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7 August 2021

Reconciling Experience with Expectations

Written by
Fred Jones

If time really “flies,” we’d better take a breath.

Our perception of time as dictated by the pace and intensity of work, parenting or other pursuits may tell us something about the extent to which we feel in control of our lives. Are we being pulled along by all that is happening, aided by expectations we’ve internalized that we keep up and keep going at nearly all costs? Or, can we shape how it all happens?

The beyond-our-control complexity of the world can leave us not just overwhelmed but disoriented. Still, we put energy into pretending to ourselves and the world that we are in control. We think we’re supposed to show others that we’ve “got this” even when filled with doubts.

And how would we know if we do or don’t? Something inside tells us we must slow down and at least check in with ourselves about whatever is whirling around us or within us. Maybe it seems better to not really look.

When I ask leaders what patterns they keep for checking in with themselves in a reflective way, few have much to say. At times they seem powerless in the face of ongoing patterns: a calendar that fills itself with meetings, too many of which only vaguely need the leader and are attended out of concern for missing out on something. Their attention is dominated by those with the unchecked power to grab it. They move from thing to thing, context to context, running on default settings and with unquestioned ways of showing up. And without fully considering possible shifts in what’s important and what’s at stake. Occasionally, they get moments of respite or distraction, plus a morning jog or a commute that offers some privacy.

What is it like to not account sufficiently for what’s going in our lives, and potentially to continue unreconciled to it? It can mean we’re carrying around some disconnect between expectations and our real experience, often affected by surprises that have disrupted our ease and seem, at least at first, adverse. Here’s a starter list: A decision made from “above”’ that sidetracks your project, a team member who leaves, a metaphorical fire that takes others’ attention away from urgently needed decisions, a reorganization seems to have implications no one is willing to talk about. At home, a child struggles in school, a parent falls ill and may be losing their independence, your Saturday cycling group falls apart, a loss that has gone unrecognized.

Putting things back the way they were, especially when guided by nostalgia, is a waste of energy. Acting like everything is okay when it is not also diverts energy from better uses. Recognizing the gaps and having a conversation with them (yes, a conversation with a gap) and those involved, is the path for coming to terms with them. Redefined terms that we can live with and even embrace. Redefining often follows from reframing what it means, which itself can result from taking different perspectives on what’s happening and what’s possible.

Reconciliation doesn’t necessarily happen quickly, though not at all if we don’t attend to it. It takes patience. With complex issues, I am not so much trying to make everything seem okay as fast as possible as I am staying engaged until generative possibilities show: when I am less wobbly within and more open to the good that can come through what’s challenging. Slowing down in this way allows for a longer sense of time to kick in—beyond the discomfort of right now.

How about you? If you accept that the kind of reflection sketched here is necessary to catch up with yourself, including how you’ve been thrown by the complexity of life and leading something, practical questions remain about when and how. To begin, I recommend what I call a weekly review. 

Find a time (yes, you can), once a week, and a place (with your preferred beverage) to separate yourself from the whirlwind and look backwards. Use the template here (or make up your own), that enables you to check in with yourself. Then look forwards, anticipating what’s important for the next week, given what’s in motion, and to sort through where and how you want to show up in those issues, perhaps despite what is on your calendar.

If you print the first two sheets, mark them up and save them, you can look back over time to see what’s similar and different in them over time (the third sheet helps with this part). This may help you clarify the challenges you face and how they may be developing your adaptive capacity to stay with what’s complex. Having a buddy for this, at least some of the time, is fantastic. If you have a coach, make it a feature of your partnership. If you are starting from scratch, getting a coach for a season might put you on track to develop the reflective practices that will sustain you over time, on your own.

There are times to enlarge this kind of reflection, times that may be transitional periods in your own story. You may want greater space and separation from what’s going on to open up and assess possibilities, to reboot your engagement with your life and renew. The best label I know for this is a sabbatical. You can design your own, even on partial time. A coach can help you. You can join a group, like the one that Diana Renner and I have been designing, which should be available in early 2022. Reflecting on where we’ve been and looking toward the next horizons from wherever we find ourselves. Keep an eye out! In the meantime, others interested in the solo path on sabbaticals are welcome to contact me fred@cultivatingleadership.com.

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