The pace of change today — technological, societal, environmental, geopolitical — is increasing at such a rapid rate that it can be destabilizing to our individual identities. Those of us caught up in the expansive reach of free-market capitalism have cultivated a sense of urgency, entrepreneurialism, and problem-solving when it comes to change. We learn productivity frameworks like S.M.A.R.T., OKR, and BHAG through which we articulate compelling visions and measure success. And while these approaches have a place, both in the business world and in our personal lives, these frameworks inherently narrow the world in service of what we must achieve at the expense of who we authentically are.
Developing a healthy relationship to change is essential, both personally and professionally, to stay connected to ourselves while adjusting creatively to changing conditions. As each year comes to an end many of us collectively engage in the ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. We identify what we need to start or stop doing to become the type of person that is fully deserving of safety, connection, and belonging. We decide that if we just lose a little more weight, eat healthier, meditate more, work harder, are less stressed, then everything will be ok. And yet, despite our best intentions, 91% of us won’t achieve our New Year’s Resolutions.
When it comes to the stirrings of the soul, productivity frameworks aren’t the right fit. We can become so focused on specific outcomes in the future that we close ourselves off to who we are in the present. It’s a wonder that even 9% can achieve New Year’s Resolutions! So what are we to do? The world of Gestalt psychology offers us another option, a theory of change that is more sustainable, less effortful, and embraces the complexity of the world. The theory so simple it doesn’t even require an acronym.
I’m going to share it with you right now. Ready? Here it is:
Change occurs when you become what you are, not by becoming what you are not 1.
The Island Where it All Works Out
I’d like to tell you about an island you may have heard of: The Island Where It All Works Out. On this island are all the things that we lack today that, when achieved, will bring a sense of success, accomplishment, and peace. We come to a sense of these things through our environment — messages from the systems we inhabit that define what it means to be a successful and valued member of society. Things like owning a house, having an amazing job, finding a partner, being a fully competent human that never makes mistakes; these all live on the island. And if we can just get to the island, everything will work out.
When we catch sight of The Island it lights a fire in us. We set out to get there as quickly as possible, whatever it takes. It’s uncomfortable and unsatisfying being where we are, but on the island we know we can relax because we will have made it. Whatever winds, currents, weather patterns, and mighty whales get in our way, we push forward with force — nothing can take us off course.
When we finally get to the island, somewhat worse for the wear because of the grind and sacrifices we had to make, we realize that the island we have reached isn’t the exact island we set out for. It’s a little run down and lackluster, missing a few things we now realize are also important to achieve satisfaction and contentment. The Island Where It All Works out is still off in the distance. And so we set out again.
You are probably starting to catch on to what is happening. This island certainly is problematic, isn’t it?
There is something I’d like you to know, a little secret if you will. There are two choices that you have when it comes to The Island: the first is to realize that The Island doesn’t actually exist. You will never reach it because it is not there. The other choice you have is to realize you are already on The Island 🤯.
Which one brings you the biggest sense of relief? Go with that one.
What does The Island have to do with change? When we realize that The Island doesn’t exist (or that we are already on the island) we stop pushing so hard into the future and turn towards the present and the reality of what we are right now. We let go of the there and allow ourselves to be here. And when we can be fully present with what is, that is when real change begins.
The Paradox of Change
Take a minute and imagine a change in your life you are trying to make. For example maybe you want to be more productive, lose weight, start a side hustle, connect more with people. Sense into how, in that desire for change, you deny anything about you that is getting in your way of achieving that goal. Notice how you do this, how you deny these parts of you. The part of you that procrastinates, indulges, resists, is withdrawn. How do you feel about these parts? You might notice an inner critic or judge saying very negative and mean things about them! But there is certain kind of logic to it — if these parts are getting in the way, then it makes sense to ignore them and get going on achieving the change you want to make. And yet, these disowned parts are the missing piece to making real and lasting change.
What is happening as you explore your hope for change is that you are already stepping into what you think you need to become. In this process a lot of energy is tied up in denying the parts of you that appear to get in the way. You might hear yourself saying things like, “If I was just a little more like this…,” or “If I wasn’t so much like that…,” as you work through this exercise. It can feel confusing and exhausting to exist in this state. To maintain the denial of certain parts of you in order to become something you are not.
A metaphor might help here. Imagine you are setting out on a road trip across the country. You pick a destination on the opposite coast and begin to plan your route. But you are so unhappy with where you currently live that you deny you are actually there. You spend a lot of time and energy maintaining the idea that you live somewhere else entirely! How on earth can you plan the trip if you don’t know where you are starting from?
This is what happens when we try to become something we are not before accepting what we are. We need a solid foundation in order to begin. And this is the core idea behind the paradoxical theory of change: change happens by becoming fully who we are.
Okay, but I've got GOALS!
You might be wondering how this impacts all the things you want to achieve and have and do 2. When it comes to goals, I have a proposition: what if we thought of them more as a direction, and less as a destination? If we used them as symbolic pointers to help uncover what holds deep meaning and purpose in our lives? If you are willing to do this, two possibilities emerge:
1) What you achieve isn’t exactly what you set out to do, but in the process of uncovering the deeper meaning of your goal you connect with the fullest expression of your own aliveness. By using the goal as a direction rather than a destination, you are able to cultivate a relationship to what is most aligned and coherent for you.
