I had a lovely conversation earlier this week with a respected colleague who worked in international development for years. She interviewed me as one of a series of people she is speaking to about which experiences might cause having an impact / leaving a legacy / making a difference to become important to individuals. It was such an interesting conversation, I thought I might share my reflections with you about the journey to becoming a changemaker, as they may be insightful for some of you. If nothing else, they may help you to feel you are not alone or in any way unusual in the experiences you are having (hopefully!).
I believe it’s true to say that there are certain types of people who are naturally interested in the process of change and therefore impact. I would not necessarily apply the term ‘changemaker’ to myself (more like catalyst), but I would say that I have always worked with the concept of change. I’ve worked with organisations and individuals that were interested in creating positive change through business such as Patagonia, Timberland, Virgin.
When running my creative consultancy, there were really only two questions we were asked to solve: how can we be bigger, how can we be better? So you are inevitably creating change; a change in reputation, status, growth, influence, impact. There are probably characteristics inside an individual’s personality that shape a propensity to be interested in change – many of which have shown up in my own current study of purpose-led entrepreneurs: creativity, curiosity, innovation, self-discipline, collaboration, co-creation, realisation (making it happen).
If we look generally at what propels us as individuals towards wanting to create impact, leave a legacy or make a difference, here are the steps along the way in that journey that seem common in many people I work with, and some observations from my own voyage.
The natural human journey towards increased consciousness
Activating purpose and meaning is part of the natural journey of a human being towards what Carl Jung called individuation, which also shows up at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy or more recently Richard Barrett’s consciousness and values model. Not all people work towards individuation and consciousness, but those who pursue self improvement and development inevitably arrive at a place in their life where things like purpose, meaning, and impact become much more important. You can listen to my interview with Richard Barrett in this year’s Purposeful Enterprise Summit to hear more of what he had to say about the ‘traditional’ stages of that journey, but put simply it has mostly been a development that we arrive at somewhere in our mid forties to early 50s.
For the first time, we have a group of people arriving at this age in a world where there is (despite what the media encourages us to think) much more peace and therefore opportunity to act the natural ‘side-effects’ of self-actualisation – which are wanting to live and work with purpose and meaning.
Taken in context of the totality of human consciousness, we are in a period never before experienced in human history where we have so many different people on the planet – in a country, in a town, in a business, in a room – that are at so many different levels of consciousness. In integral theory these are conveniently colour-coded to make the framing of this storyline a little easier to understand. But at any one time around a boardroom table, I see and hear and feel so many different worldviews and value sets. So this emergent development alone is a driver of a greater number of purpose-driven lives.
2. Arriving at the crossroads of midlife change
If the journey towards consciousness hits a milestone or shift around 45-55, there are also another series of events which collide with this period. As things currently stand in terms of life expectancy (in the West) this is the time when we are most likely to lose our parents – which is often our first confrontation with loss and the finality of death. It is also becoming more common to experience a life-threatening illness or injury around this time, more usually today through lifestyle illnesses such as cancer and heart disease rather than the infections of the early 20th century. In my case this was being diagnosed with advanced lymphoma. It is also the age for women when we have to deal with the dreaded menopause, and for many career people when they hit their peak of influence and have to confront the idea that their ‘climb or rise’ may have stalled. These crossroads events inevitably awaken, or even force people, to re-evaluate their lives. Only 200 years ago, the majority of women on the planet died before they even reached menopause!
One of the many challenges as you arrive at the crossroads on the timeline that Richard Barrett outlines, is that you confront the notion that you now have less years left than you have lived (and all the notions of age that go with this) which sets you up for even more anxiety. One of my transformation talk course participants spoke about just this issue only last week. I cite Richard here as he is a shining example and role model for dealing with this tension; he founded Barrett Values Centre in his 50s and is a great role model for starting a completely new career at this age!
Our existing societal framework has no notion of what to do with people in their 50s; they are in many ways the forgotten country. And yet they will live for another 30-40 years! And with medical advances, soon that time will lengthen; 70 will be the new 50. We need to develop whole new living patterns and systems to take this into account but often governments, policy makers, social scientists have no idea where to begin.
Society as we know it is simply not structured for a group of people who have reached a stage where purpose and impact has become important. The only ‘standard’ routes for this need to take form are taking on trusteeships, volunteering or possibly non-exec roles. Very few startup funding organisations will even consider speaking to people in their 50s; many have age restrictions on who they will fund. This is even more critical when you take into account that there are a first generation of women who are reaching this stage of life who are the first to have had corporate careers, may not have children, have much desire and ability within them, and still face the prejudices of a 20th century world (let’s no go into it but think Hilary Clinton). This group of 50+ women are like pioneers embarking on a voyage into unknown territory – there are no role models, there is no precedent.
