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The Hard Thing About Growth

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

October 19th 2020

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Why big changes don't equal big growth and how to live and thrive in the uncertainty.

I read superstar chef David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, this weekend. I half expected it to be a tome on “how to be a chef”—which thankfully it wasn’t because that’s not really a book I would’ve picked up—and instead found lessons on leadership, mental health, business and most of all, change.

He said something that struck a nerve, that in the midst of all the panic, overwhelm and burnout I feel around me—both intimately and broadly—has etched itself so clearly in my mind I almost shared it on Instagram, like any good Millennial does.

“Change is guaranteed. Growth isn’t.”

How long have we heard that change is good? It’s a sign of revolution, of progress, of momentum. All great things that we all need right now. Just embrace it; it’s a good thing. We ride the waves and we sink sometimes, and we swim sometimes. But we take the beating, we move through quietly or with anger, depending on who we are and how we express insecurity around uncertainty.

We are told all these things about how wonderful it is, how messy, yes, but how it’s all worth it in the end. Because to change is to grow, right? But my fear is what if change is taking me by my metaphorical collar, shaking me against the wall, and leaving me weaker than I was before, and I would not know any better because of survivorship bias.

What if all that passed was time, all that happened was “stuff”, all the progress made was busywork that no one else, not even me, would know it as such, if they didn’t know what else I was capable of?

The life I ended up, I couldn’t have known any other one. So did I act the way I should have, that was right and good, or did I act the way that was easy? The way that felt good? The path of least resistance? How did that choice not to grow and to instead retreat impact my life? How did it impact the lives of the people I know? Have I come closer to the road less travelled a la Robert Frost? Or have I strayed further away?

When I first decided that I wanted a change, to try something different, it took me many years to fully acknowledge it. And I don’t know if there was ever a moment where it felt like a switch had gone off. There was never that moment.

If I were to describe it, it feels like maybe I had changed 1% every day, maybe 0.1% if we’re being real here. I was scared of many things: of disappointing my family, of coming across as a flake, of being “too old” when ironically just a few years ago, I was always complaining that no one took me seriously because I was too young. I also just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was too scared to commit to learning one specific thing because I was worried about boxing myself in, of limiting my options. I could find every excuse not to try something that felt like it should’ve been right.

Sometimes we chat with students who ask if it’s too late to learn xyz, I look and see that they’re 10 years younger than I am. And I don’t know if I should feel envious that I didn’t get there earlier, that I still am fettered with feelings of doubt and lack of identity, or if I should feel grateful that I didn’t have to decide and ended up fine anyway. I actually feel quite proud that I “gamed” the system and did it as smoothly as it could’ve gone, with only one expired relationship having imploded in the process, and my family proud of where I am and more than that, confident that I will always be okay.

I wonder, do you feel it too? You, reading this: are you the confident, suave person I imagine you might be? Did you always know, and within that always knowingness, did you ever wonder what if? Did you ever stop to think, what could’ve happened if you were simply dealt another set of circumstances? Would you be a whole different person? Could you be richer or poorer, better or worse, a film director instead of a product designer?

Mom studied law in Taiwan, but she never took the bar exam. Instead, she got married, moved to Canada, and did office work until she had 4 kids. When I was about 10, she went back to school to study for a blue collar job in insurance. Before that, she had been roped in by the promises of a few MLM schemes targeting immigrants and mothers. I remember at that age being fascinated with my mom all of a sudden carrying a new identity, and why specifically she had chosen insurance. She never ended up working in insurance, and instead studied to become a driving instructor, and that’s what she did for the last 20 years of her working life before COVID-19 hit this year and she was forced to finally retire, after years of saying that she would.

Life is always changing around us, and change will happen to us, whether we want it to or not.

But there’s change we go out and find, simply because we want something different, a chance, a reset, a deviation from the path we started on.

The right time to change, to go for it, is when your gut says so, when you’re constantly laying awake at night dreaming about something different, when you want it.

The fact that your gut is speaking up is a sign that it’s time; desire isn’t something that can be suppressed, it’s not something that can be cured or quelled like we can with fear. (My go to: that feeling of butterflies and sweaty palms, it’s a physical response to something out of your ordinary, on the path to extraordinary. Unless you’re walking by a haunted house; then RUN!)

Change isn’t easy. There isn’t going to be a formula and a guarantee. Everyone wants one. Everyone wants to know that things are 100% going to be better, just because they’ve made the leap or just because they’re in an environment where things are constantly changing.

That must mean things are moving along nicely. Because: all that stuff about momentum, right?

Action feels scary and it doesn’t always make sense, but it feels good to move. It feels good to do. You may meet burnout in between, but you tell yourself that it’ll be okay because change means you’re growing.

Change is the biggest mask for people to think that they are growing, even when they’re not. It can even pull you backwards.

And that’s the hard part: recognizing when it’s time to grow up, learn, change certain parts of yourself because it’s no longer good enough and you want to do better.

There’s another part of the book that draws a metaphor between lobsters and growth:

“Lobsters grow by molting. They shed their old shell to reveal a new, soft shell that will eventually grow and harden around them. By the time they’re done, there’s no sign of the lobster they were. It’s an exhausting, dangerous process. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and leaves them exposed and vulnerable while they’re in the middle of it.”

Some of my greatest moments of growth have been when things have been static and I have the mental space to think differently, to question who I am and what I want to do better, how I want to show up, what else I want to do. Emptiness can just as often be a catalyst for growth, when the distractions of the world around you are quiet enough so that you can listen closely and clearly.

This growth can be exciting, but it’s never easy. It’s never effortless. It’s never without a degree of vulnerability, either through self-reflection or through the presence of others. If it feels risk-free, then you still have your lobster shell on.

What you really need isn’t to discard your fear or uncertainty; it is that no matter in silence or in frantic waves, that you decide no longer to be reactive to the change that happens to you, and instead to step outside of your comfort zone, to reject the familiarity of your perspective, patterns, thoughts and insecurities too. To say to yourself that you were wrong.

And sometimes, it’s to step outside where the confusion, the anger, the uncertainty and the disappointment is holding you hostage, holding you in that safe space where you can wallow in these feelings instead of taking them as a sign that you are simply looking for a new shell.

In Heather Havrilesky’s Ask Polly advice column on The Cut, she’s posed with a question titled “I Have Everything, But I’m Still Sad and Angry”. Here’s the first line in her answer:

“Sometimes stressing a lot over nothing is a sign that your imagination needs something new and promising and absurd and strange to chew on.”

You may not recognize that it’s time to grow, but your body might. Your body will conjure up all sorts of reasons, excuses, distractions, to mask the simple truth: that there is a fork in your road and all the power is in your hands. So are you in or are you out?

Where you meet that growth is unknown, and that’s why it’s hard. You can start to see the signs around you, that some kind of change is happening, but real growth can’t happen until you show up too.

The only thing that going through change does for you is show you that it’s okay to change your mind, your career, your life, and that you will be okay the next time too.

Change is guaranteed, growth is not. That’s up to you.

Illustration by: Fonzy Nils