Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 2 of 5: Seize the Mayhem

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

Heraclitus taught that we never can step into the same river twice. Think for a moment on that statement... What does it mean? One interpretation proposes that life is change, that the constant flow of things and people is far more "real" than any piece of flotsam or jetsam in the river. Deep stuff, perfect for a late night bull session. Problem is, the rush of events overtaking most workplaces is enough to make many of us feel like pieces of clutter on a raging river. It takes so little to get washed away. And all the philosophy we can summon won't help us combat that fear. That feeling is understandable, making us want to grab a passing branch and hold on. Too much change can be scary. Best that we avoid it until we're ready to plunge ahead. 
Is this the best way to deal with change? I faced that question a few years back when my campus was thrown into turmoil during a financial crisis. At that time, as I was beginning my third year as director of my school's peer mentor program, many of the foundational truths upon which I thought we could depend had been called into question. As the university began to draw its resources down, budgets were replaced by estimates, which offered fleeting comfort. Our mission grew hazy as administrator after administrator talked of restructuring and redistribution and the hunt for redundancies. How would I face the incoming group of peer mentors, and what would I say to veterans who saw the seismic chasms cracking under our feet? 

At my age, 20 years older than most of my students, I had little experience upon which to offer assurance, especially when every meeting I attended with university leaders ended the same way: "We don't know what will happen." What about the experts in Long Beach? "They don't know." What about the legislators in Sacramento? "They don't know, either." All of us, from the most inexperienced student to the savviest administrator, looked toward a horizon that roiled; all the straight lines were gone. The changes sweeping our community resembled nothing less than the gale winds of mayhem. 

That word, "mayhem," gripped me as I stood up to offer opening remarks at our peer mentor pre-semester retreat. I told them to prepare. Faster than most students, they would need to find their equilibrium. Classes were being cut, faculty were being furloughed, programs were being revamped, and policies were being rebuilt, sometimes more quickly than administrators could explain them. Peer mentors would be on the front line of all this confusion and fear. In this "Season of Mayhem," even experienced faculty members would be off-balance. 

I knew this because I'd seen dozens of them standing anxiously at summer orientation sessions, hoping for students to add their classes with a fervor never before felt. For untenured instructors, full classes meant employment, while under-filled classes risked cancelled sections, lost wages, and potentially worse news. I saw proud, confident people facing a dreadful angst as economic change produced personal woes normally hidden behind a professional facade. One colleague turned away from the crowds and cried with me silently as she contemplated her husband's fate. His hospital bills were piling up and their university-provided health insurance now teetered on whether students would take her classes. 

At the same time, students saw their paths to graduation blocked as course options evaporated. In fatter times, professors could allow extra students to squeeze into classes. No longer. Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this Mayhem Season: an instructor's choice to add students over class limits would not contribute to our coffers. Now, thanks to the crazy new math of declining budgets, more paying students would cost us money. Logic itself was increasingly subject to change. 

We did our best to contain our frustrations and advance our mission. Peer mentors waited for paychecks that took weeks to appear, and they patiently endured my empty replies to reasonable questions: ("So, when are we getting paid?" "Honestly, I'm not sure."). At one particularly tense meeting after weeks of long hours and work to ensure our budget, I struggled to contain tears of my own. I stepped out to compose myself and, upon my return, I found nearly a dozen peer mentors waiting for me with hugs and assurance. 

The first months were hard, but eventually we began to make our way, charting new parameters for our program's identity. Each new request became a chance to rethink our skillsets, to assess our processes, and to serve others who need us. After a while I began to change our unofficial semester slogan from "Season of Mayhem" to "Seize the Mayhem." 

Seizing the Mayhem calls upon you to do more than accept chaos. It's a chance to transform change into opportunity. To Seize the Mayhem is to remember that when others are unsure, you can be both honest ("I'm not sure either") and revolutionary ("But I'm ready to try something new."). That moment, when you begin to read the space between the known and the unknown as the site of creativity, innovation, and potential, you risk (in the best possible way) becoming an author of your world. The rules that bind us to anesthetizing conformity, the age of "confidence" that really means the ability to sleepwalk through life, can be abandoned. In their place, a genuine sense of play, the dizzy smile of the unshackled self. This is the meaning of what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." Change is not the end of order; it is the beginning.

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