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Succeeding, in 3 Million Moments (and counting!)


In these moments around my 70th birthday (that transitional milestone when, our granddaughter says, I'm becoming "old"), I've been reflecting on life so far, how I've been doing (so far), and might do better. 

I'm going to limit myself in this post to sharing on three of the topics occupying my attention in this moment of transition: time, transition, and success. And how much those three concepts overlap — especially when recast into verb form, as I believe nouns often should be. 

Magic Moments

Time makes sense when we break it into units to measure its passage. Years, months, days. Decades, centuries, millennia. And so on.  Nice, neat, defined chunks.

But what about fuzzier bits of time, like "moments"? Here's a place we can shift to verb forms: Being in the moment. Taking a moment. Having a moment.

In these senses, a moment might last a few minutes, like being fully present and engaged with another person. Or a few seconds, like pausing to regain control of your emotions. Or a few hours, like those transcendant times when you get into a flow state and produce work you're proud of or give the performance of your life (so far).

YvonnesEyesSmallOr a microsecond. Like when a stranger named Yvonne asked a question in a business group discussion. And I rose to offer a suggestion.

And she turned to look at me with those eyes.

Moments like these are defined by the meaningful activity that occurs, not by clocks. They have a story arc. We can identify three phases, a beggining, middle, and end point.

Meaningful Moments

But wait, how did I come up with the 3 million moments — 3,068,040 to be exact — in my 70 years (so far)? That takes us back to my lawyer days and the rationale behind our law firm's rule setting the minimum block of billable time we were allowed to enter on our time sheets at two tenths of an hour. That's 12 minutes.

Arbitrary though that may seem, it correlates nicely with my definition of moments as bounded by meaningful activity, including their three phase nature. Take a very simple action, like returing a phone call. The client might at first perceive it as them getting a two minute voice message.

But at my end, I may have been interrupted by my secretary popping in with a message slip from the client marked as urgent. As a litigation lawyer, this required me to stop thinking about whatever I was doing, remember the current status of that client's case, perhaps pull out the file to check for anything new, and consider what the client might be calling about, as well as potential responses. All of this before picking up the phone to return the call.

In this example, I might wait a few seconds for the call to connect, a few more while it rings, and possibly a few minutes while the client's receptionist ascertains whether the client is available to take my call. Then a couple more minutes recording my message. After hanging up, I would at a minimum spend a bit longer making notes about the calls, scheduling a reminder for followup, and thinking about whether anything more needed to be done for that client right away. Followed by time to refocus on whatever I'd been doing.

12 minutes begins to look conservative, eh? We also held ourselves to consider whether to enter any time at all, if very little time was spent, based on whether anything meaningful had occurred in service to the client. Sound familiar?

So my 3,068,040 moments in my 70 years (so far) might seem arbitrary, but they're rooted in that notion of meaningful activity. So stay with me a few more. 

Transitional Moments

Look back at the moments described above, from a microsecond to hours, to 12-minute meaningful acitivity blocks. Each example can be viewed as a three phase story arc. Another way to understand them emerges, however, when you look at the spaces between the moments.

In his book, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, William Bridges contends that our transitions — adolescent to adult; pupil to professional; wife to widow; employee to entrepreneur (and note that in many of these examples, the direction can be reversed) — and how we handle them, may be more important than stages we occupy before and after. He argues that transitions (not just external changes) require a three phase process: letting go, a neutral zone, then beginning anew.

The neutral zone he descibes as a time and experience of chaos, confusion, discomfort, but also one where "people gain access to their deeper creative energies and impulses" — a realm of "utter possiblity."

Bridges compares this transitional process, particularly the neutral zone phase, to societal rituals like vision quests that take substantial time. But I can testify that chaos, confusion, and creativity applied fully to my "microsecond moment" when I transitioned from not knowing Yvonne to planning how I would set getting to know her in motion before the meeting ended!

This three phase way of looking at change, growth, and handling life's difficulties is not just a Western business consultant approach. I'm currently reading Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit, by Candice Kumai. In the chapter on "the priciple of gaman — the ability to endure by remaining calm, patient, and reslient" she captures the transition phases this way (numbers added):

[1] "When you begin to let go,
[2] "you open up your heart to wonderful
[3] "new people and exciting new possibilities."

I can't help acknowledging that I'm writing this, going through whatever sort of transition turning 70 brings, during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Moving from east to west, the gaman principle of endurance and resilience courses through the beautiful poem, Cocoon, written as part of a pandemic survival series by Brother Richard Hendrick, a Dublin-based Franciscan friar.

And once again in these excerpts, the three phase transition process shines through as a beacon we can follow for our own re-emergences:

. . . .
To cocoon means
The breaking down of self,
Of letting go of all
that may be considered
Yielding to the chrysalis call.
Dropping all that is old identity
. . . .

The Caterpillar dissolves,
Touches the point of nothingness
Of being;
Become now
Neither Caterpillar
Nor Butterfly
Become simply, potential,
. . . .

