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When A Door Closes, Open Your Mind

by Nicholas Wolff,
    “When a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero,” writes Joel Barker, author of Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, in which he mentions the telephone and movies with sound as inventions that were disparaged and passed over by corporate giants. Digital Equipment (never heard of them? That’s my point) went out of business because they could not let go of an old idea about who could use or understand computers. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates changed history by re-imagining the computer as something anyone could own and use.  What’s true in business, science and technology is also true in the way we think and live. When events beyond our control force us onto an entirely different course, letting go of the old is about the most important – and for many of us most difficult – aspect of thriving in the “new normal.”
     A famous example of this – and the subject of the recent New York Times essay “Leadership Lessons From The ShackletonExpedition” by Harvard research historian Nancy Koehn – is  the story of the Antarctic-bound ship appropriately-named The Endurance which became trapped in thick Arctic ice for 2 years. Ernest Shackleton took his ship and crew on what began as a bold, history-making vision to be the first men to walk across the continent but within a year life-threatening conditions upended those plans completely. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” he wrote in his diary, and the record shows that his ability to quickly and completely let go of the original plan and create a new one in real time led to his entire crew’s survival against overwhelming odds. “I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival,” writes Koehn. “This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.”
     Therapists and trainers are constantly engaged with people having to reshape their goals and redefine their identity because of unpredictable circumstances. When life redirects our course and there is no going back, letting go of the person we used to be is the pivot upon which a successful future turns. Another New York Times article ("When Injuries to the Brain Tear at Hearts") speaks to this through a story about interventions with couples when one partner has a traumatic brain injury, which often results in personality changes that dramatically alters the emotional landscape of a marriage.  Quoting Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy psychologist Emilie Godwin, the article states that although some familiar  tools in the therapeutic toolbox for couples are useful in these situations – like communication skills, focusing on the positive in one another, taking time for fun and romance – the core of the work is “asking people to just look forward, to not look back at all. To try to recreate a relationship.”
     When a paradigm shifts, and “everything goes back to zero,” we bring all that we are and have developed within ourselves to the challenge of reinventing our dreams and our attitudes. Shackleton brought his emotional intelligence, personal courage and strength to the task of improvising a structure of activity that kept his men engaged with life and with each other rather than sinking into despair for 2 long years in catastrophic conditions. Living with a life-changing injury or catastrophic loss that redefines our roles is a similar process of improvisation.
    We can develop and maintain the psychological “muscle” needed for thinking on the fly and effective responses to uncertainty through the practice of letting go. Let go of old, unrealized dream. Take a hard look at habits of thinking or action that are familiar but futile. Release what is no longer working. The creative tension produced by unloading the past prepares us to deal with the unexpected. We become more flexible and adaptable. We can shape our future rather than wait to be shaped by it.

Nicholas Wolff facilitates a weekly professional training group in Experiential/Action Methods for therapists, counselors, educators and trainers. Contact him about participation in this visionary group by calling 631-366-4265 or email:


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