Mar 102011

Change can be unwanted and upsetting. Life gets hard when too many things change at one time or when something we love exactly the way it is, something we have depended on forever, is yanked out from underneath us. Author M.J. Ryan in her book AdaptAbility argues that current events have put us in a state of “permanent whitewater.”

“The only thing any of us can know for certain is that life will continue to change at a rapid pace because the world has gotten more complex and interdependent. Organizational consultant Peter Vail calls this “permanent whitewater,” referring to a time of ongoing uncertainty and turbulence. We can’t see exactly where these changes are headed or where the submerged rocks are, yet when we’re tossed out of the boat, we want to make sure to swim not sink. . . . [Experienced rafters] expect the whitewater. And so should we.

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

M.J. Ryan knows whitewater conditions. When she turned 40, her husband of 14 years and business partner decided to end their marriage. The publishing company she founded experienced a significant downturn in revenues and the entire publishing industry changed. Her 30 years of experience in publishing could not save the company and she had to sell it. She could no longer afford her home and had to sell and move. She lost one-third of her savings in the 2003 stock market downfall. Times were bleak. Fortunately, she went on to create a new career for herself as an author and consultant, married again and adopted a child from China. But none of us can escape the whitewater conditions, and to this day she admits suffering anxiety over any downturn in her business, worrying about what the future will bring.

Ryan’s perspective is radically different from Chip and Dan Heath and John C. Maxwell. For example, the subtitle of her book is: “How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For.” Remember John C. Maxwell indicates that a “survival” mentality is the sign of an unsuccessful person, whereas a successful person focuses on “progress.” Chip and Dan Heath have us riding elephants of change, implying we have at least some control over our situation, even if our beast of burden can be unwieldy. Ryan’s primary metaphor has us victims dumped overboard, swirling in the whitewater, inviting anxiety, fear and a sense of inevitability. The first two thirds of her book are primarily about seeking inner peace and acceptance of the situation using techniques like meditation. I wasn’t sure if this was a message I was going to relate to.

Yet, after reading her book, I have a great respect for her perspective. Ryan has a lot more life experience than I do and her book speaks especially to women and to older people. Despite advances in equality, it is undeniable that women, and particularly mothers, face very different life circumstances than most working men, even those that are fathers. Decisions that may be easy for Chip and Dan Heath or John C. Maxwell to implement have a different emotional calculus for many women. Her book also speaks to those who have a hard time with change in general, whether due to limited financial resources or psychological makeup, and who can be easily overwhelmed when their world is turned upside down. We know from news reports on the recession that there are many people who see the world more like M.J. Ryan.

Now, for those readers, who prefer a more rational approach and are ready to turn off completely to Ryan, you must know that she does redeem herself as a hard-headed businessperson primarily in pages 153 to 195. For example:

“The name of the game is staying relevant, and the life cycle of relevancy is getting shorter and shorter. It used to be that you got an education then once you started working . . . the basics of your education held you in good stead for decades. Now the world is so connected and the speed of change is so accelerated that we need to be constantly learning new skills and tools.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

She also makes a convincing case that the 5-year business plan is become obsolete and we spend time more effectively focusing on immediate term goals. While I could go on about her more analytical and strategic suggestions for change, what makes Ryan different is her willingness to address the emotional side of change and she has plenty to say on that topic that we can all learn from.

“You are not just at the mercy of outside forces! Change always creates a death and the possibility of rebirth. Your life has a trajectory that is created from some mysterious combination of outside pressures and internal longings. It’s part of our job as Change Masters to not just rotely bend ourselves into whatever shape seems to be called for but to use the pressure to become more of who we are and to offer more of what we have to give.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

This section did not appear until page 146 of the book but once I read it the rest of the book made a lot more sense. Ryan’s strategy for those facing unwanted change is to use the experience to discover more about yourself and find a better place for your talents. Her strategy really is a lot more about “progress” than “survival.”Below are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“When I was an editor, I always loved the quote attributed to William Faulkner that writers needed to ‘kill their little darlings.’ It’s a message about how, in order for inspiration to enter, we need to let go of the ideas we’re so in love with in order to make room for something better. It’s a willingness that everyone needs to succeed these days.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“What’s happening right now to most of us is not because we’re bad or wrong or incompetent. It’s because the world is transforming at breakneck speed and each and every one of us must adapt to those changes as quickly and efficiently as possible. No one’s exempt. Age doesn’t get you off the hook . . . Nor does how hard you’ve worked until now or what your expectations of life have been. Or what you’ve sacrificed for or invested in. That’s because what’s going on has nothing to do with you personally!

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“The best first thing we can do [when facing unwanted change] . . . is get clear on what is actually happening so we can get down to the business of dealing with it.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“When a wave of change hits, run as fast as you can to get help. Phone a friend, a colleage, a mentor. . . . Women more naturally seek out others when times are tough. Men are another story. They tend to try to tough it out alone. . . . The worst thing you can do right now is isolate, despite the urge to hunker down and try even harder to do what you’re doing.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“Forget blame, accept what is, and seek the best solution.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“Self-care isn’t optional when we’re riding the whitewaters of change . . . To have maximum energy, we need extension and recovery exercises in all the domains of our existence: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“[E]xperiences . . . teach us there’s no such thing as ‘deserve.’”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

“One of the advantages of what’s happening right now is that it’s happening to everyone . . . What will the neighbors think? They’re too busy thinking about their own need to scale back to give [your scaling back] much attention, unless it’s to wish they had your worries.”

–M.J. Ryan, AdaptAbility

For more on Ryan’s speaking and coaching style, see the video below.

Do you identify with M.J. Ryan’s focus on emotional recovery in the change process? Please share in the comments.

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