Transitioning: let go to let come.

by nick on November 23, 2016

It’s common to hear people talking about how to live a good life. Nothing wrong with that. But an equally important question is how to die a good death. And not just at the end of our life. Every time we go through some kind of important transition in our lives we have to let go of the old ways of being and doing and ask ourselves who might we become in the next stage of our life? In other words many deaths and re-births can accompany us throughout our lives.

It’s important to make a distinction here between change and transition. Change is a horizontal journey, for example learning to become more skilful with something we already do well, getting a promotion, moving house. Sometimes this is called First Order Change and its focus is primarily on the external and material although inner change is not necessarily absent. It is change to the system.

Transition is a vertical journey through which the very basis of how we make sense of ourselves, others, and the world, shifts. Sometimes this is called Second Order Change and its focus is primarily on the internal, the psychological, the spiritual. It is change not to the system but of the system. We know we are experiencing this kind of transition when we notice that the world is no longer what we thought it to be; when some of our very core beliefs and values are tested and found to be nothing more than illusions, no longer relevant to the new world we have woken up to. 

Examples of transition might include the phase in our life when we realised we had left our childhood behind and were stepping into the world of adulthood. Or when a relationship we thought would last forever collapses in misunderstanding and distrust and we realise that neither ourself nor our partner were really who we thought we were. Or when we leave the world of formal work or homebuilding and enter the world beyond those tasks: the transition from the Second to the Third Act of our life. We wake up and find that somehow the world is the same and yet extraordinarily different, and that what worked for us yesterday no longer works for us today.

There are noticeable differences between change and transition. Change is situational. It is most often a conscious act, something we do to the world, and it is usually tangible or visible. Transition is something that we sense is done to us; we may know it is happening but we are caught up in a dance with other powerful forces that have their own ideas of what needs to happen. Adjustment is often invisible and drawn-out and happens within our psychological and spiritual domains. In change, we want to impose ourselves on the world; with transition, life is trying to live through us, inviting us to become aware of the emergence of a different, deeper self that was not apparent before.

Our ancestors, more deeply connected to the rhythms of the natural world than we are, had deep insights into ways of successful transitioning. Unlike our busy desire to get to the next stage of life as quickly as possible, they looked to the lessons of nature. They recognised that between the death of autumn and the re-birth of spring, winter is necessary for the land to recuperate. They saw that between the sowing of the seed and its germination, a period of dormancy is necessary. They knew that a pregnancy needs a full term to give the off-spring the best chance of healthy life. It was not that nothing was happening; but that deep and generative change needs time to happen. 

The honouring of a fallow period following the dying or letting-go of the previous phase of life, and preceding the re-birthing of the next, is essential if we’re not to simply repeat the mistakes of our past. This fallow period can sometimes be full of anxiety, confusion, doubt and uncertainty as we struggle to make meaning of our sense of loss, of our dis-identification from who we previously thought we were. But it is the very not-knowing that gives life a chance to live through us in new and surprising ways; that gently allows us to experiment with new ways of seeing and being.

If we’re open to this period of uncertainty and prepared to submit to the idea that new shoots will arise in their own good time we can minimise the struggle of this transition. It is resistance, and holding on to our old ways of doing, thinking and valuing that are likely to prolong the suffering.

Two Seeds

Two seeds lay in fallow ground thinly covered by a veil of earth. They huddled together for warmth as the the cold autumn winds changed to freezing winter blasts. And they waited. They felt deep stirrings inside but were at a loss to know what they meant. And they waited. They felt uncertain and confused; anxious about what lay ahead. And still they waited.

But the first seed was becoming curious. It accepted what it couldn’t control. And as it finally felt the soil begin to warm with the moist breezes of Spring, it began to push out exploratory roots into the ground below, and tentative shoots into the great void above.

But the other seed suppressed the stirrings, seeking to control its safety and sense of self.

