If you’re ever at a loss for something to talk about at a dinner party, try asking those around you the following question, “How do you react to change?” And then just see where the conversation takes you.
Change can be invigorating. It can be hard. It can be polarizing. Change can be many things, but it is rarely ever boring.
I recently announced my plan to leave my role as my District’s leader and also shared the news that there will be several changes to other leadership roles within the district.
Whether in my own personal experience of transition or the responsibility of shepherding others through a time of transition, I am experiencing what I have often found to be true about change: Every person and every organization is impacted by change differently and, like with any loss, there are different stages of emotions around the change that are important to hold space for.
Anyone who knows me knows I like change. I don’t like change for change-sake, but I find change exciting. It motivates me. I’m intrigued by the unknown and inspired by the potential of the possible.
However--and this is something all good leaders must more than just recognize, they must internalize--change is not something all people like. Those averse to change can intellectually appreciate its necessity, but emotionally and experientially, change for them can be an anxiety-inducing rush of emotion and uncertainty. The result is an uncomfortable untethering from what they know and trust.
We all fall somewhere on this comfort continuum regarding change. We also have different reactions depending on the type of change and the degree it impacts us personally.
Much is written about managing times of transition and by no means is this short blog going to offer any novel ideas. However, as we are 770 days out from the beginning of one of the most life changing seasons in modern American history and as it is spring--a time in American public school systems where most of the anticipated changes for the following school year are announced, I thought it an appropriate time to reflect on the four most important lessons I have learned about personal and collective change.
Change is inevitable. In any therapeutic, religious, or self-help regulating approach, acceptance is key. You can’t do anything about something you’re unwilling to accept. So in the wise words of David Bowie, “Turn and face the strange cha…cha…cha…changes.”
Take the time to understand your relationship to change. Whether it is personal or collective transition and whether the change is something you’ve chosen or that over which you have no choice or control, taking the time to reflect on how the change is likely to impact you and staying ‘in touch’ with yourself before, during and after is key. If you find yourself anxious, unsettled, or dysregulated and you're not really sure why, check in with yourself. Maybe it's your body, mind, or spirit’s way of alerting you to a reaction to external or internal change in your life. Conversely, if you find yourself energized and empowered and you're not necessarily sure where that’s coming from, maybe it’s an excitement of the possibility the future holds amidst change. Use that. Celebrate it.
Hold space for the journey of others. Don’t assume everyone around you is experiencing the change in the same way you are. I am constantly reminded of this as a husband and father. Unlike me, my wife is less enthusiastic about change; if it is a change she can eventually get behind, she’s deftly able to get there, especially when she sees me excited, but it’s a process for her. I have had to learn to give her space to arrive wherever it is she’s going to arrive in whatever time it is going to take for her to get there. I owe her the respect of listening to how it is impacting her. I have to release the expectation that she will see and experience the change in the same way I am. And, I owe it to her to share my feelings and experience of the change as well. And don’t even get me started about managing change as a parent where even the introduction of a new vegetable a four year old has never seen before can send any otherwise pleasant meal into a tailspin--that’s a whole other blog. Suffice to say, being a partner and a parent is good practice for holding space for how others experience change.
Be open to the good that change can bring. Lastly, and this is an important one for me and something I find myself reflecting on quite a bit at this season in my life. When I think about the accomplishments I am most proud of in my time as a Superintendent, my career in general, and my personal life, all of the most noteworthy were messy, hard, and even controversial on some level. As an optimist by nature, I have never really understood why some people find comfort in focusing so much on what could go wrong, rather than making more space for what could go right. If I can accept that change is part of life and if I know I have a choice in how to navigate my relationship to the change, I guess I see only upside to framing it as a wonderful possibility. Life is just lighter that way and when we carry fewer burdens--especially those that are just possible, not even likely sometimes--then we have more capacity for delight, joy, peace, and celebration. Nature is a perfect guide for us in handling change. You cannot experience the spring, unless you endure the winter.
From expected life changes like graduations, jobs, relationships and parenthood to massive upheaval like a pandemic that comes out of left field and changes everything, we know change will never be too far away. So at our next dinner party, let’s raise a glass to change and all the possibilities it offers.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.