2) You reach your goal unexpectedly, through an indirect and winding path. In each moment you connect with who and where you are, and each next step is taken with integrity and alignment. When you eventually reach your goal, you are a different person than the one that started out, transformed by your relationship with change and in connection with the expression of your full aliveness.
In each of these scenarios we are cultivating a relationship with change. We are allowing ourselves to be responsive to change, to be open and in conversation with it as we move through life. We don’t have this relationship when we are trying to reach The Island. We construct a reality in which the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and we brute force our way through with maximum energy and effort. This geometric arrangement between here and there may be true in Euclidean space but it does not hold up in the face of the complexity of human living. Being in relationship with change means that we are flexible to the ever changing circumstances of our environment and of ourselves, and through awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of what is, find creative ways of responding. This is decidedly not a straight line.
“Tropism” is a word that denotes an animal or plant’s ability to turn or move in response to a stimulus. The way some animals can orient to true north or magnetic fields, and the way plants reach towards the sun. When we invoke our ability to orient to what feels most coherent with who we are, the ways in which we navigate change become more nourishing, effortless, and energizing.
Take your big goal: to go to a certain university, get a promotion, work at a specific company, buy a house, etc. Really imagine it. Now, connect to not the thing but the qualities that thing represents, the ones that light you up whenever you think about them. By way of example I’ll share one of mine: ever since I was in middle school I have wanted to work at NASA.
To me NASA represents collaboration, dreaming big, pushing boundaries, creativity, possibility, and a coming togetherness. There is something that I can feel in this image of a space colony that I first saw when I was in 7th grade 3.
As a destination I have not reached the Work At Nasa Island. But this image has consistently held a resonant directionality that has illuminated my path over the years. Who knows, maybe someday I will find myself at the doorstep of the Ames Research Center! But whether I do or not is secondary to honoring the seed of aliveness in this image and navigating life by accepting, appreciating, and being what I am.
If this resonates with you, you might be wondering how you can you make reality your BFF. I’ve outlined some steps you can take to engage with this work below. Unlike productivity frameworks, this is not something you can approach intellectually. You must work with change through direct experience and then integrating what you learn into your body and attitude.
- Wherever you happen to be right now take a moment pause, settle in, and take a few breaths.
- Now bring to mind a dilemma, a challenge, or some point of tension in your life. Describe the dilemma (either to yourself or to a trusted partner). Don’t worry about how you might resolve it, just explore the dilemma itself.
- As you share, notice what comes into your awareness. Notice what happens in your body as well as any feelings and thoughts that are present. Where do you notice tension, constriction, holding, frustration?
- Notice how you organize yourself in relationship to the challenge you face in your life. What is it like for you to be in that? In the the tension of the dilemma?
- Begin to explore what is good about how you are holding that tension. What is working in that tension? What can be appreciated about how that is serving you right now?
- For example, if you begin to notice that procrastination is playing a role in your dilemma, see if you can let go of any judgements and appreciate how procrastination is working for you . Maybe procrastination creates space for you to focus on multiple things at once. Maybe it keeps you safe by holding you back from completing a project and putting yourself in the position of potentially hearing negative feedback. That’s a pretty important role that procrastination is playing! See if you can really appreciate that.
- Continue to cultivate a sense of appreciation for what you are in this moment. Every single part of you has an intelligence that is working for you in some way, shape, or form. You wouldn’t be doing what you are doing if it wasn’t intended to support you in some way.
- Watch what happens when you do this, when you really sit with and accept and appreciate all of you. Allow the appreciation to melt the structures of judgement that have held you in place for so long. You might also notice that more energy begins to become available. This energy might want to be mobilized in a certain way. If it does, roll with it!
- Keep noticing what is. Herb Stevenson writes that if you can fully stay with your experience, change is inevitable. As much as possible allow your resistance to soften and be with reality as it is in the moment.
Ultimately what you are doing in this process is increasing your capacity for awareness, acceptance, and appreciation which allows you to settle into to exactly what you are, without leaving anything out. Your starting place is always in accepting what is. In what is present in doing, thinking, feeling, wanting. And as you build this capacity you will begin to understand how you do what you do, both the benefits and the cost. And what you will find, as you engage in this process, is that you have access to a wider range of possibilities in how you respond and react to life.
Give it a Whirl
When we fight with reality and try to become what we are not, energy becomes trapped in the structures that hold us in patterns of denial. By fully accepting and appreciating who we are right now, even the parts of us that we have opinions about, we can release the trapped energy of stuckness and use it to be more choiceful in how we move in the world. The more we do this, the more be build the flexibility to respond to changing conditions with creativity while also staying connected to ourselves. We find our ground in the foundation of what is, and from this place we can take the next best move in response to change.
This is a slight modification to Arnold Beisser’s original quote, “…change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” ↩
If you have a Thing You Have to Do, like say, you signed a book contract and have a deadline, then by all means pick up a productivity framework. At this point you are absolutely dealing with a destination, not a direction. ↩
Be careful not to get too analytical with this. My adult brain looks at these images and wants to analyze and critique representations of things like living and dwelling. Which would be useful for a dissertation on the politics of retrofuturism, but as a practice of finding aliveness and meaning, it is the surest way to kill deep imagination. ↩