And as the climate warmed the first seed pushed its roots deeper into the soil gathering strength and nourishment; pushed its shoots higher into the air finding warmth and energy. Until soon it stood tall, waving in the breeze, at one with its environment and its new sense of self and purpose.

While the other seed still waited, holding on to its apparently risk-free strategy.

Until a chicken came along …. and ate it.

From the Russian tradition. 

[Another version of this story appears in Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor: Stories for Leaders, Influencers & Motivators. Crownhouse 2004, p166]

Are you interested in the Second to Third Act transition? Nick Owen, Ed Kelly, and Annette Hennessy are running a residential weekend retreat in January 2017 in South Oxfordshire. For details click here:  then click on the Retreat information in the top right hand corner of the page


All at sea

by nick on July 11, 2016

In the extra-ordinary fallout from the UK’s recent referendum – a country divided, a future uncertain, and shock waves rippling around the world unsettling economies and societies alike – an invitation arises to inquire into the nature of leadership and the workings of ‘democracy,’ in particular their strengths and shortcomings. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that this inquiry has been going on for a very long time. Maybe it’s time we delved a little deeper especially challenging notions of political leadership and of democracy itself.

A warship of the Athenian navy was lost at sea. The captain and crew had no idea where they were. This should have been a surprise because sailors had been navigating by sun and stars or by dead reckoning for centuries. On the other hand this was at the height of the Athenian democratic experiment 2,400 years ago and this ship followed the rules of the current politics, not the custom of the sea.

Before leaving port the captain had decided that all operating decisions would be taken by popular vote. The crew would match in enthusiasm and purpose what they lacked in the specialised book learning of the officers. They would make their choices based on the past rather than any desire to see what might be coming over the horizon. ‘Independence and we the people!’ was their cry. ‘We’ll have our rights of self-governance back,’ they said.

But now they were lost, hungry, and their water supplies were fast running out. So they held a meeting to collectively decide what to do.

As it happened there was one among them who had first rate navigation skills but it was hard for him to get listened to in a culture where individual excellence was frowned upon. It also didn’t help that he wasn’t the most naturally passionate or articulate of men. And it was almost impossible to communicate his ideas to people who had already decided that they didn’t want to listen.

So even though he knew exactly where the ship was and how they could reach safe harbour to find the resources and supplies they needed, he lost the debate to a smooth-talking and charismatic orator who said exactly what the crew wanted to hear. The orator’s personal ambition, and the crew’s short-sightedness, outweighed the need for the ship’s safety, security, and greater purpose.

And so they remained lost. They valued collective ignorance over specialist knowledge. They valued sweet words over competence and a longer term future. They valued looking inwards over looking beyond.

Loosely adapted from the allegory of the ship in Plato’s Republic, Book Six

[Another version of this story exists in Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor: Stories for Leaders, Influencers & Motivators, Crownhouse 2004, p79]

It’s a provocative allegory and Plato was no lover of democracy. But Plato raises the important point that democracy does have its shortcomings and contradictions which need to be recognised and explored and that leadership requires due diligence and responsibility.

The complexity of the issues surrounding whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU, and the contemporary nature of the volatile, uncertain, and complex world we’re currently living in, suggests to me that whatever our personal view, it is makes more sense to hold not a single perspective but multiple perspectives: to find strategies and narratives that embrace many different viewpoints in order to examine how the UK’s complex and often fractious relationship with Europe might work from the inside rather than sniping from outside. The referendum offered a simple either/or question when what was surely needed were multiple questions that could  challenge the ways we think about our relationship with ourselves, with our European neighbours, and with the nature of democracy itself. 


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The Gift of Difficult People

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The Mathematics of Leadership

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Warren Buffett famously said that he and Charlie Munger developed their fabulously successful company, Berkshire, around a leadership culture of love. This is refreshingly different from the culture of fear that pervades so much conventional leadership thinking in organisations and politics. Love opens up the possibility to see how, ultimately, everything connects to everything else; fear […]

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