Between Trapezes

By Jim Selman | Bio

I think there is a time when we realize that ‘what got us here’ isn’t sufficient to get us ‘where we want to go’. These times are the transition points in life, the points where we have an opportunity to make major choices and embark on a new phase of our lives—to experience a transformation in how we observe and relate to ourselves, other people and the world in general. I can recall having this feeling when I left home for college, again when I got married, when my children were born and at various times when I changed the direction of my career.

I think most of us face the hard questions about who we are and what our life is about when we retire. I don’t think you need a special occasion, however, to experience a transformation. A transformational moment can happen anytime we realize that we have a choice we didn’t know we had. These moments often come as a surprise, and are often accompanied with a rush of excitement combined with a touch of terror.

Transformational moments are like swinging between two trapezes: they are moments when we recognize the need to let go of one trapeze before we are sure we can catch the next one. If we do let go, it can be very scary until we reach the other side. Even though we have lots of evidence that we’ll survive, it is no less frightening to let go of who we think we are to discover who we might be. The mind can conjure up lots of reasons for hanging on to the comfortable and familiar and not letting go even when we know it isn’t working or that we’ve reached the limits of what is possible in the game we’re playing. Even when we ‘know’ it is time to move to another level or open up to new experiences, we continue in our habitual patterns and delay taking action.

I came face to face with such a moment this week in a conversation with a marketing guru about a project I am working on. He ‘showed me’ that my language and way of communicating might be rigorous and understandable to people who know my work and perhaps academics, but was not likely to attract or connect with the general public. I call this a transformational moment because my communication style and language has pretty much defined who I am for the past 30 years or so. As he was speaking, I realized that I agreed with much of what he was saying but didn’t want to change my way of communicating. I could year my ‘little voice’ screaming:

 “YES, BUT…I am successful because of how I communicate and I don’t know if I can or want to change—and to change my communication style, I would have to change my whole way of being and my beliefs about who I am and maybe everything else….”

This was not a conversation about mere words and phrases in a brochure. I have a closely held belief that my way of speaking (and listening) is the basis of whatever I’ve been able to contribute, plus communication is my area of supposed ‘expertise’. What this man was proposing is that, while this may be true in a limited sense, it could also be seen as the ‘box’ that is limiting my effectiveness. He was challenging me to look at whether I am more committed to my communication style than I am to producing results. He was proposing that being understood is more important than being precise and technically accurate. He was pointing to the trapeze that I was holding onto, while showing me the possibility of another—another style or way of being. He was showing me the possibility of a transformation.

Now I have experienced many transformations in my life. Intellectually, I believe I understand a lot about this subject. Nonetheless, I am also now painfully reminded that we never really get to the other side. There is always another trapeze, there is always another possibility, there is never a ‘right’ way of being. We are always susceptible to becoming trapped in our own story, our own success, and becoming comfortable with the status quo. I don’t know whether this is a function of ignorance, arrogance, denial, cognitive blindness or just habit. I do know it can blind us to possibility and lead to resignation or complacency.

For this reason, I am grateful to my marketing friend and others in my life who can tell me what they see in a manner that allows me to see what I cannot see. When this happens, I have a moment when I realize that I am blind … and that allows me to see the possibility of making a choice I didn’t know I had. This is a transformational moment. In this instance, an opportunity to work hard to ‘unlearn’ my communication style and do the work to create a new one. Assuming I am able to accomplish this, I will have reached a new trapeze. Based on my past experience, I will then have two styles. But the thing about letting go of one trapeze in pursuit of the next is that there are no guarantees.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.