Two roads diverged in an open wood, says Robert Frost.
Well, it’s never really just two roads, now is it? It seems more like a maze of roads, some leading to dead ends. Some allowing a way through. Some roads crossing and intersecting with others. COVID has put so many of us in an open wood. It certainly has put me there… In a vast, expansive, thick, open wood. Yet, this wood is not without trees. There are the trees of intense political tension, trees of racial injustice, and the work of equity. There are trees of an uncertain economy, an uncertain future. And through these trees are rays of sunlight, breaking through, offering me new ideas, new directions, new possibilities.
What is the work available to me in these woods? I ask myself, as I enter on a road leading somewhere unknown. I’ve been sitting with this question for some time, reflecting on the abrupt pivot and sudden shift my work had to make when we all begin sheltering-in-place. I responded swiftly, upping my internet speed, purchasing equipment, playing with the virtual backgrounds, and how they looked with a green screen. Amazon.com because of a trusted colleague for the latest in tech equipment.
While I was sheltered-in-place, life felt more open and uncontained than ever before. There were very few boundaries between home life and work life. I seldom recognized when I stopped operating as a Director and began acting as mother. Moments blended. Needs collided. I would “end meeting for everyone” and then hustle to the kitchen to make my 10-year-old a grilled cheese. The button-up shirt was all I needed for Zoom, while my sweat pants allowed me to move quickly through the house, helping with 7th-grade math, providing feedback for a 12th-grade essay on Crime and Punishment, sorting out connection issues for a 15-year-old, helping graduate students understand what might be next, supporting my work team as our events were canceled. One. By. One.
There were many roads that seemed to diverge in every which way. Which do I take?
The wide road of reflection and realization called to me. I took it. The months of April and May provided the space for deep questions. What was important in life? How do I move through uncertainty? How do I keep my family from getting sick? What is my role in equity and inclusion? How can we reinvent connection as the distance and loneliness set in? My life, like most others, felt like it was a box that was turned upside down – the contents spilling out in disorder and chaos.
The roads diverged as I wandered through the woods. And suddenly, I lost the path. Where did the road go? Where do I go?
(Stop. Breathe. I am a scholar and practitionerof adaptive leadership. This IS that moment. Disequilibrium. The raised heat. The pressure in the pressure cooker. I have been ‘trained’ for this.)
So I asked myself: What are the possibilities? Where are the opportunities? What might my work become?
As I wander in the woods, I feel myself searching for answers. I find myself longing for a direction. One clear road to take me where I need to go. But there are many roads available to me and not knowing which one to take is frightening.
(Trust yourself, Lorri.)
So, I allow myself to wander as I contemplate my work.
Is my work a place? Is
my work the organization that contains me?
Is my work what I do with my time?
Is my work where my passion lies and where I make a difference? Where my energy intersects with my joy?
How do I best to think about my work as I wander through these woods?
I don’t know.
My work feels fragile, transient, even. What if COVID causes the road that leads to my work to disappears into the trees?
(That scares me. It makes me sad.)
What if I wander aimlessly through these woods and never find my way?
(Remember, not all those who wander are not lost)
So, I check myself. I remind myself that I am a determined, driven, and seldom-stopped woman. I don’t take no for an answer if I want a yes. I forge forward and love a good challenge. I push back against the establishment. I pave my own way. I learn. I work hard. I strive to develop my craft and connect with people whom join me in shared intention. I like freedom. I like flexibility. I like being surrounded by trees, feeling the cool wind on my skin, hearing the crunch of leaves under my feet. I can find my way through these woods.
(Is it possible to be both lost and found? Feel strongly here and nowhere at all?)
I am staring at wide-open freedom. I see possibilities everywhere. I bet, if you look closely, you’ll see it too.
Now, I get to answer a more powerful question. It’s not what is my work in this moment but rather, what do I want my work to become?
Since I began quarantine on March 12, 2020, I have had the opportunity to reimagine and re-envision my work. With many events, conferences, and workshops canceled, typewrittermy calendar suddenly clear, I began exploring. I began choosing opportunities to experiment. I began writing. I began learning. I began working with the people I wanted to work with. The boundaries that contained me up to this point had been erased. Cancellations in one space allowed creativity in another. I began to see what my work could be. I started to recognize the ways in which spending my time and energy on something could lead to joy and fulfillment. And I began recognizing when it didn’t.
