When I wrote my first book, The Next Level , my goal was to make clear the high but usually unspoken expectations of rising executives. A standard formulation in my field for providing behavioral guidance is keep doing, start doing, stop doing. I suppose that approach would have worked for The Next Level but it didn’t feel quite right to me. Instead, what I landed on was picking up and letting go. To get the different results that are expected in a next level situation, one has to either pick up new behaviors or skills and let go of old ones that no longer serve the expected results.
As I’ve been out talking about and coaching around the book for almost 10 years, I’ve recognized that I stumbled on to something deeper than I realized when I was writing The Next Level back in 2005. Most people that are talented enough to reach next level scenarios in their careers are pretty good at picking things up. That’s primarily a cognitive exercise of learning to do something new. The high achievers have spent most of their lives learning and mastering new skills. Picking up isn’t a problem for them.
The much bigger challenge is letting go. Letting go of something you’re good at or something you love or enjoy doing is an emotional challenge. The underlying emotion around letting go is almost always some version of fear. You can call it nervousness, anxiety, discomfort – whatever you want really. Letting go usually involves overcoming fear.
I started thinking about all of this again yesterday morning in a yoga class with Bryan Kest . Bryan’s been teaching yoga for 35 years. If that ever stops working for him, he can always try stand up comedy. He’s funny as hell and quite often profound.
Bryan likes to riff on the advantages the over 30 crowd has in his classes. For instance, when they (we!) are doing six yoga style push ups, we’re getting as much benefit from that as the the twenty somethings are from doing 25 push ups. As he puts it, us older ones can be out shopping and having lunch while they’re still doing push ups.
After his push up riff yesterday, Bryan started talking about the great “letting go.” And by that, of course, he meant the letting go that comes when we leave this earth in our current form. That might sound a bit morbid for a yoga class but his point was that the gradual progression of things that we can’t do in our thirties, forties, fifties or sixties that we could do without even thinking about it in previous decades is great practice for the great letting go.
If you fight it every step of the way then you’re just that much less prepared when you have to let go for good. The process is true for life in general and true for life at work in particular. By letting go, you’re practicing for what’s next. Along the path of letting go, you’re also freeing up space for stuff that’s more important now than what used to be important then.
So, as we start another week, perhaps a good question to consider is what are you hanging onto that you need to let go? What would happen if you quit resisting the change? What might you do with the space you create by letting go?