THE ELDER Blog

Between Trapezes

Thursday, January 15, 2015

By Jim Selman

I love the metaphor of being 'between Trapezes'. In one image it connotes the comfort and familiar arc of my current life, the emerging possibility of moving from where I am onto an entirely new trajectory, and most compelling -- the excitement and terror of letting go and confronting that existential moment where annihilation seems to be a genuine possibility.

Charles Dubois once said that the most important thing in life is the willingness to let go of who we are to realize who we can be. This distinction between the 'real' and the 'possible' is always with us, whether we're conscious or not. Our 'normal' lives and patterns are mostly habit; behaviors we've learned and embodied, and that happen without thinking. Our 'after-behavior' conversations, whether of appreciation and satisfaction or guilt and regret, are a never ending and usually circular commentary on our lives, which itself becomes part of the habitual patterns that keep us 'gripping' the trapeze we have as if that is all there is. As we swing between the positive and negative aspects of our experience we rarely appreciate that it is all part of one big 'swing', and that we're simply holding on rather than making conscious choices and intentionally generating our future.

Its paradoxical that our 'reality', which is basically everything we know about everything along with whatever we can imagine, is on one hand the 'box' that keeps us trapped into a self-referential relationship with life, while at the same time is the possibility of creating possibilities outside of that box. In other words, when we realize (and surrender to the fact) that we are existing in a closed system, we can begin to distinguish the relationship between everything we know (and everything we believe to be 'real') and anything else that 'might be', including all the things that are impossible, unthinkable and contrary to our habitual understanding of the world. The other trapeze might just be a figment of our imagination, but we won't know unless and until we let go. If you have evidence that something is possible, it isn't a possibility, but is an example of something that already exists.

One example of how this idea can manifest in the real world is in sports. The most 'winning college basketball coach' in history was John Wooden at UCLA, who proclaimed that the difference between winning a championship and building a dynasty is the commitment to let go of everything at the end of each season. It is only when we try to hold onto our ideas about why we are successful that we get stuck, and in our attempt to repeat the past we defeat the possibility of greatness.

I think this metaphor is relevant not only in terms of our individual relationship with change and possibility, but also apropos to the kinds of challenges we face as organizations, communities and even society as a whole. The last 50 or 100 years have been extraordinary in virtually every domain. We've created and accomplished more than our grandparents could ever have imagined. In virtually every area of human existence and concern we've witnessed and benefited from countless breakthroughs -- and as with all breakthroughs the added potential for negative and unintended outcomes.

The challenges for leaders everywhere is how to disconnect from the past (let go) sufficiently enough to create new structures of interpretation, accomplish breakthroughs and break the cycle of 'the more things change the more they stay the same'. What has allowed us to have unprecedented success in the past will not necessarily help us succeed in an unpredictable future. If we continue to do the same things over and over or variations along the same 'swing', we will certainly get more of the same.

Learning to 'let go' is not easy. We often will try to hold onto something that isn't working rather than confront the unknown or risk the possibility of failure. This is part of our habitual way of being in which we are blind to action, and the fact that there is no way any of us can ameliorate the risk and discomfort of committing to a possibility before there is evidence that something is possible. This was probably the case the first time we rode a bicycle, jumped in a swimming pool or pointed our skis down the hill. It was also probably the case the first time we were vulnerable and open enough to fall in love. Letting go is always easy after the fact, and can seem impossible before the fact.

Finally, as illustrated in the metaphor of being between trapezes, is the question of time. It isn't possible to let go in a minute or 'later'; we can only 'let go now' and time will seemingly stand still until the new reality emerges and we're grounded in a new context and space for whatever is next. In that moment of choice, we are 100% committed, have let go of our past and of control and are fully alive in the space between these two realities. The only time we can act, the only time we can let go, is right now.

The more that is at stake, the more compelling the possibility, the more dissatisfaction we have with the status quo -- the more urgent the call to action. To let go.


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