I am now faced with the choice to be honest with myself. Oh, those moments when we know there is a truth waiting for us. What do I want my work to become? Do I have the courage to take the risk and make a shift to allow that becoming?
Do I have the courage to shift the story I’ve been telling myself?
The story I’ve been telling myself is that I am pressed for time on so many levels and I don’t have the space to do the work I want to do because I am focused on the work I have to do. My story feels burdened with details of working within the confines of a rigid structural system. The story I tell myself is that I continually fall short of my to-do lists, leaving emails unread for too long. I lack the ability to prioritize the many tasks in front of me and seem to struggle to choose the tasks that will provide the forward movement and growth that I hope to have. The story I tell myself is that this is a same ‘ol, same ‘ol story…. SSDD (same shit, different day), and I’m stuck here. I’m stuck in these woods.
If I dig deeper, I see how complicit I am in my story — that I’m okay being stuck here because I choose to prioritize my role as mother to my four kids and as long as they are at home and as long as I continue to make the mother-choices that I make, I have to accept that I am, in essence, choosing to focus on
them rather than moving my work forward. My story is that I am stuck here because for my program, revenue is a priority and there are only a few models of work where revenue can really grow.
I’m tired of this story.
On one hand, I know the story is not true. Well, not entirely true. I know I have made incredible professional strides over the last five years. I can recognize the impossible standards I have for myself and how they contribute to my own harsh self-assessment. I know I can take a gentler stance toward myself, and sometimes I do. Really, I do.
I’m feeling pulled to shift my focus. I want to begin to unfold my future right here, right now. I want to give myself the chance to try and fail. To launch and crash, only to launch again. I want to take a road, if only for a little while and then turn a corner if need be. I want to write. I want to reach a wider audience with my ideas, my perspectives, my work. I want to stumble through new learning- how to connect deeply in the virtual world or whatever format is available to us. I want to join in conversations where I have to listen more than I speak. I want to inspire people to think, be, and feel at their edge. I want to let go of the fear related to money-making and, while I want to be realistic and responsible, I want to chase a vision–the possibility of shifting systems and new leaders stepping up to lead. I want to choose my tasks not because they will help me not fail, but because they will get me closer to my becoming.
I want to believe Mary Oliver when she says ‘whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.’
I want to imagine that any road I take will be the road I need.
My challenges? Myself. I get in my own way. I work avoid. I justify. I find really relevant and important things to do that aren’t the things I need to be doing.
The skeptic in my mind is a skilled one.
But it’s time. I’ve been given a gift. We have been given a gift. It’s a gift of time. A gift of connection. A gift of the mirror put up right in front of us. We have been given the gift of new voices, the gift of people rising to the occasion, showing their resiliency, the strength in their spirit. I’ve been given the gift of wisdom from others. I have been inspired by voices of all kinds. I have been challenged. I have been motivated. I’ve been held and supported.
(Thank you for that).
It’s time for me to let my work become. To choose a road and not look back. I feel my work asking me to bring it life. I can feel the w
ords that want to come to the page. I can feel the conversations that long to be out in the air. I feel the yearning in people to find new meaning in life, in leadership, in love. I’m not completely sure what this will look like, but I know our world is being remade because it has to be. It has been a dysfunctional and unjust world. Yet, it is now our task to recreate our world.
It is now my task to (re)create my world.
What do I want my work to become? To uplift fellow humans. To join people as they get closer to their best, and to strive to uplift myself and seek out my best. This might mean I have to let go. This might mean I have to take a risk. This might mean I have to learn. This might mean I get lost. This might mean I have to surrender to a possibility I don’t yet know.
Many roads diverged in an open wood. And I took one.
(This post is also a chapter in the book, E-VOLVING: REFLECTIONS THROUGH THE 2020 PANDEMIC, a collection of reflections by members of Harvard Kennedy School’s Adaptive Leadership Network.)