In the Moment

We have a choice of what we see: obstacles or opportunities.

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By Gary Burnison

We felt like we could reach out and touch the stars.

A few years ago, my family and I went stargazing in a remote location. Without city lights to obscure our view, every tiny dot of brilliance shone crystal clear. In that moment, as we looked through the telescope, we were awestruck by the countless stars and swirls of the Milky Way.

Today, we all need this same cosmic shift in perspective. Angel Martinez, one of our board members, shared this analogy with me recently: When we look through the eyepiece of a telescope, what is distant suddenly zooms closer. But if we look through the wrong end of the telescope, things shrink away from us.

We need to ask ourselves, as Angel observed, “Which end of the telescope are we looking through?”

As paradoxical as it may sound, when nothing seems to be progressing, we can actually make the most progress! When everything appears unchanged externally, we may experience tremendous growth internally. When things seem so far away, they are much closer than they appear. When we clearly see just how far we’ve come, we appreciate more fully just how capable we’ve become.

These days, despite the sporadic green shoots all around us, we still must embrace this moment before we can own the next. Here are some thoughts:

Our existential moment.

Over the past year, companies and even entire industries have transformed. It has happened on a personal level, too—and to all of us. Everyone has stories. “Who we are right now in 2021 is not the same as who we were in March 2020,” Bryan Ackermann, managing partner of our firm’s Global Leadership and Professional Development practice, told me. If we’re not self-aware, we can lose our perspective on just where we are. “Are we still in the old world or in the new world? Do we have a foot in some weird hybrid of both?” Bryan asked. These questions can be a welcome opportunity to continually shift our focus to the bigger picture of what we value, how we find meaning, and who we want to become.

The neutral zone.

Even as we look ahead with optimism, the reality is we’re not quite there yet. We’re in transition—moving through a neutral zone—from one place (physical, mental, emotional) to the next. “We’re like trapeze artists, flying through the air ungrounded,” David Dotlich, PhD, a CEO and board advisor and a senior leader in our Consulting business, told me. “We can’t make the next trapeze appear automatically. We have to wait for it. And as it approaches, we have to let go of the old trapeze so we can reach for the new one.” Being “up in the air” can feel uncomfortable. But in that instant, we develop the courage and creativity that will bring us closer to whatever comes next.

Making the most of our “now.”

We have a choice of what we see: obstacles or opportunities. When Christina Gold, former CEO of Western Union and a member of several boards, including ours, started out in her career, there were few opportunities for women. As she related to me, her first job out of college was counting coupons for the local grocery store—at a time when a man with a college degree could easily land a supervisory position. Her break came when she was hired by Avon as an inventory clerk. Christina went on to a series of firsts in her career but always made the most of the here and now—which led to the top spot at Western Union. “I never thought of what I faced as being obstacles,” Christina told me. In other words, her attitude was her altitude.

Look up, look out, look forward. The signs of hope that once seemed as unreachable as the most distant star are suddenly within our grasp. Indeed, we can see the future—but only if we ground ourselves in this moment.