And Butterfly is birthed,
bursting blessing, beauty.
A journey through stillness
into freedom,
Into flight,
No one who knew the Caterpillar
Would know it in the Butterfly,
No one who knows the Butterfly
Would see in it
Even the memory
Of Caterpillar,
Yet within there is
A continuity of being
A new recipe out of old ingredients
A life remade, a seed flowered, a potency fulfilled
. . . .

Link to full text of ‘Cocoon’ by Brother Richard Hendrick, Friday, 08 May 2020.

Mixed-up Moments

One aspect of transitioning I've struggled with myself and don't want to over-simplify: we are always going through them. Lots of them. And, simultaneously, we're also living in nice, comfortable "stages" in other facets of our lives.

In terms of my "PIERS" whole-self model, we often see our lives in distinct parts that I've labeled, Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Relational, and Spiritual. So in the intellectual, emotional, and relational parts, you might have graduated with a new, career-related degree, landed a job with people you enjoy working with, and have a stable, loving family who are just as proud of you. But all that academic and office work has left you over-weight and out of touch with your spiritual self.

So you're now in or about to enter transitions in those parts. You will likely spend different lengths of time in different transition phases in each.

Now multiply that bit of complexity by realizing that all of the PIERS facets contain many facets of their own!

I tried to capture this complexity in the image for this post, using the many rows of numbers, letters, and characters layered over, under, and through the fractal-like image of a 70-year-old head. Bridges used the observations expressed by his dying wife to paint this word picture:

". . . life is made up of transistions at any level of detail you choose to look.
. . . transitions are not limited to times of major change,
being born and dying, marrying and changing careers.

. . . through her I saw the same pattern in all the tiny everyday relinquishments
and all the little beginnings of some new-way-things-are.

. . . Transitions are like those fractals in chaos diagrams,
figures that replicate themselves
at every level of magnification . . ."

Yet, out of such complexity . . .

Succeeding in the Transitions

Like most people, I've had successes and failures over the course of seven decades. And like all of us, my life can't be summed up in the middle of the race. (Those who know me will recall I've set my target as 130.)

But before we can decide whether any of our stages or transitions, let alone our lives, have succeeded, shouldn't we have a good working definition? What does it mean to succeed? Well, I prefer the simple variant definition that fits our main subject:

"come after and take the place of"
(which is true to the Latin root, succedere, "come close after")

Yvonne and I often attribute our "good outcome" successes to our ability to pivot, which is another way of saying transition. We've zig-zagged across the country and back, through multiple business startups and endings, and supported each other in our individual pursuits.

Looking back, the main unifying theme that drew us into the successful transitions — not always consciously, I'll admit — was finding new ways to help others. From self-publishing books, to building blogs, to focusing on the pet industry, to moving closer to family and helping with the grandkids, I'm ever more aware that what makes us happy is the same thing that motivated our pivots.

Clayton Christensen explains it this way in his book, How Will You Measure Your Life? The famed business professor had recently suffered an ischemic stroke that greatly impaired his ability to speak and write. Working hard to regain those, he found himself focusing on himself and his slow progress. He describes it as a numbing, downward spiral of despair, in which the more he focused on himself, the less energy he could apply to recovery.

In his words (emphasis added), 

"I recognized that I had come to a fork in the road. I could . . . focus on myself. Or I could change paths. I resolved that I needed to refocus . . . And as I did that — focusing on resolving others' challenges rather than my own — the despair fled, and I felt happy again."

He advises us to resist the culture of success as numbers of people managed, awards received, or dollars accumulated. Instead, he counsels that the only metrics that truly matter are "the individuals whom [we] have been able to help."

I'll add that finding your way to helping more people will almost certainly require you to change paths many times. I view change as the playing field for us to engage in the transition process. You change. Your abilities, availability, and resources change. The world around you changes. The people close to you, as well as those who most need your help change.

Your awareness and openness and willingness to go through the transition process in response to change dictates how well you will succeed.

Now, after 70

Michelangelo got the gig to redesign St. Peter's at the age of 71, while still painting The Last Judgment. He was still working on the Basilica when he died 18 years later, reputedly explaining in his last words, "I am still learning."

I've taken up learning Japanese, to better communicate with two of my grandkids. And I'm always "still learning" to improve my ability to help clients.

What else? Impossible to predict. One way to look at it, though, based on my target of 130, means another 60 years . . . or, more than 2.6 million moments!

So I'll close with a Confucius quote, because I love that he begins with learning and his line "At seventy" (although you'll immediately see that his arbitrary timeline conflicts with my fuzzy concept of time and rejection of linear progress):

"At fifteen I set my heart upon learning.
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground.
At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities.
At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.
At sixty, I heard them with docile ear.
At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right."

For a deeper introduction, download my free ebook, Pivot: Learning Why, When, and How to Change Course with Purpose: