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The Change Designs Blog is a collection of insights, personal stories and real life experiences from people working in organizations. In this blog you will find real life stories depicting magical experiences and struggles, where the truth is richer, stranger and more practical than any theory or model. If you've ever wanted to read the diary of a leader, strategist, change agent, consultant, facilitator or a coach, or you are grappling with problems at work, then you will enjoy reading this practical blog.

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Falling off the ladder

Ruth Tearle - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I'd always believed that achieving anything in life was like climbing a ladder to success. The formula I'd follow was:

  1. Develop a clear picture of what lies at the top of the ladder - the end goal.
  2. Identify the steps on the ladder.
  3. Have the courage to take the first step.
  4. Keep climbing till I reach the top.

Once I'd committed, it was relatively simple to climb up the ladder, one step at a time. Upwards, ever upwards towards my goal. With each step I climbed, I was one step closer to achieving my goal. Whenever I needed encouragement, I'd look back at how many steps I'd climbed - and forward to how many were left.

This is a mentality that worked well for me during my studies and at work.

So I thought I'd apply the same formula to getting running fit again, after a knee operation. Which worked pretty well -until I 'fell off the ladder' and hurt my knee. I'm not sure how I injured myself. Was it falling when a brick came loose on a step at a conference centre? Was it when I jumped up to quickly to avoid a wave smashing over me on the rocks outside the Brass Bell? Or was it the flu that prevented me from exercising for a month?

Sometimes you are forced to go back to zero.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same. I can't walk on my knee at all. If you'd read my previous blogs on barefoot running, you'd see I'd made it half way up the running ladder, but now all that effort counts for nothing. I am back on the ground. Not even on the first rung of the ladder. All the distance and progress I'd made over the last 3 months, is now only a memory of what is possible. But for now, my focus is on learning to walk again. And even this is going to take time and effort. As my physio explained to me, not only do I have to get muscles out of spasm, and the swelling down, but now my thigh muscles have managed to turn themselves off to protect my knee. So I have to do numerous exercises to switch them on again, before I will be able to walk normally.

I asked my physio when I could hike, play table tennis, and even run again. Her response was - first you heal. Then when you can walk without pain, we can begin to build up your muscles. I can't give you a time. You'll be ready when you are ready.

I feel so frustrated. This seems to be the fourth time on this journey to running fitness, that I've had to go back, before I can go forward. It seems like such a waste of energy.

But then, maybe the picture in my mind of a journey to success is wrong. Maybe I need different metaphor that is better fitted to the storm winds of life.

It is not always plain sailing.

Sailors know that when you embark on a voyage, you cannot predict the exact time you will reach your destination.

At times the wind will be behind your back, and you can put up your spinnaker and relax, as you sail directly towards your destination. Or the wind may be perpendicular to the boat, and you will be on a reach - which is the fastest point and most enjoyable point of sailing.

Tacking is known as sailing twice the distance at half the speed and three times the discomfort.

Old sailing adage.

But at other times, the wind may be directly in front of you. Trying to sail straight into the wind will cause you to stop, or even go backwards. When the wind is in front of you, the only way to get to your destination is to tack or zigzag. This means beating as close as you can to the wind, and then tacking in the opposite direction. Sailing close to the wind means the boat will heal, it will be harder to steer, and will tend to turn into the wind. Sometimes zigzagging rather than running or reaching means you have to cover almost double the distance to get to your goal.

beatingWhile it is easier to sail with the wind behind, or at the side - sailors know that they have to adjust their strategy, their direction, and their boat to the prevailing wind. They know that the wind can shift at any point in time. Which means that sometimes they have to tack away from their destination, in order to go forwards.

Zig zag to success

So in my journey towards running fitness, I have to accept that my injury means nothing more than the wind has shifted. As a result I have to get onto a slower tack on my journey to fitness. It's not going backwards. It is part an parcel of sailing. Right now, the tacking is slower and less comfortable than I had hoped for. But I know one thing for sure. If I keep going, the wind will shift again - hopefully in my favour.

Comment on this:

'May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back...' Irish Blessing

How would this zig zag analogy apply to careers, and to people affected by the winds of organizational restructuring?

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