Change Leadership: Check assumptions

“How did I go bankrupt?… Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises

This always pops into my mind when I’m thinking about how change happens. And not just the grim series of changes that leads to financial desperation, of course, but also the kind of change that leads to game-changing insights, fresh creativity, even liberation.

Recently, I’ve had one of those gradually-suddenly changes. A big one. And my friend Bill, over a bowl of Salt and Straw ice cream last Sunday (his, which we were both eating), suggested I share the story. “I think people might like to hear it,” he told me.

Shaun CassidyI remember vividly when my bright and shiny little sister learned about calendrical time. She came running downstairs where my tween friends and I were listening to Sean Cassidy and feeling cool. “Hey guys, guess what?!” she said breathlessly. “It’s May!” A beat pause, and then our group responded in blasé unison with the expression du jour, “NO, DUH.” (She ran from the room in tears.)

You’re considerably wiser and more compassionate than my gum-popping friends and I were, so I expect you’ll take in my discovery a bit differently. My sense of it, though, is similar to my sister’s: I’ve just figured out it’s May. (A month many have no doubt been living in for days.)

If you happened to glance at my last post, you may (or may not) remember I’ve just had a glorious stint of unlaxing in Baja, Mexico – a truly unplugged spring break. In the weeks before we left, I felt pressure mounting, and my own version of the GSD principle (Get S___ Done) kicked in.

A year into this grad school thing, I was in the home stretch of my heaviest term load yet. I had three deep-dive, scholarly papers to write – a new kind of undertaking – and was in varying stages of reading for them. I’d also had a vague idea I could write each of these papers in a few days, the way I’ve always written everything.

It was becoming increasingly clear: This was some serious magical thinking.

And it wasn’t unfamiliar. For at least 25 years, I’ve experienced this cycle. I’m not proud of it, but I’m committing wholeheartedly to laying it bare. (And I’m not saying this will resonate with any of you, but you might have a friend who’s experienced it.)

  1. Enthusiastically take on big load (important: ignore – or justify it to – loved ones shaking their heads in dismay).
  2. Work vigorously and rigorously to move the mounting list of to-do’s along.
  3. Use a raft of time-management and self-disciplinary tactics to squeeze more progress into less time.
  4. Accelerate into extreme GSD behavior, bailing out of more and more family, personal, and self-care commitments until, in a blur of early mornings, late nights and weekends, the S___ gets done.
  5. Feel triumphant, guilty, and utterly wiped out. (Which people around me pay for – especially those I most want to spare.)

800px-Car_crash_1We were headed for a crash. To up the ante, the one thing my partner has asked me for year over year, trip after trip, is to create some spaciousness around leaving. “I want to get excited together, to be present to it. If we’re refreshed and relaxed when we get on the plane, we’ll get so much more out of our time away,” she’d say. She imagined a leisurely dinner the night before leaving, walking hand-in-hand back home to get a nourishing night’s sleep before our early flight.

And here’s the (simple, almost embarrassingly obvious, but completely authentic and human) thing. Ten days before we were leaving for Baja, it suddenly occurred to me that I was the one who’d designed my schedule to include all these papers. I say suddenly; I credit this moment to the fact that even though I’d reduced my reflective time each morning to a thin, 8-minute slice, I was still doing it. My aha happened in the sliver of time between sitting and walking out the door to the office.

Suddenly, I felt more than saw the stack of assumptions sitting on top of these commitments: If I didn’t stay on track, I wouldn’t graduate on my original timeframe. If I didn’t turn them in, my faculty would be disappointed or lose interest in my work. If I wasn’t ready to start summer term on time, the opportunities to work with faculty who’d agreed to collaborate with me on a few unusual courses would be missed.

assumptionSeeing these assumptions, I could tell it was worth checking them out. Sure enough, taking incompletes in my coursework – which, I kid you not, had not even occurred to me before this moment – and stretching it over summer term wouldn’t actually change my timeframe for school. To a one, my faculty said, “That sounds like a great choice.”


We didn’t go out to a sweet, relaxing dinner the night before leaving, but we did get packed in time to have a great night’s sleep. And here’s the super duper extra bonus: I learned and thought about some things over spring break that dramatically changed how I approached the research and writing.

Newsflash: When you feel stress or pressure in some area of your life, you can bet there are ways you could be thinking about it – that could make a big difference – that you may not yet be able to see.

So here’s what I want to play with. I want to go looking for those. The next time I feel that GSD momentum kicking in, I want to ask myself: How am I thinking about this? What am I not considering?

Good luck.

Images appear courtesy, and Adam Gault on Getty Images

5 thoughts on “Change Leadership: Check assumptions

  1. Love the story, the lessons learned, and placing it in context of the opening quote. Makes me think of this one from Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”

  2. I love this story Julie! What an insightful moment! A lesson we all need to take to heart, thank you for sharing!

  3. Nice story Julie! I had this magnet-like feeling to check your blog today. I am going to slow down now. I agree with Corinne and Nick! Thank you!

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