Making a change when everything is changing

I’ve been interested in change for a long time. Several previous jobs have involved navigating change and upheaval or supporting teams going through it, and the last ten years of my life have been disrupted in many ways, good and bad. Yours as well, I’m sure. There has been a bit going on.

There is nothing more certain and unchanging than uncertainty and change.

John F Kennedy

We’ve been hearing a lot about uncertainty, polycrises and a world in flux. Covid, the consequences of Brexit, populism, authoritarianism, the UK’s ongoing debate about its collective identity, economic shocks, culture wars, actual wars, the rise of Artificial Intelligence, our collapsing government and creaking political system and looming largest of all, the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse.

Change is here for all of us and more is coming, almost certainly even more significant and disruptive than we have experienced so far. We’re in a liminal period, a place between, destination unknown. Layer on top of that changes in your own life, your organisation or your business, surrounded by the noise of technologically accelerated, algorithmically manipulated 24/7 news cycles and social media, and it’s not surprising to see so many people say it feels like we have lost our minds. Change seems to have the power to make you question your own identity, even your sanity (or everybody else’s).

A social media post that says "hey sorry I missed your text, I am processing a non-stop 24/7 onslaught of information with a brain designed to eat berries in a cave"
Information overload best summed up by Janel Comeau

I realised a few years back that there was no point asking when life would feel normal again. Normal was a feeling of relative safety around a particular point in time. For several years I held 2012 in my mind as that time. I got married. The world seemed relatively sane. The spectacular opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics showed the world what a proud, dynamic, historic, creative, humorous place Great Britain was.

I appreciate now that I felt that safety from a privileged position and that many others weren’t feeling safe in 2012, before, or since.

Then a period of change started for me. Almost ten years ago, I sought a change of career direction and retrained in Countryside Management. I studied alongside part-time work and volunteering, then moved into nature conservation, and then farming.

That’s the simple version; the reality is messier. There were diversions and false starts and I had to take a step backwards for a couple of years, returning to what looked very like life before I’d decided to change direction. Then, arriving at a place of relative stability with a job that looked like a dream come true, a roller coaster ride started as I took on the management of a family farm. Flooding, erosion, the Covid pandemic, illness and more changes external and internal. You will have experienced your own diversions or disrupting events in the past few years.

This year has again been a time of change as we have relocated to where my wife grew up in Devon, to find a home for the long term. We’ve both moved around a lot, and this will be a place where we plant trees – where we literally put down roots. This year while settling in to life in the West Country, I’ve experienced a range of emotions, not all of them easy. It has been an enjoyable year and I’ve learned a great deal but I have also experienced disorientation and frustration, and occasionally felt lost.

One of the characteristics of change is how messy and disorienting it can be. Not knowing what’s next. Deciding on course corrections when the destination isn’t clear. Change can be hard and it isn’t a straight line from A to B. You’ve been very fortunate if your path through change has been smooth and linear (and I’m not sure I believe you).

Transition – our experience of change

An illustration showing a visual representation of uncertainty as a wavy, messy line between points A and B.
A version of an illustration I’ve seen in a couple of places including by Rachel Botsman about the messy nature of transition and uncertainty.

While change is a shift in our external situation, transition is the internal reorientation we make to adapt to change. Changes may come at us from outside, we may have initiated them but transitions are how we react and adapt to them. There is, arguably, no such thing as a successful change without a successful transition.

I understood transitions far better when I read William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The Bridges Transition Model is well-established. I highly recommend reading the book if you’re trying to make sense of a life change, be it professional or personal. Forgive the Americanisms in the book if you aren’t American. I last read it several years ago but what stuck with me was:

  • We may now have fewer of the rites of passage that we once did to mark transitions between life stages – we often stumble into the messiness and then spend time trying to figure out what just happened. Some of these known rituals remain and are recognised by others depending on your social context – birth, adulthood, marriage, death. Victor Turner describes the way that in small-scale, relatively stable societies, change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and recurrences rather than with technological innovations.
  • Making a transition involves passing through a liminal space, a neutral zone, between some kind of ending and a new thing starting. The process includes that period of detachment from the old thing, which may be the end of a relationship, a status quo or a job role, and which can be painful but necessary for change to happen. That ending can feel a lot like grieving.
  • Being in the neutral zone can be deeply unsettling.
  • It’s OK to sit in the neutral zone for a while and just be with the uncertainty. Anxiety about the messiness, the not-knowing, gives us the urge to leap backwards to the thing we just left or push forward to what looks like solid ground, maybe before we’re ready, but it’s also a chance to think, experiment and listen to the voices whispering in the wings about what might be next.

