A Substantial Change in Life: Going Back to School in My Mid-Thirties

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In the world of business, successful organizations undergo different types of changes, some of a superficial sort and others of a more profound nature. Similarly, life itself presents circumstances and opportunities for change that might seem relatively trivial (e.g., changing one’s wardrobe) or quite significant (e.g., getting married and having a family). On a personal level, I recently initiated a change of the latter type - namely, the significant and life-altering measure of going back to school and working full-time in my mid-thirties. As I look for ways to maximize the value of my return to college, I think that ultimately success boils down to effective management of change and conflict. In this respect, the ideas and work of theorists like Abraham Maslow, John Kotter, William Ury, J.M. Kouzes & B.Z. Posner, and Kenneth Cloke & Joan Goldsmith lend themselves well to personal introspection and a pathway of successful change management.

The Impetus for My Personal/Significant Change

The significant change of which I am currently experiencing can be traced to the closure of my father’s family business due to his illness. As the story goes, I had worked in the family business for thirteen years. When he fell ill and subsequently sold the family business, I had to make some major changes in my life. These changes included reconfiguring my life to adjust to my father’s lack of mobility, taking on the role of my father’s caregiver, finding a new job, and trying to decide whether or not to return to college and pursue my new educational and career goals. Ultimately, I decided that the big change in my life would, in fact, be to go back to school in my mid-thirties. I am currently a sophomore and hope to graduate with my bachelor’s degree within the next two years. Upon graduation, I want to pursue a career in management within the public sector. Thus, I realize that the circumstances that occurred are not the cause of my personal changes, but, rather, avail the opportunity to become something more as I realize my full potential as a man.

Trusting One’s Heart in the Process of Self-Actualization

Given the many challenges of being a thirty-something-year-old student, working full-time, and serving as a caregiver to my father, I have realized that success requires fundamental change within my very being. As a matter of theoretical relevance, change and conflict management thinkers like Kotter, Ury, and the others are indebted to the work of motivational theorists Abraham Maslow. Specifically, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory posits that our basic (physiological: food, shelter, and clothing; and safety) and higher-order needs (love, self-esteem, and self-actualization) must be treated (i.e., met) in order to support and maintain intrinsic levels of human motivation (McGuire, 2012, p. 5). The meaning of all of this to me is quite simple. The gut instinct of motivation (i.e., intuition, if you will) sets us on a path that may not be easy and may not seem sure or certain in terms of the end game or outcome. But ultimately, an internal, almost instinctive, driving force guides us to become our true selves. Most importantly, the true self is always a more complete human being. Such a person, as Maslow and other humanist theorists, would put it, has become self-actualized (McGuire, 2012, p. 5). Thus, I see successful management of my current circumstances as, most fundamentally, psychological and motivational. In other words, successful change begins with motivational thoughts and feelings that must necessarily manifest into appropriate, matching action and behavior. Thus, the emergent lesson is to trust my heart to guide me along the path to my fullest/self-actualized potential.

Navigating Personal Change with Kotter’s Eight-Stage Process

If Maslow dangles the carrot of self-actualization (i.e., the psychological and motivational aspects of change) in front of me, then it can be said that John Kotter’s Eight-Stage Change Process tells us how to successfully navigate the challenges of working full-time work, going to school, and being a caregiver to my father. Specifically, Kotter describes eight steps for executing the successful change in an organization. However, the step-wise procedures can readily be applied to one’s personal self as well. As such, the following section of this essay provides a personalized commentary for each of Kotter’s eight stages of successful change.

Kotter says that step one is to create urgency around the need for change in order to “spark the initial motivation to get things moving” (Kotter, 1996, p. 36). In my own life, I have done the same thing by reflecting on my life as a thirty-something year old and considering what potential scenarios could take place. When I thought about taking no action toward changing my life, that is, staying complacent, I found that the thoughts of the future evoked stress and even fear. A sense of urgency emerged along with the motivation to take action. Thereby, I enrolled in school on the basis of the urgency I felt in the wake of the closure of my father’s business and the need to embark on a new career path.

In step two Kotter says to form a powerful coalition in order to provide leadership toward the goals of change (Kotter, 1996, p. 52). On a personal level, Kotter’s coalition could be considered one’s family and/or friends and/or others who help provide support and resources to promote the change initiative. Similarly, for steps three and four Kotter suggests that a clear vision of change must be communicated (Kotter, 1996, p. 68). To me, this means that I should visualize who I want to become. Although this can be a bit daunting if I spend too much time focusing on the ultimate, long term result, reducing the change initiative to a matter of daily concern can make the change feel much more manageable. Simply put, the short term vision helps me build confidence, courage, and the clarity that keeps me motivated. As for applying Kotter’s fourth step, communicating the vision means that I must affirm my vision with regular visualization and affirmations. This includes reminding myself of the new person I am becoming, what I am doing as a new person, and how I am responding to things around me as a new person. It also requires me to manage all the areas of my life with a focus on balance, not conflict. In sum, engaging in this type of communication activity not only helps bring about a boost to my self-esteem, but it also keeps the dream of successful, significant change alive within me.

