By Ali Valdez
There are two types of change: change that you influence and change that influences you. One has the elements of volition and a sense of control. Our egos love being validated, seated squarely in the driver’s seat. The other implies a sense of loss of the familiar and maybe even victimization or disillusionment. Our egos never like being strapped in the back, restrained in a car seat with a plastic binky shoved in our mouths silencing our restless dissent.
Either way, change is rearranging your furniture, carefully curated or by cyclone. We never know what the final product will look like until it’s done.
However, understanding your motivations for initiating or navigating change, of any kind, is important for cultivating maturity and perspective, especially when you feel it thrust upon you, threatening and discomforting your ego’s orientation in the world.
Change is action when recognizing something is not working as you (or others) instinctively know it should. But change can cut with a double-edged sword; there tends to be an accompanying resistance to change, in equal force, opposing attempts to create it. How can we hold this tension and deliver the best outcome for both sides?
Now, take a moment to be still. Recall a recent change you chose to make in your life. Be present in the feelings you are experiencing. Now recall the last time a change beyond your control, was forced upon you.
Were you able to feel the contrast between the two? One probably felt better than the other, right? Recognize that that contrast is okay.
Awareness is the first step to self-possession in the midst of change. Understanding how things make you feel helps you recognize them merely as experiences and not necessarily permanent realities. In some cases, it may be easier to see that change is not an adversary, but an ally. However, this takes practice.
Change is a constant tenor in one’s personal development. In life, it cannot be avoided. There are benefits to be gained from initiating change for yourself, as well as staying flexible when it happens outside your control.
Here are a few examples that may be helpful to you: Gautama Buddha, Paramhansa Yogananda, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Each man achieved recognition and praise. But each also felt that there was more out there for them, forcing change, inviting vulnerability and accomplishing further greatness. They recognized that at some point the status quo no longer suffices and there is another apex to achieve. Basically, each stepped out of their comfort zone, traveled long distances, learning new skills, imparting greatest gifts. Buddha left the privilege of the royal caste to become a renunciate. Yogananda left his disciples and spiritual school in India to travel to America. Both Ellington and Armstrong left their musical enclaves to expand their sound, becoming legends transcendent in their crafts.
But what about when change is forced upon you, unexpectedly?
About twelve years ago, I consciously made the decision as a single woman to have a child. This type of conception is all about control. The first time, getting pregnant was easy. We love when things are going according to plan. I bought a pair of tiny Dolce and Gabbana booties in Milan to mark the occasion.
Then I had a miscarriage.
A few months later, I was pregnant again.
Then I had another miscarriage.
The change I was trying to create with immaculate control was a seizing, sputtering hunk of junk, stalled out on the side of the road. What I wanted wasn’t coming together and I lost faith. I was standing on the side of a dirt road desperately trying to hitchhike my way back to the way life used to be, but it wouldn’t feel complete again. The shift had already happened. Change starts subtly and it only feels seismic when you haven’t been mindful enough in the moment to feel its slowly building tremors.
Along the way, I learned what it was like to lose something that really mattered, making previous losses seem petty. For the first time, I learned what it was like to feel like a failure. For the first time, my faith was on the ropes; I began to doubt dreams came true.
Sensing my sadness, my friends rallied with condolences, moral support and lavish gifts. Flowers, cards, burgundy eel-skin Burberry Prorsum granny boots, and a host of holidays. It goes without saying that gratitude for one’s friends when things don’t go according to plan becomes especially poignant.
One friend invited me for a week in Maui. My friend and I were taking a late-night convertible ride on an empty road to Hana. The skies were engulfed in a lattice of stars and there was space again to open my heart. I knew instinctively I would try and conceive again that week. A different kind of inner shift awakened. My hope had returned.
Voila! Baby was back on “schedule.”
I managed an incredible team at Microsoft, was receiving perfect rankings on performance reviews, boasted world-class employee satisfaction, multiple promotions and the unrelenting support from my manager.
It was the perfect time in life. My body had assumed the shape of a toaster, a true bun in the oven. Bespoke furnishings and linens were being made for the nursery; the champagne and floral arrangements ordered for the baby shower. What could possibly change?
I contracted a temporary paralysis of my upper body. This required my mother to move in, performing the most mundane tasks such as driving, dressing and feeding me. I was like a helpless, pregnant big baby! Microsoft had to bring in someone to be my hands and type for me.
My big baby was breach and my aspirations for a natural birth became a scheduled C-section. I cannot stand hospitals or drugs, or doctors, frankly.
Around my birthday, our General Manager announced that there would be an across the board elimination of my role nationwide, followed by even broader layoffs across our managed teams.
Here I am, lobster-clawed braces on my arms, incapacitated, a single expectant mother, without a job and then having the horrific task of laying off members of my high-performing team.
None of these changes felt comfortable. God knows I would never have wanted them. I would never have expected any, let alone all of them, colliding so close to my delivery. Life tail-spinning out of control, I had to sit with the messiness of it all.
That’s the problem with forced change, it thwarts your perceptions of control. When change impacts your family or finances, that becomes a feeling of survival and preservation.
No one wants to hire someone who looks forty-five months pregnant, and I had the responsibility of providing for a baby and my mother. But enough about me. The psychology of my team was also impacted. They were equally scared of what the future held, having to wait weeks before hearing their fate. It was like having almost thirty children to provide for and no means by which to do it.
In the midst of forced change, I created and led change in the context of this new reality. First, was an open-door policy. I wanted to be a good listener and offer support. Second, elicit new thinking and finding solutions, rather than fixate on the problems and uncertainty. I lost my job but still had to maintain my leadership imperative, for their sake and my sanity.
Change also required tactical strategies, such as reviewing the careers page, reviewing resumes and brokering across my network. Why not utilize change to help others? There was no time for a pity party. We had to be constructive in our response to change.
What struck me was how the team stepped up to support me. Change created a true two-way street. Going the Mom route alone, now I had a dozen “papas” leaning in, taking care of me emotionally, being strong on my behalf, fending for me and one another, instead of just for themselves. It was a stunningly beautiful time, despite impossible circumstances. My direct manager, Rob, was a truly empathetic leader and phenomenal advocate. It was a sucky situation, and yet everyone elevated in the process.
The portion of my team impacted by the direct hit of the change landed, adapting with aplomb. Those left in role managed the collateral impact by forging bonds of long-term friendship for their former colleagues. Twelve years later, I am in regular contact with most of them.
It’s always been easy for me to take the helm and lead change. What I learned through this journey is how to exemplify leadership and create positive internal change in the midst of external forces. Change is no longer an unsettled rumbling in my stomach. It’s an opportunity and call to creative action. Change clarifies and fortifies convictions and uncovers biases. Make change work for you. I may not be the next Duke Ellington, but I will use change to become the best version of myself.