When life seems perfect, I often dream about how beautiful it would be if everything were like that all the time ... and then, there’s a pause. What would it be like if everything were perfect all the time? Could you imagine a life, a family or a career that came up roses for ever and ever? I can certainly dream about it, but when I get to thinking about all of the big, innovative, positive discoveries and changes I’ve made in my life I start to realize they have almost all come from a place that wasn’t quite so perfect. In fact, the biggest innovations have followed traumatic, often quite tough, changes in my life and career. When something really big or traumatic happens in our lives, that is the time when personal innovation can really come into play. Please know that personal innovation should not imply pain-free or easy, or even accidental. As a matter of fact, personal innovation usually requires intentionality and is often embedded in pain, suffering, or confusion. I’ve recently spent some time with a few friends who are at a crossroads. I’ve been inspired watching them reflect, change course, take action and innovate to make change and challenge count toward something positive in their lives.
The Studious Empty Nester
A friend of mine is a new empty nester. He and his wife dropped their youngest child off at college and returned home to a completely different balance in their day-to-days. Empty nesting isn’t a surprise when it arrives; still, you get to this place where you know what’s changing around you but there’s a lack of clarity about what that means to your eye. My friend and I were commiserating about what that is like when he said, “Everybody’s life is changing; what about my life? Maybe my life should change, too.” Not long after, he enrolled in a course about repairing cars at a local community college. It wasn’t something easy for him that was in his field of expertise. He loves cars, but a mechanics course requires a lot of focus and discipline. What I love about his story of innovation is that it illustrates how innovation not only comes out of a great idea (in his case, going back to school) but also, how it requires discipline. You have to follow through on that idea for it to become a truly transformative innovation.
The Outsourcing Mother of Three
One of my friends just had her third child under four … wow! She’s juggling so much, between all that goes into having small children and a newborn, plus returning to work and managing a household. My friend has often talked about the guilt she feels about being a mother, and the many areas of her life that she feels she underperforms. So she made a decision to help free her from those feelings of guilt. This time around, she’s been intentional about outsourcing what she can. She relies on good child care and the help of friends and family to get her through her busy days. So many times I hear people respond to offers of help with a polite, “Thank you, that’s so nice,” never to follow up. Well, this friend decided to respond to those offers of help with a polite, “Thank you, I accept, here is what I need.” I’ve written before about how those who help benefit just as much as those who receive the help. My friend’s conscious decision to outsource what she can and accept the help of others not only frees her limited energy up for the things she needs to get done, but it also has helped to strengthen her relationships and build a community for her young family. She’s made it a point to create space in her life for herself now that she has the support of a strong network, which is a bold personal innovation that will have positive ripple effects for her family for decades to come. In her case, personal innovation was about experiencing community in a new way, and experiencing personal emotional freedom, without guilt.
The Mindful Executive
One of my friends is in the process of making a dramatic adjustment in his business, due to unforeseen changes in his staff. A core member of his team unexpectedly resigned. It was going to have a huge impact on his company’s structure, his team’s morale and their ability to get things done. I watched as my friend consciously decided to manage the amount of energy he dedicated to the news. Rather than fight against the situation, trying hard to not let anything change, he surrendered to it. He asked a lot of questions, and then accepted that there would be changes to the organization. I’ve watched so many people take staffing changes like this really personally and get caught up in the feelings of bewilderment, anger or rejection that accompany them. Instead of going there, my friend accepted and adapted. He didn’t get bogged down in the details. Rather, he was intentional about saying there’s going to be something good that came from the change. In the end, he and his team focused their efforts on creating a new structure that supported their work better. This was a personal innovation centered around acceptance and mindfulness.
The Inquisitive College Student
I know a rising junior in college who has yet to declare her major and spent the summer feeling fairly panicked about what she wants to do when she graduates. She felt like every class she took, and every class she dropped, had huge consequences on her future. So she started to reach out to a network of people she respects and admires, including students who love their majors, recent graduates who have jobs they enjoy and more experienced professionals like myself. She set up times to interview these people to ask them about how they arrived where they are. She listened to their answers to help her through a decision that was feeling increasingly difficult for her. By turning to a trusted network, she realized the value in support, community, and listening skills. I was amazed at this young woman’s insight into her own decision-making process and how that created an opportunity for her to tap her network and build relationships.
Post Traumatic Growth
What all of my friends have in common, besides innovating in times of change and crisis, is that they did not keep on doing the same thing in the face of a change. When I talk about personal innovation and life circumstances, I don’t mean you have to invent something new. What I mean is that you can figure out a different way to engage in a new life right where you are. It’s a choice about a different path, possibly a new path. There’s a psychological theory for this kind of transformation. It’s called post-traumatic growth (PTG). Developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, PTG is based on the belief that after surviving a trauma, "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life," according to Tedeschi. A scale that was developed to measure PTG, which includes looking for positive responses in five areas:
- Appreciation of life.
- Relationships with others.
- New possibilities in life.
- Personal strength.
- Spiritual change.
Of course, each of the situations my friends experienced were not traumatic in the sense of a devastating loss or illness. (Painfully, I’ve watched many of my loved ones grow through the loss of parents and marriages in this past year.) Yet these changes—whether joyous like the birth of a child; confusing, like the pressure to grow up quickly; surprising, like the resignation of a team member; or a mixture of sadness and happiness, like the advent of the empty nest—present small traumas in our lives, nonetheless. What will you do to innovate the next time you encounter one of these life-changing events? I hope you’ll let me know. In the meantime, I’ve found the following six steps helpful in guiding me toward my own personal innovation.
- Don't be alone.