“That takes a lot of courage,” commented a journalist who joined me for a breakfast conversation a few weeks ago. Her remark followed my story of transition, a route that caused me to step away from a path I’d pursued for more than twenty years. She was interviewing me for a publication. I told her about my observation that transitions occur when there is a shift in what holds value or meaning to us. It is that moment – that shift – when we’re faced with a choice that so captivates me. Do we move? Why? Or why not? Honestly as she remarked about ‘courage‘ I couldn’t help but wonder if it really is the exact opposite….
Does transition involve courage or is it a lack of courage that brings us to this moment?
I remember Elizabeth, a late 50’s not-for-profit administrator, who confided that, “it took a lot of pain. I wish I could say that my triggers were an awakening or some kind of a higher self-knowledge.” She lamented, “It’s always been pain. And it would often take a fairly sharp degree of pain before I asked the question, ‘who am I, and what do I want to be, and what do I want to do?’” She transitioned from being a leader at an intense innovation lab. It was a pivot that externally looked as if it were triggered by a career change but the reality was that it encompassed a lot more. Elizabeth shared that there were changes in her long-held beliefs about what constituted work and a growing awareness that she was not in the right spot. Courage? Not exactly. Her move was motivated by a sense that it was no longer viable to stay where she was.
In my own case I think there was both courage and the absence of courage. Was it fear? For years I ignored my instincts that I was in the wrong spot. I reasoned that I didn’t have the time to investigate what was going on. Let’s face it I had two children under the age of 5, a hugely demanding job, a recently widowed mother and a recently widowed mother-in-law who was dealing with a stage four cancer diagnosis. I felt as if my life was living me I wasn’t living my life.
I kept going on this path until I crossed an imaginary line. It wasn’t pain. It was a chance event that involved a childcare care snafu while I was away on business in London. In an instant it pushed me to acknowledge that something wasn’t right. There were lots of feeling that directed my actions at the moment: Guilt. Exhaustion. Isolation. Boredom. And possibility. Thankfully the latter was the strongest….
That event – that trigger – didn’t mean transition. It only caused me to stop. To pause. From there it took courage, real courage, to begin to define my own way forward outside of the boundaries of titles or expectations or work schedules. And the real shocker? It takes courage every day to stay on the course….
Last week I noticed the pattern of transition in an unexpected place. The pattern – a trigger, followed by a decision, followed by an action – was buried within the heartfelt story of Paul Kalanithi, author of the best-selling book, When Breath Becomes Air. The autobiography chronicles the author’s journey as a gifted neurosurgeon as he is diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties close to the completion of his training. Throughout his life Kalanithi loved literature and writing and the science of the mind/brain. It led him to medicine and neurosurgery but also led him to writing as he recalibrated his focus late in his life.
The part that shook me was the pattern of his decisions as his illness progressed. Early on even though he was gravely ill and undergoing chemo he continued his surgical rotations. It wasn’t until he could physically go no further that he dignified other joys in his life – like writing and fusing the themes of literature and science.
Even though Kalanithi’s journey ends the grace and engagement he describes as he pivots away from the practice of medicine is similar to what I heard in listening to countless women’s stories.
I’ve long-held the belief that it doesn’t matter what triggers you encounter – the dramas of an innovation lab or an ordinary life of a working mom or a wrenching diagnosis at an early age. Each present us with nothing more than a decision.
My sincerest hope is that at that moment – a moment when triggers ask us to decide – we all have the knowledge to understand what is happening and a little courage to take the first step.
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