An extract from Wild Courage: A Journey of Transformation for You & Your Business by Elle Harrison.
Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
Does the caterpillar cry, shout and throw a tantrum when he senses he has shed his skin for the last time and reached the end of the caterpillar road? Maybe he does in his own way. But no matter how much he mourns the end of his existence as a caterpillar, it does not change things. His time is up. His skin has stretched enough times and has no more room to grow. So the caterpillar must let go of his identity as caterpillar. He must find the courage to withdraw from life, enter his cocoon and allow himself to transform into a butterfly. He must willingly embrace the process of death and rebirth. Unfortunately, he cannot be butterfly and caterpillar at the same time. That's just the way it is.
The same is true in the human world. Here, even small changes can trigger a low level of fear and anxiety - changing roles, moving office, de-listing a variant, withdrawing funding from a particular project or client. So we stay in a familiar team even though we have become bored with the job; we continue to produce old variants and add the new ones incrementally; we increase spending to fund old and new projects and clients; we refuse to make sacrifices - and hold on to our old skins long after we should have shed them.
When it comes to deeper transformation, our fear is magnified. Entering into the narrowing funnel, we are asked to let go of the traditions, structures, habits, beliefs, identities and perspectives of the past and open to something fundamentally different. That might mean downsizing our home to pursue a radically different career path. It might mean closing a factory and radically re-inventing production strategy for a new world. It might mean withdrawing a brand from the market to focus on emerging markets, or closing down an arm of the business to focus on a different set of clients.
It might mean withdrawing investment in a dying industry (coal, typewriters, VHS, CDs) to prioritise new technologies. Often, we are asked to engage in the Dying before the new world has begun to emerge. We are asked to let go of who we have been, without knowing who we will become - to step into the hollowed-out, in-between emptiness of the threshold, with its eerie, disorientating stillness. Here, we may feel that nothing is happening. We may feel lost, unsure of what direction to take. We may feel bored or frustrated, longing for change and new life that is not yet here. Our days may feel empty, our goals hazy and our lives directionless. Sometimes we are suspended in this Threshold for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years.
Although we desperately want to move into action, we don't yet know what action to take. Often, we wonder whether new life will appear at all on the other side of this process of transformation. Driven by these fears, we may be tempted to fall back into the known and try to resuscitate our fading reality, or to skip ahead and reach for a new world without fully unravelling and releasing the old. Giving in to these fears we short-circuit the cycles of change and miss the deeper opportunities within them.
Our tendency to avoid Dying holds true at many levels, from the individual to the global. As leaders, we try to enter new territories with the tools that generated success for us in our old world. So if efficiency has been one of our strengths, we may try to do more, more quickly. If decisiveness is our strength, we may continue to make quick decisions (even as those decisions become more complex and less clear in a changing world). Other times, we superficially engage with Dying but refuse to make the deeper, internal changes. Letting go is not just about quitting a job; it's about consciously shedding the identities that we attached to that job. It's not just about accepting market decline; it's about leaving behind the beliefs, habits and ways of being in the world that are leading to that decline.
When we hear the call for deeper change, we have a choice. We can resist it and struggle on with old habits, beliefs, traditions and perspectives. Or we can turn into the journey of transformation and follow it through to a new reality. Facing redundancy, do we simply reach for the next available job - or do we turn inwards and use the crisis as an opportunity to review our life, our goals, our deeper longings and the kind of work we really want to do?
Recovering from illness, do we push the experience away and insist on getting on with our lives; or do we turn into the journey of change and rethink our whole approach to life? Standing on the precipice of a crumbling financial reality, do we simply pour more money into the old systems - or do we courageously reinvent our selves and our systems for our emerging world? Do we shed our skins or do we enter into the transformational journey?
Sometimes whole industries face this choice. In today's world, the publishing and music industries are good examples. Both are sitting with challenging questions: What's our place in this changing world, where people can download books and music instantly, sometimes for free? Similarly, the airline industry is asking: How do we make money in a world where people now expect to fly for less money than it costs to drive or take the train - and a world where, simultaneously, fuel prices and taxes are rising? The advertising industry is confronting the question: How do we communicate with this new, digitally connected human being (who, incidentally, can now use TiVo or Sky+ to skip through advertising campaigns that companies have paid millions of pounds for)? Shedding their skin is not going to carry these industries successfully and profitably into our emerging future. They need to transform more radically - just as Wilkinson Sword did a hundred years ago, when its market for swords began to decline and it was forced to reinvent itself by transforming its expertise in blades into new markets: razor blades and garden tools.
Even entire societies and economies face a similar choice right now. Do we bail out our banks and failing financial institutions, propping up the dying economic systems they represent? Or do we engage with the deeper changes of our time and ask ourselves more fundamental, frightening questions? Questions like: Is it sustainable to build a society on debt? What are the risks and consequences, for people and planet? Do our current financial systems really serve the bigger picture? Is it time to dismantle the assumptions and structures that our economies have been built on and make space for a new understanding of money and value? To engage with these questions, we risk dying to what we have known, in order to find fundamentally new ways of being in the world.
When we do find the courage to turn into a deeper transformation, we are showered with its gifts: new life, new energy and new possibilities. Emerging from the cocoon, we may step into new levels of responsibility or embark on wholly new careers. Or perhaps we recommit to our previous job, yet bring our new self into it so that the way we do our work is different - we're freer, more empowered, more joyful, more alive.
Organisations return to growth after a period of decline or stagnation, revitalised by new perspectives, new beliefs and new expressions of their values. Our sense of identity expands, and with it our outer world also begins to get bigger. Metaphorically, we are reborn.
Apple's CEO Steve Jobs is an inspiring example of a leader who engaged Dying in this more radical way. Having started the company in his parents' garage in 1976, at the age of 30 Jobs had already reached the pinnacle of success. In 1985 Apple was a $2bn business with 4,000 employees. It had also just released what Jobs calls 'its finest creation' - the Macintosh. Then came the disruption - Jobs got fired from his own company! In a falling-out between Jobs and the newly appointed CEO, the Board of Directors sided with the CEO, and Jobs was out. Sharing his experience in a commencement speech to the graduating students at Stanford University, he articulated the cataclysm of this moment: 'What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.' So he entered into the Threshold. Although Jobs doesn't speak much about this part of his experience, we can be fairly sure that it was uncomfortable, disorientating and confusing for the previously high achieving Jobs.
Jobs' encounter with Dying made possible his famous success. 'I didn't see it then,' he told the Stanford graduates, 'but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.' During the next five years, Jobs started two new companies, NeXT and Pixar, and fell in love with his wife. Pixar went on to create the world's first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now a highly successful animation studio. Meanwhile, in an unexpected turn of events, Apple bought NeXT and Jobs returned to Apple. The technology developed at NeXT formed an important part of Apple's current renaissance. So his unexpected and unwanted encounter with Dying led Jobs into new opportunities, prosperity and happiness. As he acknowledges: 'I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple.'
To face Dying can be frightening. Yet ultimately, being willing to die to the past (and to who we have been in the past) is the only way to stay truly alive in a world that demands both life and death. If we don't let go of the past, we cannot find our way into the future. If we don't let go of who we have been, we cannot discover who we are becoming. Without Dying, life cannot sustain itself. As Goethe says, in 'The Holy Longing':
So long as you have not experienced this,
to die and so to grow,
you are merely a troubled guest on this earth.