Something about my daughter’s text, “When are you getting home?” alarmed me as I was getting off the plane on a beautiful summer evening in late August 2013. I suppressed my “mother instinct” to worry as I drove home and joined my husband on our patio. About 20 minutes later, Abby came out and asked if we could both talk. She was visibly stressed and anxious, which set off my alarm bells again.
A little back story … Abby was home from college for the summer and about to embark on her senior year as a graphic design major. She has always been a creative person … her preschool teachers entered her drawings in an art show … when her peers were dressed in jeans and oversized hoodies, she expressed her flare for fashion … she cultivated her instinct for the visual arts to decorate bedrooms and teenage spaces (her own and her friends). No surprise: she likes Pinterest! Deciding to major in graphic design seemed like a natural extension of her creative energy, and she was performing well in the graphic design program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, regionally known for this program. Meanwhile, she was getting accolades for her leadership skills in her summer job at a country club, where she supervised the poolside concession program. Members consistently gave her praise for her service orientation and problem solving skills; they had nominated her for an “employee of the year” award.
Back to the patio … she shared her story about being on campus a few weeks earlier to register for her fall classes when she experienced a dissonance between her education and her work – she likes graphic design, but loves leadership and management. She also realized that the work life of a graphic designer is mostly solitary – sitting in front of a computer, cranking out designs. As an extrovert, she worried it might not be energizing. So she’d investigated other options and decided that she would rather get an undergraduate degree in retail merchandizing and management with a minor in graphic design.
I was so relieved that this was all we were discussing (ok, I admit that my “mama bear” instinct goes from zero to 60 pretty quickly, imagining all the worst possibilities at any signs of danger!). When I noticed that she was crying, I asked her “why?” She was beating herself up for not listening to her inner voice a year earlier, worried about the cost of adding an extra year of college, and overwhelmed about launching into an entirely new course of study when her classmates were wrapping things up. She was afraid of making the change that her heart was telling her to choose. My husband and I both consoled her and shared that many people make changes in their careers … in college … a few years later … mid-career … and late-career. We’ve both had twists and turns in our careers, so we understood and supported her decision.
After switching to her new major, Abby’s schoolwork was fueled with a passion that transformed her from “a good to a great” student. She went into overdrive with her new goal, taking large credit loads, working 20-30 hours a week with a 45-minute commute to fulfill her “retail experience” requirement, and going above and beyond in her group projects. She overcame obstacles – including a bad car accident driving to work in a blizzard – and persevered because she wanted to succeed.
Last week, she landed her first professional position in the Buyer Training Program with Von Maur Department Stores and is excited to be on the path to her “dream job.” She is so happy that she had the courage to stare change in the face and make the bold move to follow her heart.
Spring is in the air, bringing welcome changes in our routines as the days grow longer and warmer. We embrace trees turning green, flowers, fresh air … and graduations. Abby’s graduation story has some parallels to my Zipper Story, which I shared last month. But I’d like to explore these themes through a few other facets.
- Challenge of Change – As a wellness practitioner earlier in my career, I created a presentation, “The Challenge of Change” to engage audiences in a process to break down the meaning of “challenge” and “change” and share their stories behind these insights. They told stories of bittersweet journeys that involved letting go of the old and embracing the new. Many times, the pain of change is so great that people choose the status quo, even though they want to lose weight, quit smoking, or start exercising. My challenge as a change agent was to make the change more realistic and inspiring for them.
- Career Transitions – Graduation, promotion, career growth, and retirement require us to face the challenge of change that Abby encountered and overcame. William Bridges, in his book Transitions, shows how we experience many of these challenging changes throughout our lives. He asserts that our modern society does not equip us to navigate normal life passages because we want change to be like a “light switch.” But we need to experience the bitter pill of “letting go” and an ambiguous time when old habits don’t work but new routines have not been established yet. No wonder we resist change – it’s hard work.
- Optimism and Hope – Seasoned cynics might view Abby’s story anticipating that even with this bright beginning, she’s not likely to live her whole career “happily ever after.” She will have bad bosses. She will hate some aspects of her work. She will get bored. Disappointed. Disillusioned. But these experiences may also present new moments of change. Let’s not forget our early optimism and dreams – they may hold the keys to our courage.
As Joseph Campbell says, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” That sums up Abby’s journey and reveals a glimpse into the challenge of change.