Discovering Disequilibrium

It started innocently enough.  Another post of Facebook with questions that were designed to help people think about their purpose in life.  I usually stay away from these kinds of posts because they typically over-promise and under-deliver … plus, well, it’s Facebook. But, something told me to click on the link.  I was immediately hooked when I read,

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I continued on to the seven questions posed by the author.  In-your-face writing doesn’t always appeal to me, but the questions were intriguing nevertheless.  I started thinking about how I might adapt them so that I could include them as class assignments.  Then I got to question number six: GUN TO YOUR HEAD, IF YOU HAD TO LEAVE THE HOUSE ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO? The narrative below the prompt included the following: Let’s pretend there are no useless websites, no video games, no TV. You have to be outside of the house all day every day until it’s time to go to bed — where would you go and what would you do?

As I thought about this, I knew immediately that I’d want to do what I had been doing over the summer: Tromping around Alaska, kayaking and camping in Glacier Bay, and enjoying the cool, wet weather in Gustavus.  My second thought, and I admit this with trepidation, was: I do not like what I’m doing right now. There. I said it.  Gulp.  Followed by a strong sense of dissonance and discomfort.

This sense of dissonance last a few minutes as I sat, reflected, and thought about this.  What’s not ringing true about this, I wondered.  Oh, yeah:  I love my work.  I have great colleagues, I enjoy teaching, I like advising students and helping them solve problems, and I love service aspect of my work (ways to give back to the community, university, and the profession).  Hunh.  So, what was that earlier thought all about?

Uncertainty.  Let that sit a bit.  Reflect.  Let the mind and heart work this out.

Four days later … I’m driving to work – my commute takes me along Highway 4 through the delta, open space, farm lands, home of hawks, dirt devils, and coyotes.  This little thought continued to niggle at my brain.  Then, light bulb.  The theoretical framework that informs my current research on community college presidents held the answer:  Satir’s change model explains what I’m feeling.  Suddenly I felt like Dorothy in Oz: I had the tools I needed all along.

Virginia Satir developed a model of change that is usually used in family therapy but can be used to describe a variety of change processes.  The six stages of change, as described by Satir are:  initial status quo followed by an external catalyst that alters the status quo and leads to chaos/disequilibrium which gives way to the integration of new learning followed by time to practice new learnings to strengthen new state then ultimately new status quo emerges.

Last semester (spring 2014) I was in a happy status quo as a faculty member: I was comfortable, energized, and engaged.  Then at the end of the semester, I was asked to serve as the Director of the MA – Student Affairs program.  An exciting opportunity (AKA major external catalyst) that knocked me out of my comfortable status quo and … wait for it … into the third stage of change: chaos and disequilibrium.

Of course, I’m uncomfortable.  Disequilibrium is not a fun place to be – we’re off balance; we’re often uncertain; we’re adjusting to new information, new relationships, new expectations, and new ways of being.  A wave of relief washed over me as I made sense of what I was feeling.  Even more important, Satir’s model offers a promise:  Disequilibrium will give way to a new stage where learning comes together and a new state evolves.  The model doesn’t suggest how long the journey will take, but it does provide a way to make sense of the journey from one state of being to another.