the Integral Church – an interfaith group committed to pluralism, religious literacy, and spiritual practice. As you can imagine, my friends thought I had gone off the deep end. And at this point, I could count them on one hand.
Even though I had pruned the bushes of my life back to a nub, I didn’t succumb to isolation or depression. I was constantly meeting new people and making new connections. Each decision to step into a new way of being was chosen with intention and I stayed curious about myself and what kind of people I needed to surround myself with. Leaders, visionaries, creatives, those unafraid of change.
You can move to a new city; give up your career of 20 years; or come out as gay, bisexual or polyamorous. The effect will be the same. You will slough off some people that you didn’t need in your life anymore, shaking them loose like a winter coat.
Living happens on the precipice of change. The most important growth happens while standing at a crossroads.
Where I sought a spiritual life, there are also those who seek to leave it behind. For those sitting in the front pew of their church (having spent years working their way forward from the back pew) deconstructing your faith can be scary. Admitting that you’ve outgrown an institution or set of beliefs takes massive courage. These people are melting on the inside (like a caterpillar in a cocoon), dying to be reborn as something else.
Republicans and Democrats alike sometimes find themselves in the sanctity and anonymity of the ballot box only to end up voting for someone outside their party. They realize that their values have changed. Their beliefs about the role of government, policy, and responsibility have changed. It could be that they have changed; it could also be that the party has changed (hasn’t moved with the times, or is too progressive).
In consulting, we find no shortage of business leaders struggling with change – grappling with a vision in flux. Their strategy is now obsolete and they no longer have the right people in the right seats. For leaders in changing organizations, that means onboarding and aligning your team to the new vision and finding new team members who can help you accomplish your mission in the world. It means rallying the team behind a bright, clear, bold vision even as that vision is dissipating and you are anxiously crafting a new one.
You can plant a sapling and wait for it to bloom or you can repot a plant that needs more room to grow. Either way, change happens in an ecosystem – in a forest.
If you are the tree, then that tree has a lifecycle – a kind of toroidal function where the acorn and leaves are falling and debris is composting into something else. Turning into food and being reabsorbed through the roots. There is rhythm and motion and life.
But this tree is also connected to the mycelium and mycorrhizal network – the fungus and mushrooms and other trees around it. It's literally and invisibly holding its neighbor’s hands underground, forming a living community, a thriving marketplace or a well-regulated nation right underneath your feet.
Beyond the forest is what's called the purlieu. The frayed edges of the forest, where it turns into savannah or desert or plain is where mutation (or innovation) happens. It’s where the laws of the forest start to break down.
In business, this means we must manage our personal cycle of growth (from levels of listening to unconscious competence), the lifecycle of our business (from start-up to maximization to irrelevance), as well as the innovation portfolio being created on the farthest horizons of the purlieu.
In the sci-fi/horror movie, Annihilation, based on the best-selling Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, the edge of the forest is called “the shimmer.” Inside the forest – beyond the shimmer – things grow at accelerated rates; the DNA of plants, animals, and humans is re-combined before the naked eye; and there seems to be no boundary between physical being and time. The forest in Annihilation is a sandbox of evolutionary emergence.
This is exactly the kind of jungle we find ourselves in as we navigate the 21st century. With our political post-modernism seeking to include, our decentralized media marketplace seeking to give access, and our remix culture seeking the novel and the new, change is a constant.
Our quest is to get off the well-worn highways and tromp new trails and pathways through the forest.
Our challenge is to be two people at once: the Wise Planner who thinks big thoughts and manages complex processes by optimizing or creating new routines and the Impulsive Toddler who will narrowly focus on the process at hand by executing existing habits.
Our task is to push our chests into the fog of uncertainty with the courage and contentment of a master. To love the tightrope strung between the known and the unknown. To compost and be composted.
Our aim is to live in a state of anticipation and curiosity, not expectation or entitlement.
There is a Greek proverb that states, “a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”
I believe a man grows great when he plants trees that he knows will be chopped down and turned to pulp. Pulp that will be pressed into books and thrown on the future fire.
ABOUT THE Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author and consultant with certifications in coaching, storytelling, design thinking and virtual facilitation.