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 possible.
  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 out.
  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.

One Response to Nine Rules for Successful Personal Change

  1. Douglas Eskdale October 15, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    Hi Dan, And I thought I was unique going from parish minister to University Lecturer. Having worked as Schools chaplain teaching 5yrs through 17yrs to all ages at university it has been an interesting and enjoyable ride.
    Some interest in change too me to your blog – In a book I wrote (born for better things) I discuss change and I guess this was the link.
    Anyway just wanted to touch base and say hello.