By Susan Birkenshaw
On December 8, 1989, having reached my late 30s, I “retired” from my long-standing employment with the Ontario government. Over numerous summer assignments while still in school and permanent jobs, my focus was always on the education and personal growth of the people I managed. I found it fascinating that it did not matter what job we were doing or the level of responsibility or accountability a team member had, we were the most successful in meeting goals and simply “Getting the job done!” when each individual was acknowledged, encouraged, and rewarded both professionally and personally. There is nothing more rewarding than to watch the growth of the staff around me.
Fast forward to the time of my “retirement.” I had been in a position where I trained executives in public service for a variety of subjects and tasks – developing skills for leadership, management and labour relations. The most ironic subject that I was faced with was “how to make early retirement work for you!” Imagine an under 40-year-old person, teaching long term civil servants (often over 60) how to make the best of early retirement options.
THEN – I had a “lightbulb” moment – with my years of service and the new program that the government was offering, I was eligible for one of these retirement options! Suddenly, I was unemployed, at my choice. I now had the opportunity to create my next future. I had to learn the true meaning of transition, transformation, and growth!
This was at the time when self-help books were raining from every bookshelf, self-styled gurus were popping up on every street corner and flyers for new personal growth courses arrived in your snail mailbox on a regular basis. This also was before the advent of email, internet, and the ubiquitous AOL disc! I knew two things in my soul – I loved working with adults and having meaningful conversations where opinions were shared and challenged with respect, and I craved being my own boss – maybe not forever but to experience that feeling of self-power. OOOH, I had so much to learn!
After many starts and revisions, I was and am a private coach and educator in the simple art of personal communication. As I proceeded to work with many people who found themselves frustrated with their lack of success in communicating what they wanted to say, I finally put together a short but simple message to demonstrate the goal of each training session: “Transform to Keep the Good Stuff – Thrive with the New.” Change is usually just a cosmetic alteration – a coat of paint, a new window, or a new clothing style. Actual transformation is an alteration or replacement of things that are not working, and we must remember that the results of transformation are not returnable.
I designed a program called ThrivalQuest©.
Consider the caterpillar. This small, maybe bright green worm creeps about in its environment and finally picks a spot to create a chrysalis to move on to her next life. In this chrysalis, she alters her complete make-up, goes through a soupy goo stage, and ultimately recreates herself and comes out as a beautiful butterfly (or moth) to live on anew. The thing to remember here is there is nothing left of the caterpillar – no cellular similarities, no memories and likely not even any of the same colours.
Now we come to my forever favourite – the Dragonfly – this magnificent creature challenges all of us to see movement in a different way, colour in its many layers and just simply to SEE. Her magic begins in her early life – from egg to larva to adult dragonfly. The most wondrous thing about this whole process – anywhere from 3 months up to 5 years – she keeps the parts and cells that will work in the next stage, rejecting things that will control her growth – like her hard-shelled exoskeleton.
In other words, she keeps the good things about herself and rejects the things that hold her back. Clearly, I am not a scientist and I find the minute detail of the process that a dragonfly goes through to achieve such beauty a bit overwhelming – but I did and do find the analogy of her process was a perfect fit for my clients: “Shed the Old Coat that No Longer Fits!”
I still use the beautiful dragonfly to support me in any conversation I have about transformation. Each time I hear someone tell me that something must things have to change – my first challenge is “Everything? Or can we take small steps over time?” More often than not, there is a long pause in the conversation, and we begin again – what needs to be different? How fast does this need to happen? What will need to happen to achieve our goal? I do know that if we want to thrive in our currently weird environment, we need to be flexible. We can neither change everything nor keep everything the same in our lives – but if we are selective about who and what we keep around us, we will thrive.
I suggest as we come to a time where our world transitions through drastic change both personally and globally – take a good hard look at your “old normal.” This is when you can identify all the stuff that is holding you in a place where you may no longer be comfortable. With that list in hand, these are the questions you need to ask yourself. Is this still true? Is this still important to my life? Does it give me pleasure? Can I keep that thing or that person in my life and still respect myself? Am I being honest? And finally, what are you going to do next with your new knowledge?
This is ridiculously hard and may take a long time, so I strongly suggest the time is now! If the pandemic has given us anything, it is the gift of time to design and prepare to take the next steps in our lives.
Susan Birkenshaw-Keith is a storyteller and a personal communications specialist. She has retired from active clients and enjoys the creative arts, writing her life stories and living in Huatulco.