Stepping Forward into Growth

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Abraham Maslow said, “In any given moment, we have two choices: step forward into growth or step backward into safety.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about decisions lately: how do we as wayfinders know when it’s time to step forward into growth? When might it actually be better to step backward and feel safe?

When we’re trying to navigate our path in life, we’re often confronted with decisions of one kind or another – life decisions, work decisions, relationship decisions. And while we expect these decisions to make ‘everything better,’ more often than not they actually bring new moments of tension into our lives (especially in the beginning).

This is because decisions often ask us (ok, force us) to grow. And growth is hard.

It might feel odd to talk about personal and professional growth like it’s a bad thing. After all, we know from researchers like Carol Dweck and others that adopting a growth mindset leads not just to increased motivation but also achievement. But anyone who has ever chosen to step forward into growth knows that for all its benefits, growth can also make us feel very uncomfortable, even vulnerable. 

This is because growth asks us to walk into new and uncharted territory. Territory where the tools, skills and know-how we’ve acquired up to this point in life may not be enough to get us over the new finish line we’ve set for ourselves. 

Case in point: I was reminded of Maslow’s quote earlier today when I saw a video that Glennon Doyle posted on Facebook. In it, she slowly and somewhat self-consciously strums the guitar and sings her favorite Poison song. In the text accompanying the video, Glennon says: 

My whole life I have wanted to SING and PLAY THE GUITAR.

My main challenges in accomplishing this dream have been as follows: I have a terrible voice and I don’t know how to play the guitar. So I’ve just kind of left this wish in my heart to bring to fruition in another lifetime or something.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the fact that we only have this one lifetime, really. And that the point of singing isn’t to be amazing at it- it’s just to SING. And then I started thinking about this: STUFF WE DON’T KNOW, WE CAN LEARN. There are TEACHERS WHO TEACH THINGS.

The story goes on to detail how she found a teacher, started practicing and of course expects to reach international stardom in just a few days. All joking aside, Glennon could have chosen to stick with the safe choice: making music isn’t for me. Instead, she chose to make a decision that put her squarely in the growth camp: pursuing her long-held dream of learning to sing and play the guitar. But of course, in doing so, she also had to publicly declare: I don't know how to do the thing I want to do! And so, to help guide her growth, she looked outside herself for someone who could support her learning and teach her.

Coming back to wayfinding: what do we do when we’re confronted with a decision we’re not sure how to make? One option might be to make no decision at all; that is, stick with the status quo. It might not be our proudest moment, but all of us have chosen to stick with the status quo at some point in our lives and sometimes this does still make sense. After all, choosing this route can help us feel safe; at least we know what we’re in for and how to ‘handle it’, even if what we’re handling is dysfunction, disappointment, or less than we know we’re capable of.

The other option is to be like Glennon. We can say yes to moving forward, identify the decision we want to make, prepare ourselves for the challenges of growth, and find the teachers (literal or metaphorical) to guide us along the way.

One of the most important teachers in my life – someone who has always helped me navigate decisions and manage the pangs of growth – is my mom Janice. And one of the things she has always repeated to me is, “Ashley, just get on the bus. You can always change your seat later.” 

Like Maslow, my mom’s got a point. 

As wayfinders, we can choose to step forward into motion or stay back in safety. But if we choose forward motion, we can be sure that our decision – at the very least – will help us better understand the roadmap ahead so that we can make an even smarter, more informed assessment next time. Even when the decisions don’t work out, more often than not we’re in a better, stronger position for having made them in the first place.

What decisions are you sitting on right now? How can you set in motion a plan to get on the bus?