What to Remember in the Middle of Change

Given that we’re always “in the middle of change,” a better title for this post might be simply, “What to Remember.”

Here are three rules of thumb to keep in mind for when you find yourself feeling pressed, pressured, confined or constricted by the persistent discomfort of change:

Lighten up. If you’re like me, in the middle of change you might just be holding on too tightly; to the past, to the known, to your need for control. You might also notice, should you glance at yourself in the mirror, that your face is full of intensity and effort, that you are actually wearing the strain of your discomfort rather than a countenance of ease and openness. Exercise more. Get some more sleep. Consciously breathe more. Laugh at yourself, at least a little. All of this helps.

Make friends. Do the opposite of your instinct, which is to close yourself off and go it alone. You do not have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. (I do not have bootstraps and I doubt you do either.) That’s a bunch of bogus mythology intended to shore up the American fantasy of itself as “self made” rather than the less mythically appealing truth that we best deal with change by working together. (And by the way, exercise, sleeping, breathing, laughing…all better with friends.)

Stay curious. Learning is the only way. Open, attentive and ready to be surprised by the new is a radically vulnerable posture to take and one that is ultimately powerful. If only from a competitive perspective, whoever learns faster, grows faster. Beyond competition, it’s exhilarating to discover and actually explore new pathways and that very openness, right in the middle of change, will keep you light on your feet and ready to move.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Create Another

Patti Smith: “I can’t do this. I don’t know what to say.”

Sam Shepard: “Say anything. You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”

Patti: “What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”

Sam: “You can’t. It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

{Patti Smith, Just Kids, 2010}


I don’t know anyone who’s not at least a little bit nervous starting something new. Patti Smith had never written a play and here was Sam Shepard encouraging her to just fall into it, to let it happen.

That’s easy for a seasoned pro to say but for a newbie, that falling feels endlessly scary.

The ability to begin, again and again and again, is the privilege of the human species. Reinvention is the best of who we are…it is, quite literally, why we are here.

Patti Smith was young, energized and on the verge of a breakthrough when she was doubting herself to Sam Shepard. That’s an “easy” space within which to be doubtful. But decades later, this proven poet, rock star, and author performed for the Swedish Academy at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan.

And she screwed it up. Improvisation in the moment eluded her. So she attempted a different kind; she politely asked if she could start again.

She did exactly that, beginning and completing a beautiful rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the other laureates fell over themselves telling her how much they admired her for how she handled it.

Young or old, seasoned or new, we are invited to approach this moment as a beginner.
The only question is whether or not we will be willing to start again.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Poem for a Sunday Morning

Beannacht
{John O’Donohue}
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

Help is on the way

Not only is help on the way, but it’s also surrounding us all the time.

In my experience, to find out for sure, you just have to ask for it.

Years ago, I longed to attend a leadership conference but the tuition was far greater than I could afford. I asked the organizers for a reduced fee and they said, “yes.”

Recently, one of my students cold-called a contact on LinkedIn and asked for an informational interview. The response was, “Sure, how about right now?”

I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to line up a speaker for one of my classes. She referred me to a colleague who, on short notice, said “Yes!” right away.

Maybe these are exceptions, anomalies in a cynical and selfish world.

Maybe not.

I believe that they are accurate representations of the truth that most people, most of the time will be of help if they are able.

Our job is to ask for it. And our job, when we’re on the other side of the equation is to be the ones who say “yes!”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Big dreams, Small steps

Big ideas, big dreams, big accomplishments, big goals…they are just so compelling, so fun and interesting and exciting to think about.

What if? What could be? What’s possible? It will all be so much more (fill in the blank) when that happens!

We fall in love with the idea of the end state, not so much with the next step.

And because of that, when it comes to taking that next step, we find that we are stuck. Why? Because the big thing is only a concept, an abstraction of a future state, lovely in the imagination but that’s about it…for now.

The next step, on the other hand, is concrete, real and do-able. It makes the big thing that much closer which induces our resistance to say something along the lines of, What if it doesn’t turn out the way I envision it? (It won’t) or “What if I find out I don’t have what it takes to get there? (You probably do, but you might not).

And so the next step, the small next step that you really can take, ends up becoming a huge mental leap when really, it’s still just a step.

Small steps for big dreams. Small steps for big ideas. Small steps for big accomplishments. Small steps for big goals.

