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Imagine that tomorrow you were blindfolded and dropped into the middle of a vast wilderness.

Somewhere you’ve never been before.

A place that is completely untouched, with no hint of human presence.

You’ve got limited supplies and you can feel a chill in the air.

You know winter is coming soon, and you know you need to get out of there or risk freezing to death.

Wouldn’t you want a map and compass?


“The only constant around here is change.”

I’ve heard this mantra a lot.

It’s frequently used at my current job at a tech company. I also heard it at my previous job at a non-profit.

It seems like no matter where you go, you can’t escape change.

The pace of modern life is frantic and change is the new environment we live in. Change is everywhere. Change is often hard.

And change is always uncharted territory.

Navigating Change

When you’re stuck in unfamiliar territory, a map and a compass are key tools for survival. Together, they allow you get your bearing and chart out the best course forward.

When you’re experiencing change, the same idea applies.

It’s vital to have a framework — a tool — that allows you to quickly recognize what’s going on, get your bearings, and figure out how to move ahead.

This is that framework.

Before we move on, take a moment right now to pause.

Seriously.

Right now, while you’re reading this.

Pause and think about the last three changes in your life.

Regardless of what type of changes you have faced recently, you can break all change down into two simple categories:

Reactive Change or Proactive Change

Recognizing and responding to this is the key to navigating successfully through change.

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Reactive Change

A reactive change is change that is thrust upon you from the outside. You could also call it involuntary or forced change.

It’s often unplanned or unexpected. It’s not in your control. And it very well may not be what you would have chosen.

But it’s here, and now you’re forced to deal with it.

Examples of reactive change include:

  • Spilling coffee on yourself before an interview
  • The death of a loved one
  • Your boss and mentor leaving the company
  • A good friend making the decision to move away

This really hit home in my own life recently. Earlier this year, my company went through an unexpected reorganization.

I’d been on vacation for a week and I returned on a Tuesday morning. We have a regularly scheduled managers’ meeting on Tuesdays, and afterwards I was asked to stay behind to touch base on a few things.

I didn’t think much of it. After having been out for a week, I figured there were just a couple updates I needed to be caught up on.

Nothing could have prepared me for what came next.

At the time I was managing seven people, and unfortunately the reorganization meant a position on my team was being eliminated.

An hour later, a member of my team would get called into a meeting with HR and given the news that they’d been let go.

Definitely not the Tuesday morning I’d been expecting.

Navigating Reactive Change

When faces with an unexpected and undesirable situation, many of us go into avoidance mode.

You sit around and waffle for months on end about whether you’re making the right decision. You spend countless hours watching Netflix to waste time and tune out.

But one of the hidden blessings in reactive change is that you have to deal with it.

It’s there, and you’re forced into action.

With the knowledge that change is coming, the question then becomes: How do you respond well in those times? 

Anticipate 

There are times when you can see change coming. These are “writing on the wall” moments. Open your eyes and look around. Try to raise your head above the day-to-day and look at the big picture. What changes might be coming your way?

One of the most difficult parts about navigating reactive change is the shock of the unexpected. When slammed with something you didn’t see coming, your body naturally goes into a state of shock.

Anticipating potential changes allows you to prepare yourself. It limits the shock caused by changes that are forced upon you from outside.

(Note: Getting too stuck on anticipating potential changes can also have detrimental effects like anxiety — but that’s a topic for another article. Anticipate when you can, but don’t become obsessed with what ifs).

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Assess the Situation

Your body’s natural response to unexpected change — especially big change — is to go into “fight or flight” mode.

This reaction was first noted in the 1930s by stress researcher Walter Cannon. Cannon established that when an organism experiences shock or perceives an immediate threat, it automatically produces hormones like adrenaline that improve its odds of survival.

Evolutionary, this makes sense. If you’re walking through the forest and a bear steps out from behind a tree, you need to be able to react immediately.

However, this response isn’t always the most helpful in the modern age. It can be helpful, but it can also cause unnecessary problems.

When I heard that a member of my team was getting laid off, it wouldn’t have been very productive to curl up into the fetal position or to run away. It also probably wouldn’t have helped if I’d freaked out and flipped the table in the conference room.

How can you limit the effects of the fight or flight response to ensure you don’t do more harm then good?

Pause and take a deep breath. 

When fight or flight mode kicks in and adrenaline begins coursing through your body, your heart immediately starts beating faster and your breathing shallows.

Pausing for a moment and taking a few deep breaths helps to counteract this reaction and puts your rational brain back in the driver’s seat.

Once you’re back in control, you can then assess what’s happening with a greater degree of objectivity. You can step back and look at the big picture. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What’s really happening here? Gather the data on what’s occurring. Don’t rely solely on your emotional response or how you feel about the change.
  • What are the implications of this change?
  • Is this worth fighting?
  • What good may come from this?

Take a deep breath. Assess the situation. Then move forward.

Trust Your Intuition

We’re all experts at doubting ourselves.

It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. Oftentimes it’s easier to discount our unique perspectives and experiences in the face of unexpected change than it is to trust our intuition and respond appropriately.

You may not like what’s occurring. You may not be able to influence the outcome.

But you have a unique perspective, and your voice has value.

What’s your inner guide telling you?

Whatever it is, don’t discount it or write it off.

Seek Counsel

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” — Proverbs 12:15

Your perspective and your voice is valuable. At the same time, you also have blind spots.

This is why seeking counsel from trusted outsiders is so important. When you’re in stressful situations the odds that you are going to miss important details increases dramatically.

Who are looking to for advice when times get hard?

A few faithful advisers are critical for navigating reactive change well. Work on investing in those relationships now. Build them strong and healthy so that they are there when you need to avail yourself of them down the road.

