Over the weekend I “just happened” to notice my copy of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It was sitting on the nightstand, right where I’d left it a few months ago … but familiarity often leads me to ignore or overlook things. This weekend, though, I saw it and decided to re-read it, and that led me to their newer book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Together, the two are really helping as I work on some steps and decisions.
I was going to call this post “Taking Right Steps,” but I realized I’d already used that title earlier this year. Rereading that post, I’m struck by the amount of change since early January. That was before All The Snow, all the events of the spring that I’ve chronicled here. It was before I had a clear sense of where the Next Right Thing ought to happen and what that Next Right Thing should look like early on. It was before I’d met a bunch of people who became part of the team that will change dreams and plans into solid reality. Team, place, time … I haven’t forgotten that phrase, though it’s been almost a year since I wrote about it here.
How do you know when it’s time to leave the Old Thing behind and embrace the New Thing whole-heartedly? In both books I’ve been reading, the Heath Brothers talk about balancing rational analysis of the situation (“the Rider,” in the governing metaphor of Switch) with emotional needs and core desires (“the Elephant,” in the Switch metaphor). “Elephant” and “Rider” work best together, they say, when the “Path” (the set of circumstances surrounding you) is aligned with the direction they both need to travel. Decisive is filled with excellent ways to reduce confirmation bias, increase your objectivity about decisions, and help you set “tripwires” to avoid the trap of just drifting along in the same old same old. But in the end, you still have to know when it’s time, and you still have to take those steps … or not take them.
When it comes to little things, I’m usually pretty decisive. I know what I want to eat for dinner, what I want to wear today, how I’d like to spend the next few hours while The Boy is at theater camp. But that decisiveness starts to crumble when the stakes are higher. I can see a long-term goal, and I know some of the steps I need to take to get from here to there. But taking those right steps is harder than you might expect.
Over the weekend, in a private Google+ conversation, one friend asked another friend what was stopping him from taking his next set of right steps. That other friend hasn’t answered yet, but here’s part of my answer:
I can’t speak for anybody else, of course. But for me, for a long time, it was a combination of scripting and fear. I’m 45, so I’m part of the last generation that (almost) believed the lie about the “nice, safe job in the nice, safe company with benefits and a retirement package.” Striking out on your own is scary when it conflicts with that script … even when that script has been revealed, over and over, to be the lie that it is.
I’m not proud that scripting and fear are powerful influences, but I can’t deny their power. Maybe, if I just name them and put them out there, that power will begin to diminish.
And what about those next right steps anyway? As the Heath Brothers point out in Decisive, it’s hardly ever a good idea to frame a decision as “whether or not.” There are usually a lot more options than we see at first, and quite often it’s possible to have both of what seem to be two stark alternatives. (I’m reminded of the “genius of AND,” which I keep referring to in blog posts here.)
As I think about the school year just past, it was a (generally successful) experiment with the “genius of AND.” Would it be possible, I wondered, to work within the factory-school system AND seriously aim for joyful learning community as a primary goal rather than a by-product? Could we build meaningful things together AND check off all the boxes that a compliance-oriented system wants checked off? The answer, in both cases, was yes, sometimes. And that’s a lot better than no, not at all or the all-too-common I just can’t even try because it would be too hard and scary.
But yes, sometimes … is that still what I want and need? Is yes, sometimes still a satisfying answer? And if it isn’t, how do I go about mustering the courage, the resolve, and the daily strength needed to take more right steps on a different path? An optimistic article describes “reimagined learning spaces” in schools that have (according to the author) abandoned the “standardized, teach-to-test programs that assume a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching” … but in the Google+ thread where I shared the article, no one sees any evidence of that in the schools where they work or send their children. How long do you keep holding on to yes, sometimes, to the possibility of maybe a bit more frequently or possibly in a few years?
In Decisive, the Heath Brothers tell the story of a woman who wanted to go to Italy. But things kept coming up, and she kept postponing her trip, and eventually she was too old, ill, and frail to make the trip. I don’t want my journey toward the next phase of joyful learning community to be like her trip to Italy! So taking more right steps … that’s what I need to do.
Even though it’s scary. Even though success isn’t guaranteed. Even though the siren song of the usual is loud and compelling.
What next right steps will we all take on our journeys today?