Dream big. Step small.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

The High Five Test

Vicki Gravlin is a local school district administrator who is responsible for “academic excellence and innovation.” She spoke to my business school undergraduate classes this week about the joys, challenges and every day realities of leading innovation and change in the highly diverse and complicated world of K-12 education.

In a common sense, often very funny and always inspirational style, she reminded us that an effective leader is “always on” and always engaged, especially when it’s the last thing they want to be. She challenged us to meet our people right where they are – at their school, in their office, in the classroom – to best understand what is going on, how they are feeling and what they need.

One of her proven methods for doing so is through the liberal application of the “High Five” test. It’s not complicated. She stands at the door of the classroom (or walks around her office environment) and as the students file past she gives them a high five. From this simple and brief act of physical contact she is able to gather a ton of information about both that individual and the state of the group overall.

A look away and a half-hearted effort probably means that the student is preoccupied or disengaged. A too aggressive slap of her hand lets her know there is something unresolved or unexpressed. She’s learned to pull a lot of data from these encounters but she doesn’t accept it all at face value. She connects and verifies with those around her through sincere questions and thoughtful listening to put the pieces together.

Vicki’s high five test is a reminder of the simple and potent power of connection. A small and sincere effort, in the classroom or the office, to even just momentarily connect with others kicks open the door of learning and awareness.

If you’re looking for evidence of thoughtful and committed leadership, the consistent pursuit of learning and awareness is about the best data you can get.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

What do you have to teach us?

The question is not, “do you have anything to teach us?” because, of course you do.

The question is, “what is it?” And it may be many things. But if it could only be one and we gave you our time and our attention, what would you help us to see that we do not yet see?

What story would you tell that would expand our perspective, increase our empathy, magnify our understanding of ourselves, our team, our shared work?

You are a teacher, by your every word and action, as are we all.

The choice we each get to make is what we want others to learn by having entrusted themselves to us.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Called to Rise

We never know how high we are
{Emily Dickinson}

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
  Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—


My father was an Episcopal priest and so it was not entirely a surprise when, around my 13th birthday my mother asked me if I had any inclination to follow that path for myself.

“Absolutely not,” I declared.

“But what if you are called?,” she asked.

“I would hang up!,” I shot back.

A few years later I would have gladly borrowed some of that conviction for what I didn’t want in my search to figure out what I did.

It became clear with the benefit of hindsight that a path was taking shape in front of me but it was so difficult to believe it in the moment that I hesitated to step forward. I was being called to rise – into myself, into my gifts – but I lacked trust in what I had already done as evidence of what I could and would become. The pieces were there, but the puzzle remained a mystery.

The clues to the solution came with a couple of major revelations. First, that what I had to offer was wanted and valued and, second, that the way I would and could offer it would remain beyond my imagination until I lived it into being. I know that sounds squishy but for me it’s the difference between reading a recipe and wondering about how it will taste and going ahead and making it to find out. It may not turn out as you imagined it but now that there’s a baseline, adjustments can be made.

I still wrestle with the voice in the head that shouts that I dare not dream “to be a King.” And those I mentor and teach, along with good friends and colleagues, generously share their own version of that same inner struggle.

I encourage myself and I encourage them with the reminder that I remain the worst possible judge of my potential; that if I sincerely want to respond to the call that comes for me, I must surround myself with those who will not only help me hear it but also grab the phone away before I can hang it up.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

 

More Joy

Ms. Tippett: Well, I feel like you’ve said this in a number of ways, but I do want to just kind of ask, as we close, how you would start to put words around this vast question of what this sweep of your experience as a memoirist, with the life you’ve lived as a poet and just as a human being — how you would start to talk about what you’ve learned, or are learning still, about what it means to be human, maybe that’s surprised you, as you’ve gone along.

Ms. Karr: There’s more joy than I knew. And the less scared I am, the more joy there is. The less in my head I am, the more south of my neck I live my life. The more awake I am, the more just simple joy there is. People always talk about the sunset and all that. I don’t get any of that; I have zero feeling for nature. But just watching the old lady with the walker on my way to the studio get off the bus in front of me, and just watching how — it was just so heroic. I was just looking at it, thinking, Homer wrote about this, just somebody struggling to move down the damn road, with all this effort, all by her little ancient self. Good for her, you know? It was just pretty to watch.

{Krista Tippett in conversation with poet and memoirist Mary Karr.}

How to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.