“I feel like I’m molting,” I found myself saying to a friend earlier this week. Have you ever experienced that—you experience so many big changes in a compressed time period, that you feel like you’ve shed a layer of skin, or maybe two or three?
I recently celebrated a birthday—my 54th trip around the sun has begun. I spent the unusually warm late September day—close to 90 degrees!—swimming in two of my favorite Adirondack Mountain lakes. Most years, my teeth chatter while I endure this self-imposed tradition. Not so this year. The unexpectedly warm waters invited me to linger, soaking in the water, and in between swims, to bask lizard-like on the sun-drenched rocks near the sandy beach, reflecting on the past year and getting a sunburn. (Who knew that was possible on September 25th at 43 degrees latitude?)
Soaking and basking, I thought of the same day last fall. Before a family member’s heart attack and quadruple bypass (he recovered quickly). Before a broken engagement. Before my work life took a major shift. Before an unexpected estrangement from a family member. Before I needed to replace my beloved and aging vehicle affectionately known as Su, which carried my now teen son and me on many adventures, laughing and learning along The East Coast. Before a community-based garden project I was leading quickly went south when a child stepped on a rake she dropped seconds before. Before I needed to replace my roof and gutters and also cut down a beloved and diseased grandmother tree. Whew! That 53rd trip around the sun was a big one! Lots of big things changed in my relatively small and simple life. Molting, indeed!
And there have been so many new and wonderful beginnings. That same 2016 birthday was also before I started spreading my career wings in new directions and taking on more leadership and responsibility. It was before I realized that a pecan tree languishing in a too-wet spot will gladly move into Grandmother Ash’s higher and dryer home. I’m seven months into a happy relationship with a long-time acquaintance. And, I’m enjoying my flashy new, and red, car! (It’s a very practical station wagon, but the red is pretty bright.)
My point is not to boast or to complain but instead to reflect on the power of graceful exits. American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellen Goodman is credited with:
“There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over—and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”
In other words, don’t wait for the tree to fall on the house, the roof to fall in, or the car to die mid-trip. Be proactive. Recognize that things have a limited life span. Some lifespans can be extended with maintenance, some not. Be willing to repair, replace, or release before denial becomes an expensive course of action and a graceful exit is no longer possible.
So, too, with some human relationships—both personal and professional. Acting with integrity and a commitment to building and deepening trust are important personal commitments for me. Still, sometimes things go wrong and people are not willing to engage in repairing a relationship. They simply want to “cut their losses” and move on. In the case of this garden project, making a graceful exit is to document institutional knowledge, help with the transition to a new project steward, and leave everyone and everything in the best place possible. Whether tidying up a project that’s coming to a close or leaving a job, these are best practices.
Graceful exits are possible for business owners, too. Leadership lasts. Create a succession plan for your own practice, make that estate plan, and, if you haven’t already begun, contemplate The Third Phase. If your clients resist doing the same, send them a link to John F. Dini’s webinar, Your Exit Map, so they can take action before the “Perfect Storm” creates a buyer’s market in the family business marketplace.
Design with the end in mind. Everything ends—the stuff we want to and the stuff we don’t want to…all ends. And I don’t mean to be at all morose. My world view is in alignment with both The Galliard Way and Goodman’s words that “every exit line is an entry.” When we let circumstances or people go with grace, the exit paves the way for a fresh start and a new phase. We have the chance to integrate lessons learned and to soar to a new level.
This year is ripe with opportunities to “up my game.” Today, I told that same friend, “I realized that I’m not really molting. To me, molting implies freshly exposed and tender skin. These experiences have made me stronger in every way. So it’s more like the metamorphosis a butterfly experiences. My last year helped me transition to a new phase and I’m now making a graceful exit from a cocoon that no longer fits me.”