Transformation is Overrated. Here’s Why.
“Did it change your life?” she asked, encouraging confirmation that the workshop I recently attended transformed me. I wanted to collude with her and affirm that yes, THIS workshop FINALLY changed everything. She’d be utterly transformed too if she went. But, it hadn’t changed my life. So, I answered honestly (and anticlimactically), “It was really good.”
Here’s my big secret: I hate the word transformation. It’s the holy grail of personal development (and I’m a leadership coach for God’s sake, so should be lapping it up) but searching for it makes me feel like the fourteen-year old girl who’s as flat as a board watching all her peers sprout perky, enviable breasts. ‘When will I transform into a more desirable and unrecognizable form of myself?’ Then I look down and realize I’m still just untransformed me. Ugh.
Culturally, we feed off the extreme, dramatic and sensational. We’re transfixed by reality shows that profile homely girl turned glamor diva (hello, Carrie Underwood) and love the Arianna Huffington mythology: exhausted from working 18-hour days she passed out, woke up in a pool of blood, and promptly turned her life around and led The Sleep Revolution. We’re awed by the family who trades urban living for life-off-the-grid or the Wall Street exec who becomes disillusioned with their impact and starts a nonprofit to promote clean water in the developing world. Anything less than a 180-degree, abrupt and permanent shift in our appearance, beliefs, or behaviors reveals that we haven’t transformed ‘enough’: we’re inadequate.
Many of us aren’t living at one extreme and jolted into a sudden metamorphosis, though. Many of us are shifting and changing in small ways as we grow into who we most want to be. What if we treasured the formative experiences with the same vigor that we celebrate the transformative?
If we recognized the formative moments, I trust we’d be less disappointed that we’re falling short or missing something and could notice the ways we are changing and developing. It might fuel more hope.
And we have formative experiences everyday if we open our eyes to them.
One happened to me at a recent St. Patrick’s Day party when my Irish neighbor captivated the group of rowdy Guinness drinkers by singing acapella in Gaelic. Her lilting voice mesmerized us and it moved me. I listened with wonder: How can I gather the same courage to move people with my voice? Gratitude and inspiration morphed into a formative experience; it helped me acknowledge I do want to write more.
It happened this past January when my daughter turned nine. Halfway to likely leaving for college, I reconsidered how I wanted to support, connect with, and influence her. It led to monthly 1:1 dinners with each of my kids (which, in the madness of scheduling, realistically happen quarterly) and reducing my work schedule this summer for the first time in my career. I’m not homeschooling her (my sanity matters to me) but watching her blow out candles nudged me to re-allocate my time. It was formative.
And it happened four years ago when I vented with a fellow coach that I felt restless. Even with a meaningful, flexible job and a healthy bun in the oven, I couldn’t just ‘appreciate where I was’ or shake my ever-present nervous energy. Six minutes into our brief conversation, the coach looked at me, and said: “It seems like there’s a volcano brewing in you just waiting to erupt.”
She put words to the emotional and physical experience I’d been denying. The volcano metaphor, call it trite or obvious, helped me eschew guilt and claim my desire to erupt. It got something in me unstuck.
Anticlimactically, I didn’t immediately quit my day job or morph into some brazen and daring future self. But, the new awareness helped me make tweaks, and a few more, and two years later I went out on my own. Creativity and independence erupted in some form and the restlessness subsided (until it comes again).
I believe these experiences formed me versus radically altered who I am or my life trajectory. They woke me up, clarified a value, or helped me take action. And I see formative experiences impacting my clients all the time. It’s the person who finally delivers caring, candid feedback and internalizes that relationships can thrive with hard truths. He still leads with sensitivity, but honesty is more present. It’s the client who practices asking more questions instead of asserting solutions to direct reports. She still leverages her expertise, but this burden to always have the answer is lifted. It’s the person who stops saying ‘I don’t know’ when tasked with how to proceed in an emotionally complex situation and instead offers his musings. He’s still uncertain, but he can play with previously inaccessible possibilities.
Society begs us to be dissatisfied absent a complete overhaul of who we are. As a result, we often see more subtle, formative experiences as worthy only if their accumulation leads us to transformation. While transformation can be valuable or even imperative, if we’re doggedly pursuing it as our goal, we miss things. I believe single, formative experiences have deep value even if transformation doesn’t ensue or isn’t desired; they matter on our journey of humanity.
So instead of shopping for that metaphorical padded bra, buying time until those enviable bosoms (maybe) emerge and lamenting that it hasn’t happened ‘yet’, I’d ask us all to consider: What recent shift has further formed you and how might that be more than enough?