So there is certainly a ‘stepping into a cauldron moment’ that many people in this particular age bracket are experiencing. It is something that will pass as we work through this particular critical juncture of human evolution – as this age passes and we embrace all the impacts of The Anrthropocene Era.
3. Stepping into The Awakening Period
The decision to actually take action around being impactful and leaving a legacy is rarely an overnight decision, and rarely triggered by a single event. It is more of an awakening. I can track my own ‘awakening’ period to more than 15 years ago when I sold my creative agency in 1999.
As a child who was highly connected to nature and the rhythms of the natural world, I recognised at this time that I had lost a great deal of that connection (even if I could not have articulated what it was). After 20 years in the city, around the boardroom table, within walls, creating strategies for global brands, I made a choice to walk away from the ‘cage’ and reconnect myself through fulfilling a childhood dream of learning to ride whilst still continuing to consult. Many people awaken much faster than I did, but I would say it took around 6-8 years to fully reconnect and peel away the layers of ego, and stop responding to the social and cultural drivers, like having a personal identity connected to your business identity, that unconsciously direct our lives at times. It took me a full 18 months after I stepped away from AWPR to stop introducing myself as someone who ‘used to run a very important creative agency, you know….’ to ‘hi I’m Jenny, s*** shoveller’.
The awakening period is characterised by developing much greater sense of awareness. Not just self awareness, but a greater degree of emotional and spiritual intelligence. Those lucky people who have always been able to access and respond to their intuition rather than the logical thinking processes we are taught through school, business school and work, have a head start. Connecting with my intuitive self wasn’t easy, I still struggle with listening and trusting that inner knowing.
Sometimes another critical event within the Awakening Period can also sharpen your focus: again not everyone has one of these. I did. If coping with advanced lymphoma wasn’t enough, followed by losing both my parents, then came the winter floods of 2013 decimated the farm on which I kept my horses and pushed me into some very damaging and critical life decisions. These saw me drop into a very dangerously depressed state which took some time (and quite a bit of resilience) to correct and readjust.
For many people the Awakening period can pass within months. For some people it lasts for decades. It is what it is. It’s different for everyone and there is no right or wrong.
4. Coping with the challenge of The Creative Pause
Once you reach the awakening period, there comes a time when you have to find the courage to sit with the tensions of this period. I call it the Creative Pause. The time when you just have to have the patience, courage, wisdom to allow whatever it is that wants to emerge through you, to take shape. This was the area of greatest struggle for me – and still is. As I hit rock bottom, my natural ‘doing’ tendencies, the accumulation of fear, anxiety and depression pushed me to want to take immediate action and rebuild and recreate my life almost overnight. I was in no fit state to actually take action as I had little or no idea at the time what form that action would take. But I felt compelled to ‘get going’. There is an enormous need to be able to hold yourself within a space which I can only describe as the creative pause, if you really want your future role to emerge form within you.
In a creative agency when you are given a brief, you know there will be a period of time where the creative team are torn in two, tied up in knots, struggling and shrieking, throwing the worst tantrums as they wait for the creative insights to emerge from the framework that has been set. And then it finally comes…..
The creative pause is so important in coping with the tension between doing and being. To avoid the impulse to take action and ‘do’ and achieve – drivers within the ‘orange’ characteristics within which I grew up and within which my business experiences was gained – purely for the sake of doing and achieving – has been really hard in the last few years. It is so easy to keep beating yourself up for not ‘doing’, that you force yourself into action. Conversely you can get so used to sitting with the pause, that you completely lose the courage to act or move into the Realisation Stage.
The only person I have come across in the last two years who completely articulates this with total clarity is Otto Scharmer. Otto’s Theory U
precisely describes the journey through which most change makers need to go to arrive at their given place in the world – to find the action that is theirs to take. When I have discussions like these I realise the beauty of Theory U over again and I am endlessly grateful that ULab, run by Otto’s Presencing Institute through EDX came along in my life last year just when I needed it.
5. The tensions within the creative pause
The only other tool I have found that clearly articulates and helps to manage the tension in this space is The Map of Meaning, officially known as The Holistic Development Model. developed over a 15 year period by Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris. As you can see from the diagram of the map itself, the polarities or tensions that hold the ways in which humans find meaning in tension are very clear. Self:Others. Doing:Being.
The tensions I have experienced have been between ego and eco-system; trying to find a new way to balance the needs of my ego and the desire to serve others. Or as the Map describes it between Self and Service to Others. For me this is not about wanting to be more publicly visible, but about making sure in my great desire to be of use and have impact that I do not fall into the trap that I see many social enterprises tumbling into, which is not being financially efficient and sustainable. I have seen this tension between free and paid, voluntary and commissioned exhibit itself in discussion groups, in startups putting together teal or holacracy models and within individuals like myself. I find a great tension around charging for my services and support these days which I never even considered as a younger business woman. It is ethically important to me that I find a cost structure that is fair and right for the people and planet I want to serve but we are all working with new models for value creation and income generation like Creative Commons, Wiki,etc that are relatively new. The knowledge era is not easy to navigate.
