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  • Jennifer McClanahan-Flint

Learning How to Reimagine

This Thanksgiving, many of us had to reimagine the holiday for ourselves and our families. We gathered with fewer people, canceled travel plans, ate differently, missed our loved ones, and felt the loss of traditions. For others, the reimagining was more joyous, allowing ourselves to skip the unwanted holiday obligations and enjoy the rest. The dangers and restrictions of COVID-19 pushed us into these new ways of celebrating. Crisis often forces change this way. But we also have the agency to create change, even without circumstances pushing us to. Today, we’ll talk about the power, the gift, and even the cost of reimagining ourselves and our lives.


When Change Forces Us to See in New Ways


We can share so many examples of how change is born from difficulty.


A small meeting space that was always too small to fit every employee is suddenly inaccessible during the pandemic. With meetings all moved to Zoom, and every person able to finally attend, a firm is able to see how exclusionary that space had been and begins to reimagine where real inclusivity can be built.


As Leverage to Lead expanded and grew, the team became busier and more frantic, feeling like their time and energy were too scattered and diffuse. When they decided to restrict prospective client calls to Mondays, their time and mental space opened up in unexpected ways. Now, they look to block off dedicated time for business development and special tasks the same way, reimagining what it means to be available, to be busy, and to be capable of their best work.


A school board has limited its membership to people who can make it to their in-person meetings. When the pandemic shifted all their meetings to Zoom, they took a hard look at how their meeting requirements have been severely limiting diversity and perspective. Now, board members are sought across time zones and countries.


And when MJ found herself solo this Thanksgiving, she reimagined the holiday completely. She thought about specific things that would build ease into her day. None of them had to do with creating a “traditional Thanksgiving.” Then she wrote them down and made them happen for herself.


Each of these reimaginings was, in a way, forced by circumstances outside our control. The pandemic has repeatedly pushed us to adapt. And while it may feel at first like a loss, these moments when something familiar, clung to, idealized, or simply desired must be put aside, are in fact real opportunities.


How often do we rebuild our lives after a job loss, divorce, death, move, or trauma?


When everything feels like rubble at your feet, it can clear the way for something new that you couldn’t see before. It’s not ideal, but sometimes devastation can force us to see so much more than we thought possible.


It’s less common for us to look for a new way because we want out of the old way. We’ll struggle hard and stick to the familiar for a very long time, sometimes forever, because we don’t know what else to do. Or because we don’t know of any other option. We’ve seen women work themselves to the bone in positions that marginalize and dehumanize them, without ever imagining a different way of living. Women of color especially are convinced that struggle is just part of the game.


It’s never easy to have your status quo shaken up. No one wants to look around and think the way they’ve been doing things has been wrong or unhealthy or unnecessarily hard. And no one wants to experience a loss. But in order for us to create space for something new, something else has to give way, either taken from us or given away willingly.


Whose Thoughts Are You Thinking?


During her 10 Percent Happier Challenge, Jennifer read an article that asked, “Whose thought is that?” It’s astounding how often the answer to that question is not mine. It’s also astounding how often the loss that precedes reimagining is of something that doesn’t even belong to us.


When women reimagine their value and ask for the compensation they deserve, they’ve let go of the idea that they should be grateful for anything they receive, even if it’s toxic and incommensurate with their talent.


When Jennifer reimagined her work and life , she let go of the idea that being a good mom meant her whole family eating together every single night.


When MJ reimagined her life as a single person after divorce, she let go of the idea that women can only be complete and happy with a partner.


When a CEO reimagined her life post-divorce, she let go of the idea that because she was the mother, she had to be the one with primary custody of her children.


Every single one of these examples is of how other people’s thoughts rule over and limit our imaginations. What if we took back our thoughts? What if we evicted all the voices in our head that aren’t even ours, and yet hold so much power over us?


In our experience, the result is a simple and profound sense of spaciousness, often marked by our ability to ask ourselves, “What else do I want to be doing?”


A Major Holiday Reimagining


Missing our traditions is understandable. But we need to avoid the blind desire to “get back to normal.” It causes us to do dangerous things, like getting on a plane after testing positive for COVID or hosting big parties or going to bars. A changed world requires that we think differently, not live for the past.


This holiday season, being responsible means, we’ll simply have to reimagine how we spend the holiday. But there’s a crucial opportunity for us to reimagine what we want, what we need, and what will create authentic and lasting joy. Maybe it’s not what we’ve always done. Maybe it’s not what our parents did or what our neighbors do or what we think we have to do for our kids. Maybe we can do as MJ’s grandma always advised her, and stop should-ing all over ourselves.


What we often help clients cultivate is inner agility—the capacity to hold multiple perspectives, to sit with discomfort, to self-reflect. That all starts with the question, “What am I feeling right now?” Can you name the emotion? Is it grief, anger, bitterness, loss, fear, hope? Can you then pause and ask another question: “Why do I feel this way?” Where is the emotion coming from and are those thoughts even mine? If the thought isn’t mine, is it possible that it’s not true?


Often our default question in the face of a difficult emotion is, “How can I fix this and make everything work?” Once we change the question, and just get curious about ourselves, we can get to the most important question of all: “What really matters?”


Dreaming and imagining are not acts of magic. They’re hard work, and involve losses or letting go. But no matter what it is we are trying to create, reimagining always brings us this invitation: Where can I find ease and joy in the letting go?


In our next article, we’ll talk more about how exactly to imagine something new, and how to turn it from a dream into reality.


Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead.


MJ Mathis and Joy Turner are Associate Leadership Coaches and Facilitators at Leverage to Lead.

Melody S. Gee is a freelance creative content strategist.


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