Reactive change is inevitable. To meet it well, remember:

  1. Anticipate when possible
  2. Assess the situation
  3. Trust your intution
  4. Seek counsel

Navigating Proactive Change

Reactive change is the type of change everyone really hates. Because it’s involuntary, most people don’t do well with it.

But to be frank, I think that navigating proactive change may actually be more difficult in today’s world.

What is proactive change?

Proactive change is change that you initiate.

Whereas reactive change is change that is forced upon you, proactive change is change that is birthed from within you.

Reactive change is involuntary — it happens, like it or not.

Proactive change is voluntary — it requires you making a choice to produce change in your life.

And therein lies the difficulty.

Take a moment and picture your ideal life. What’s different between your current situation and that dream? Can you put your finger on specific, concrete differences?

Even more importantly: What’s holding you back from getting there?

There are two major barriers that stand between you and the life you want: Confusion and Commitment.

If it’s helpful, you can think of these as a journey. Regardless of your story thus far, if you want to move forward into becoming a better human living a better life, you have to walk this path:

Confusion > Commitment > Change

Making the Choice to Change

Steven Pressfield summarizes the challenge well:

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

The first essential step in creating proactive change in your life is to engage in a process of clarification. You have to first identify what Pressfield calls, “the unlived life within.”

A word of caution: Engaging in this process has the potential to cause major disruption in your life.

Today, probably more than ever, we live in a fog of constant chaos and confusion. Between work and entertainment, we almost never have time to breathe.

Photo by Aleks Dahlberg on Unsplash

If you want to produce meaningful change in your life, you have to get free of this.

You’ve got to make space to hear your inner thoughts. You’ve got to get back in touch with your heart. Consider these questions:

  • What are the dreams you had when you were a little kid — those dreams that got crushed and dismissed as you grew older?
  • When you were a little bit less cynical and jaded, who did you want to be?
  • What wrecks you? What tears at your heart strings? What makes you feel alive?
  • What makes you want to get up and fight?

This process of clarification may go quickly, or it may take some time. Much of that depends on how distracted you are in your normal day-to-day and how seriously you take this process.

It’s impossible to prescribe exact steps for this process as it’s a unique part of your journey, but I can suggest a few specific practices that might help:

  1. Make space for quiet — no cell phone, no technology, no plans or agenda. Some people find it helpful to have a large uninterrupted block of quiet, like a silent retreat. Others prefer smaller doses of regular quiet. If you’re in this last group, consider making the suggestions below part of your morning routine.
  2. Practice a form of meditation/contemplation/prayer — The exact form of this will vary depending on your background and beliefs. In contemplation, we learn how to not simply react to every fleeting thought. We train ourselves to observe our thoughts and feelings. To be, not to do.
  3. Write — Call it a journal, call it a diary, call it something else. Whatever name you choose, putting your thoughts and feelings on paper forces you to put them into words. It also creates a record; something you can refer back to when you need encouragement or refocusing.

As you work through this process, reflect on these words from C.S. Lewis:

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

Commitment

The clarification process helps to remove the haze of confusion from your life. Once confusion begins to subside, the next challenge is that of making a commitment.

Peter Drucker famously said that, “ Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”

When was the last time you made a big decision that radically altered your life? Try to recall the feelings and emotions whirling through your mind leading up to that decision.

Questions like:

  • How do I know what’s right?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if people think I’m crazy?

There are no sure bets in life, and this is why committing to anything can be terrifying.

My lovely wife and I have been married for nearly five years. When I think back to our initial friendship and then dating and engagement, I vividly remember the fears of commitment.

Moving from friendship to dating required taking a risk. I knew how I felt, but did she feel the same way? I had to put myself out there. I had to risk in order to change our relationship into one that was moving where I hoped it would go.

Ten months after we met, I knew she was the woman I wanted to marry and love for the rest of my life. After recognizing that to be true, I had to take action. We’d only been dating for five months…would she think I was insane? Was I moving too fast?

On our wedding day, we vowed to love and serve each other until the day we die. We did this without having any idea what the future held. There was no crystal ball. No five year plan, let alone a fifty year plan. Just a commitment to work at loving one another for the rest of our lives.

Taking these risks were the best decisions I’ve ever made.

The greatest rewards often come from taking the greatest risks.

You know what you want. In order to get there, you have to commit. You have to get some “skin in the game.”

You have to invest yourself in a way that makes it easier to move forward than to bail out.

There is an element of reverse psychology at play here.

The barrier to making a change or starting something new is high (due to some of the fears mentioned above).

The way to overcome that?

 Make the barrier to not doing those things even higher.

A few way to do this:

  • Publically commit yourself to the change. In order to not let others down and to avoid eating your own words, you’ll be more likely to follow through.
  • Invest in the change. This may be financial, emotional, or time investment. Whichever it is, get yourself invested early on.
  • Chart your progress. Overnight successes rarely (if ever) happen overnight. By monitoring and celebrating progress toward your desired future state early, you generate more positive motivation and lower the barrier to proceeding.

Remember Juggernaut from X-Men? One of his powers was that he was virtually unstoppable once in motion. You need to get there.

Clarify your direction. Commit yourself to the journey. Then go be a juggernaut (but please don’t cause anyone real physical harm).

The Juggernaut

Takeaway

“A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.” — Barack Obama

Change isn’t as big and scary as everyone makes it out to be.

There are only two types of change you will face in your life: reactive change and proactive change. Simply knowing this gives you an edge over those who fear change.

Treat these strategies like essential tools for survival. They are your map and compass for the journey of life.

You’ve got this.


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