Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Organisational change,  Personal Reflections,  Storytelling

Did you imagine it would be this way forever?

There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace that I often think about when I’m thinking about change,

‘Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it’

It interweaves beautifully in my mind with another favourite quote, this one from Mary Oliver,

‘to live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”

To let it go. To let it go.  The Mary Oliver the aspiration, the David Foster Wallace all too often the messy reality.

I’ve confessed here before that for someone who is making a career out of helping organisations to change, I don’t half make heavy weather of it sometimes in my own life. I love the present hard, while taxing it with all my anxiety around the future to come. I’m like my littlest boy who loves holidays so much that he starts fretting from day two about how sad he’ll feel when it’s over.

In my forthcoming story-poem, Songs of Snow and Silence, there’s a line that says

‘… imagine it has been this way
forever; yet still the old and mad believe
that times will change and silence break
and all the trees stir from their quiet vigil 
to sing, touched by a gentle breeze.’

What it’s trying to get at, is something about the inevitability of spring. We instinctively talk about change this way, sometimes, don’t we? – There’s change in the air … There’s something new on the wind ..Something is taking root … A movement is growing …

A change of the seasons is something that we don’t control, and yet we know in our bones how to welcome it, inhabit it, and make it our own.

Years and years ago, when our children were babies and dark winter afternoons felt interminable and hair-tearingly boring, even as everyone told us to treasure them, a dear friend gave me the simplest, most game-changing gift. She used the word ‘season’ in the context of our own lives. This was our ‘season’ of small babies and small horizons. It’s a word, a philosophy, that I’ve used constantly ever since. Now is a season of transition, now a season of waiting, a season of conflict, of teenagers, of illness, or of joy …

‘Season’ for me connotes a middle ground – not quite surrendering myself to the fates, but not fighting them to the death either. Not as pejorative as, say, ‘it’s a phase’* but rather inviting us to embrace this period of life for all that it is and all that it uniquely brings us, while also leaving space for the bright hope, and sometimes sorrow, that this, too, will pass.

This strikes me as a deeply human, gentle and organic way of thinking about change as we emerge into whatever comes next in our post-pandemic worlds of work and relationships and general life. I don’t meant by that that change necessarily needs to be slow– if you live in London, you’ll have noticed a definite nip in the air this week, for example, that wasn’t there last week – but it does mean that the transition isn’t brutal. Seasonal change doesn’t happen by us all going to bed one night and waking up the next morning to find every single leaf has fallen off the trees and it gets dark four hours earlier. 

Rather, there is a process, a transition, a waning of the old and a dawning of the new – and that gives us a chance to work with the change rather than rail against it. Who lit a fire this past weekend? Dug out a warm coat? Cooked something hearty? We humans have rituals for a reason – out with the old, in with the new. Grief and celebration entwined.

I’m reflecting on how we can use something of this philosophy in organisations. How can we embrace seasons? Find that perfect balance of acceptance and proactivity. How can we love and let go, even with claw marks? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*’Phases’, for the avoidance of doubt, are never good – tending to be invoked in toddlerhood in relation to pleasures such as biting other children, or only eating off the orange rabbit plate; and in teenage years, in relation to alarming levels of fake tan, TikTok dances in the kitchen, or monosyllabic responses to perfectly reasonable questions.