This also spills over into the style of leadership you hold for the world to see. Whilst recognising a great need for leadership in the world, I am personally reluctant to embrace overt leadership (even though I feel I could play a positive role as a leader). I’ve spent some time wondering why that is; whether I’m just cowardly, or in denial or whether I just have an aversion to leaders as heroes (unless they’re David Attenborough or Peter Diamandis)! I have naturally always been the ‘power behind the throne’ role, and I even recoil from the more visible styles of egocentric ‘leadership’ that can be seen in the personal development, entrepreneurial and political spheres currently. Not because I’m judging them as wrong, it is simply one of the tensions that comes with the journey. I feel a great need to be sure of how I am embodying leadership myself – whether that is leader as host or leader as source – two currently interesting theoretical frameworks that are being explored both academically and in more enlightened business.
The other tension which I often see emerging is being comfortable with uncertainty. Most entrepreneurs have this skill in spades, never have to learn it and look at you as if you are barking mad when you mention it. Being comfortable with ‘not knowing’ after decades of living and learning in an education system and business environment that lauds expertise, exactitude, perfection, excellence (curse Tom Peters), scientific study – is truly challenging for many. Having been self-employed since I was 25, I have a lot of history to call on to cope with uncertainty but there are things that have helped me through the times when fear has struck out of the blue (usually at 3am).
- Constantly pulling myself back to a place of self-awareness; being curious as to what is going on emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually within me.
- Mindfulness meditation and sometimes just simply learning how to breathe through fear, literally letting it out through your bones.
- Reminding myself of the very many situations in which I have already faced not knowing and come through unscathed or even a better person. Whether that was hiking solo from Cape Town to Cairo, being propositioned by high place executives in client companies, getting cramp in rough seas, having loans called in by the bank during the 90s recession, – so many experiences.
We sometimes simply forget all the challenges we have successfully negotiated already in life.
5. Seeking help during the transition
One of the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs is the ability to seek help. To be able to ask for what you need. One of the challenges in this awakening journey has been finding people I could ask for help who didn’t look at me as if I was a basket case! When I first started studying gaia theory, deep ecology, biomimicry, spiral dynamics, Theory U, indigenous wisdom, there were very few people in my immediate business circles with whom I could share the journey – especially as for a time I had stepped away from consultancy whilst getting well again.
What I think would have been super helpful during this period would have been to have a group of people to call on that were on a similar consciousness journey; I’ve only recently found and connected with the people I feel can help me. There are many transformational coaches, but not that many who are actively working with businesses who are changing to self-organised models, or experimenting in the ‘teal’ space, or even shifting to net-positive structural models. It’s still all very new compared to command and control organisational models, or even the family and culture-centric organisations I’ve worked with like Patagonia, Timebrland, Virgin – the ‘green’ space. When it began I felt very alone.
I tried so many different coaches, but there are few that are experienced in this shift – for the simple reason I first mentioned. It’s a pioneering space – there aren’t many people out there that are ahead of the consciousness change curve – and those that know how to navigate it in business are in huge demand. I’ve been deeply grateful to Koann Vikoren Skyz at Sustainable Brands and that whole community; to my friends and colleagues within the teal for startups community; the Biomimicry Institute’s community, pioneering organisation like Buurtzorg and Matt Black Systems for sharing their knowledge and experiences and most importantly to the ULab team (Otto, Adam, Arawana, Kelvy, Julie) whose insights have been foundational.
6. Is there a right time to Step into Action
Act in an instant. That’s how Otto Scharmer describes the moment when, having let go what needs to leave, having sat with wants to emerge, having waited in the creative pause, you can move into prototyping. I’ve thought I was ready to act so many times during this period, and then haven’t. Sometimes through lack of conviction and courage. Sometimes because I just wasn’t ready. Sometimes because I didn’t know how to find the right help. Sometimes because I just hadn’t held the ‘pause’ long enough to have really found my place.
I try very hard to encourage people and organisations I work with to hold onto the courage to stay in the pause space. I’ve yet to find a way to describe how to identify that sudden right moment to move. It has to come from within each person, team or organisation. It’s just a wave that is ready to break; it just does.
Perhaps the most important recognition is that there isn’t a right time. In business, we use the term iteration. It’s about being comfortable with uncertainty enough to decide to take action and be prepared to adapt. Stepping into action requires a mindset that is ready to adapt all the time. That’s the characteristic of the VUCA age; having the mental, emotional and spiritual agility to be ready to dance in a new direction – with fear or loss. The colloquial startup vernacular? Pivot.
This been a bit of a ramble of a post. I don’t have a suitable conclusion to it. I’m sure I should edit it, but in the spirit of acting in an instant, here it is. I hope it’s helpful in some way.
Other great resources: