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The Silver Lining of the Squeeze

Do you feel the squeeze? Can you see it on the faces of people as you walk down the street, the furrowed brows, the anxious, far away looks? These are tough times, for sure – people are stretched thin, nerves are a bit on edge and there are many distractions vying for our attention – like cantankerous siblings fighting in the back seat of a station wagon. The “squeeze” I’m referring to is the sense of people’s lives – our society, our culture, our perspectives – being cinched tighter and tighter as if by a belt. Just when we think we can breathe, the belt tightens – sometimes imperceptibly – another notch and breathing gets more labored. And after we acclimate to the new tightness, the thought occurs to us, “just how many notches are in this belt, anyway?”

And yet amidst this season of fear and depletion, can you also hear the hope? What about the faith? The renewed spirit of optimism and a search for meaning? These days it seems to crop up wherever I look – from my clients who are voluntarily leaving their comfortable corporate jobs to lead more fulfilling lives, to the people buying first homes, starting a business, becoming more involved in their communities and giving generously of their time and resources. Like a beautiful seedling pushing itself through the ashes of a forest devastated by fire, there seems to be renewal of life happening as a result of the “squeeze.” For those Dr. Seuss fans, it reminds me of the scene from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas when the Grinch, after having taken every last vestige of Christmas, hears “all the Whos in Who-ville singing” and his heart grows three sizes as he realizes that Christmas lives within each of us, not in all our things. Ah, the power of community at its best.

This feeling – this excitement, this sense of community, of vitality – seems confusing or counter intuitive at times, but it’s piqued my interest. I have the sense that something good is right around the corner for us as a society — as if I best stay awake because this will prove to be one of the most exciting times to be alive. I find myself saying, “just wait…it won’t be much longer now…just wait…” It feels like a movement or a revolution is afoot. In another time, I would have my ear to the ground, listening for the low rumble of horse hooves moving across the land.

In my mind (and heart), I see it all linked to change and how we’re evolving as a society. Because I work with organizations and individuals seeking to create change, I am familiar with the classic catalysts for change – pain and its not too distant cousin, necessity. Some would add fear to the family tree, but I won’t, and I’ll tell you why a bit later.

Let’s look at pain as a driver for change first. As I shared in a blog written after Obama was elected, there is an actual formula for change that was developed by Richard Beckhard, a behavioral scientist credited with defining the field of organization development. In the “formula for change” he created with his two partners, there are several factors that need to be present in order for change to occur:

C= D x V x F > R

Essentially, this formula shows that in order for Change to occur, the level of Dissatisfaction, combined with the clarity of Vision and the First steps need to be GREATER than the Resistance to (or cost or pain of) change. This formula seems particularly relevant to this cycle of change we are currently in (or coming out of) because it speaks to the level of pain and discomfort we needed to get to in order to generate some action (and consequent traction) to move through this cycle. So accumulating a bucket-load of pain is one way to go about creating change. In many ways this is within our scope of control – we make “pain deposits” through the choices we make (or don’t make) every day: how we choose to see the world, how we choose to be in it, the degree of responsibility or ownership we take, etc.

The cousin of pain is necessity – depending on the circumstances, they can be first cousins or distant cousins. The difference here is that while pain may take many years to accumulate and can be self-imposed, necessity often is defined by a triggering event outside our control – a medical emergency, a job elimination, a tornado or flood. David Kundtz, author of Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going, describes this necessity state I’m referring to as a “grinding halt” – those circumstances which essentially cause you to “stop at the speed of light.” Some of you might have also heard this scenario referred to as a “cosmic 2×4.” Regardless, it is that sort of necessity which can very quickly turn our lives upside-down and catapult us into instantaneous change. The add-water-and-mix sort of change.

Now FEAR undoubtedly exists in both of these scenarios, but my assertion is that fear alone, is never enough to create change. If anything, in my experience fear is a sure fire way to dig in and preserve status quo – to keep us right where we are and resist change. However, when change is heralded in either by pain or by necessity, fear just becomes part of the package. A stowaway in the belly of the plane. Another piece of luggage to be handled.

Whether or not the need to change comes as a decision (worn down by chronic pain) or is forced (necessity of a life event), it’s what happens in its wake that excites me most. When confronted with their greatest fear – losing a loved one, losing a job, losing a home – people are eventually reminded they are alive. They might be lost, adrift, bereft or disoriented, but it is a thing of beauty to watch a survivor emerge out the other side feeling somewhat liberated. Whatever “it” was – they have faced it and discover they are somehow still alive. “It” did not kill them. And that is what excites me about our times.

You’ve heard the classic story of someone who has a near-death experience and then lives to tell about it, right? Someone who wakes up from the brink of death with a new lease on life, completely bound and determined to live life to its fullest. We are that person. Some of our organs may have failed, our heart might have stopped a couple of times, our blood counts might be a bit off, maybe we even have one of those lingering eye twitches, but something about these times tells me we are waking up to the fact that we are alive and kicking. And it’s the kicking that gets me excited.

We hear more and more stories everyday of things tumbling down around us – organizations, institutions, ways of being, health epidemics – and with each quake to our foundation and the subsequent aftershocks, we are reminded of our resilience, our resourcefulness and our endurance. We get bolder, more determined and less patient with the status quo. In my practice, I see organizational leaders and coaching clients alike placing stakes in the ground, taking firm stances around their visions for what is meaningful, fulfilling and right.

Change is coming at seismic levels, I suspect. Radical whole-scale change. Granted, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and, while to some degree that has served me well as an organization development consultant and coach supporting change, I get disheartened sometimes to see how relatively little progress we’ve made over the years with regard women’s advancement and compensation in the workplace. So this feeling – the sense that we are approaching a climax or a tipping point for significant change – gives me great hope.

So imagine my delight this past weekend when I happened upon a documentary on the Mayan Calendar and the significance of December 21, 2012 that validated this sense that change was coming. Now I assure you, I don’t live under a rock, but it appears that I am the last human on earth to hear about the veritable maelstrom of controversy that surrounds this and other similar prophecies. In short, the Mayan “long count” calendar will complete its 5,126 year cycle on the above-mentioned date. Some believe it will be an apocalypse, but most see the significance as the mark of a new beginning, as the Mayan calendar will reset to year zero. This particular documentary, In Search of the Future, presented the cosmology of native elders, western scientists and visionary futures in such a way as to paint a picture of an “upward evolutionary spiral.” As one elder described it, we are essentially in a transition to a new level of consciousness, a higher level of understanding that will feel familiar, but different in that we will have experienced a fundamental shift in how we think. Namely, that we’re all connected. One scientist spoke of how the chaos theory supports this occurring, citing the “butterfly effect” as an example of how in a complex system, a very small cause can produce a very large effect. But the key will be in how well we transition from what state to the next.

Having personally given birth to two nearly-10-pound babies, I can attest to the pain of a transition phase. My midwife described it – and I whole-heartedly agree – as the point at which all women want to die, run away or at the very least, seriously doubt such a feat is possible. In this context, I can better appreciate the fighting and flighting we’re experiencing at this stage of our evolution. But I do believe – as I did in labor – that that moment of surrender will come and with it, we will stop feeling the squeeze of our own earnest efforts and emerge into a new phase of existence.

That is the silver lining.

And I am already seeing glimpses of it. Organizations are worrying less about precedent and cubicles and are experimenting with new ways of working that might never have made it off the cutting room floor before this economy tanked. Faced with unparalleled dearths in resources – people, time, money – companies are getting more creative, resourceful and decisive. On an individual level, I see people claiming more responsibility for their lives, taking back the reins of control in big and small ways, and granting themselves permission to be the architect of their own lives.

So the squeeze is on. And there is light waiting for us at the end of the tunnel. Of this I am certain, even in the face of all the angst and uncertainty and fear. I choose to believe in that. And I have this strong feeling I’m not alone in that belief. Time will tell. It always does.

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