The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Small changes, big changes

If you’re advocating for a shift, a new initiative that you’re pushing for from below, it helps to know what signs to look for (or not look for) as you gauge your progress.

In the beginning, any kind of new anything that’s not driven from the top will look like it’s not going anywhere.  With this knowledge in hand, it’s a lot easier not to give up.

Change from below can follow two paths, not three:

  1. You toil away at an idea that the organization never ends up supporting or adopting (or you give up before it does)
  2. You toil away at an idea, garner support and evidence and early wins, and the idea takes off

It’s 3 that gets us into trouble….the unstated assumption that if something’s going to get somewhere tomorrow we’ll see significant progress today in terms of the support we’re getting (funding, encouragement, approvals) and the external indicators of success.  Carrying this mental model around is the best way to ensure that you give up just when things are about to turn your way.

(by the way, the same thinking can be applied to work/salary/promotions, which often follow a step-change pattern when, of course, skills and responsibilities grow in a much more continuous way.)

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