Being in transition has felt messier and more disorienting this year for various reasons, and I realised how a feeling of safety and normality for me has come from a few things I took for granted: home and an attachment to a place, people, and a clear purpose. They have acted like mooring points steadying a boat. Relocating and making the leap without a defined role to step into has detached a couple of my mooring points, making the boat feel less steady. Loved ones have remained, though we also need neighbours, a community, a team at work – we need tribes. The feeling of safety that comes from belonging to one or more tribes is a deep, evolutionary trait.

I have also realised that, when everything else has been in flux, my values haven’t changed. Love of nature, humour, learning and being challenged are some of my long-held values, and practising them has helped to steady my boat.

One word has come up again and again recently, in business, and for communities and individuals – resilience. The ability to withstand shocks and adverse conditions and recover quickly from them. Some definitions of resilience suggest that it is about returning to the same state you were in before difficulties began. But resilience through change is not about returning to the way things were, it’s about finding a stable state adapted to the way things are next.

No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.


How to manage change when everything is changing

Everyone’s experience of change is different, but nobody is immune from it. Change happens whether you want to or not and nothing is permanent; not your position, not your work, and ultimately, not your life. To engage with change is to hope for a good outcome in the chaos.

I write these reminders as a note to myself – it’s one thing to learn them, another to remember them when things are difficult. If you’re going through change, they may help you, and I’d love to hear from you if you know good ways to be resilient through change.

Check your mooring points

Know your values. They are your North Star. Whatever else is happening, practice them or at the very least, avoid compromising on them.

Check your mooring points, the things that make you feel safe, whether they’re a place, people, a purpose or something else. The more of these you cut loose as you make a change, the more the things that remain need to take up the slack. Be aware of choppier waters the more things you change.

You need your tribe. Keep connected to those you love, who you can support, and who can support you.

Look after your health

This is so obvious, but I still need to remind myself of it regularly, and you may need to be reminded too.

Do all the basic stuff you know is good for you. Eat well. Build the habits that contribute to good sleep – don’t eat too late, disengage from devices before bed.

Maintain a healthy information diet. Your brain is a risk-assessment and prediction engine that hooks onto negativity more easily than positive things, and the media knows this which is why it will constantly bombard you with things it knows you will engage with – conflict, anger, disgust. Social media can provide essential connection to others but treat it like the psychoactive drug it is.

A cartoon shows two people walking down the street. One says to the other, "My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane."
Staying sane in an age of information overload (image: David Sipress)

Solvitur ambulando

When the mind is stuck, move the body. Exercise in whatever way works for you. Get outside. Be in nature, it’s good for you.

Solvitur ambulando is Latin for ‘it is solved by walking’, an expression often attributed to Saint Augustine. Many thinkers swore by the value of walking, from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir, Hippocrates and Nietzsche. Walking alone works. Walking in nature is better. Walking with a friend or colleague, a whole team, provides space to work things out.

Another intepretation, maybe the real hidden meaning of solvitur ambulando, is the value of practical experimentation. Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk. Try something. Now.

Pragmatic optimism and things not being just this or that

Pragmatic optimism is a blend of realism and hope.

It’s possible to have a vision for the future, to hope for that to come true and to act with intent towards a goal, but also to be aware of your current situation and the obstacles there may be.

This is a kind of non-dualistic thinking that resists a simple “it’s this or that” answer. Life isn’t like that. Life is about seeking stability while change is unending, about accepting what can’t be fixed while solving problems that can, about caring deeply while not being too attached to a particular outcome.

Life is hard, and it is also absolutely amazing. The world is changing, life will be more difficult for all of us, and things can still be good within that. The change you’re going through will be difficult, and it will be a great opportunity to explore new things.

Hope for the best, expect nothing

Don’t fool yourself that you’re entirely in control. Set intentions, take action, but surrender to the process.

Research suggests that happiness is reality minus expectations. Hope for the best, don’t expect it.

Be compassionate to yourself and others

Everything will not go to plan. You can only do your best. Beating yourself up will only leave you with bruises.

Most other people are going through something. So many others are feeling fear and anxiety, and they might not show it. Be someone else’s mooring point, especially if you’re part of a team.

It might take time

The change you’re looking for might happen only when it seems like it has taken so long that you’ve given up on ever seeing it.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Change may look like bamboo getting established – roots time time to develop underground before a burst of growth (thank you to my wife for that analogy).

The change you seek may also look different by the time you achieve it because other things have changed, including you.