As for the application of the next step, Kotter’s fifth stage involves removing the obstacles to change (Kotter, 1996, p. 102). For me, this is all about breaking down the resistance within myself that may come due to my own fears or self-doubts. I recognize that sometimes these inner fears can be mirrored by family, friends, and acquaintances as words of caution and even cynicism. Why are you working so hard? Why are you not trying to start your own business? These types of questions or obstacles, more accurately, are simply illusions that fear would have me believe. Yet, I know that I always have a choice to believe in myself and remove the illusory obstacles as soon as they rear their ugly heads. This brings me to Kotter's step six which involves creating short-term wins early in the change process (Kotter, 1996, p. 119). As an implementation example, I look at my report cards and completion of the required coursework each school session. I also consider how well I am doing in my current full-time job and role as a caregiver to my father.

In advancing discussion to Kotter’s last two steps, for stage seven Kotter warns against declaring victories too early in the change process - something that can weaken the overall foundation of true change (Kotter, 1996, p. 29). In this respect, I feel that building on the change is definitely sound advice, particularly if the steps that promoted the victory are repeatable. If something is repeatable, in other words, it can quickly become a habit – that is, a good behavior that represents permanent change. Finally, step eight calls for anchoring the changes so that they gain traction and stick. In this way, Kotter insists that change must become part of the corporate culture (Kotter, 1996 p. 28). On a personal level of application, this means that I act in a manner that is always consistent with the newly transformed self.

Negotiating through Conflict

Although Maslow and Kotter, respectively, provide the intrinsic and procedural means to support my personal and significant change, to deal successfully with the many challenges of being a full-time worker, being a college student, and serving as a caregiver to my father, I must be prepared to deal with inevitable conflicts. As basic change management principles tell us, successful change requires readiness and management of resistance. Yet, if a person is not ready to change and has not acknowledged and removed forms of resistance, the conflict will be the unavoidable result. All of us, of course, experience reluctance and, perhaps, hesitation as we grapple with the demands and pressures of a change in ambition, or initiative. As a matter of sage advice, nonetheless, William Ury says, “keep asking yourself why” (Ury, 2007, p. 43). To me, this means that the most essential lesson is to hold to a vision, understand why the change is necessary, and why the change is essential for personal success. Even further, Ury teaches that focusing on uncovering personal interests, values, and intentions will help conflicts look more like what they really are – namely, opportunities (Ury, 2007, p. 42).

Last, but not least, Kouzes and Posner posit that the work of leaders is change and that all change requires leaders to actively seek “to make things better, to grow, innovate, and improve" (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, p.164). Stated another way, everyone has heard and/or been taught the old saying, “if you cannot say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Cloke and Goldsmith capture the essence of this wisdom in cautioning us to consider the words we use to describe a perceived opponent. They teach, for instance, that by choosing the word arrogant over the word self-confident to describe another person, you are revealing as much about your own self-confidence as about your supposed arrogance opponent (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2005, p. 8). In the scheme of my personal change, the relevance of these lessons can be summed up as an opportunity for greater self-awareness. When I find myself criticizing others, something is wrong with me. The criticism of others is really my own self-criticism, my own dissatisfaction with the current status quo. As such, the criticism is self-defeating – that is, unless I am going to use it to proactively recognize and change myself.

Conclusion

In the final comment, as I look for ways to navigate through the challenges of being a full-time worker, student, and caregiver, I think ultimately success boils down to effective management of change and conflict. In this respect, the ideas and work of theorists like Abraham Maslow, John Kotter, William Ury, J.M. Kouzes & B.Z. Posner, and Kenneth Cloke & Joan Goldsmith lend themselves well to personal introspection and a pathway of successful change management. Maslow led me to conclude that successful change begins with motivational thoughts and feelings that manifest into appropriate, matching, action and behavior. Kotter has shown me that eight steps to change in a model that focuses on making changes in an organization, however, those steps can be applied to the changes of the self as well. And finally, the other theorists show me that the relevance of the lessons can be summed up as an opportunity for more self-awareness – something which is all about change readiness and overcoming change resistance within myself. Thus, trusting in the hope of a bright and promising future, at any age, is simply a matter of successful change and conflict management.

References

Cloke, K. & Goldsmith, J. (2005). Resolving conflicts at work: Eight strategies for everyone on the job. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge, fourth ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGuire, K.J. (2012). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. GRINVerlag: ebook.

Ury, W. (2007). The power of a positive no: how to say no and still get to yes. New York: Bantam Dell.