If you have these two things — the willingness to change, and the acceptance of everything as it comes, you will have all you need to work with.

Charlotte Selver

A few years ago I taught an “Accomplishing More By Doing Less” workshop at Esalen. The participants ran small businesses or were employees in a variety of sizes of for-profit and non-profit companies. I was leading them in explorations of effort and effortlessness, on noticing and reducing fears, assumptions, distractions, and resistance — perhaps another shorthand for how to become more effective in work and outside of work.

During one of our group discussions, the participants and I were talking about how to be most effective in business. I presented this question: “How do you respond to a particular need or challenge in growing or managing a business?” A few people responded that they act with a sense of composure, with an underlying “whatever the Universe may bring you” mentality. They described this as their central belief about how to be effective in business and in life. They were probably thinking they were reinforcing a message of my workshop, since I am a Zen teacher as well as a businessman. Perhaps they were responding with language they thought I’d especially resonate with.

Hearing these words, I responded, “When it comes to growing or managing a business, I’m not a whatever the Universe brings you kind of guy. I’m a write the f*#%ing business plan kind of guy.”

That got their attention.

“Accepting what is” and trusting the Universe is an essential approach to life. But so is “fighting for change.”

Marc Lesser

If you want to be effective in business — and in relationships, too, for that matter — then you also need tenacity, focus, urgency, often combined with strategic planning and a drive towards achievement. You need to fight for change.

“Accepting what is” is still an important and core practice. By definition, it creates the baseline for our understanding of reality and for our decisions about what needs to change. If we can’t see what is, and can’t accept what we see, then it’s difficult to act effectively.

Accepting “whatever the universe brings” can also be an important way to avoid wasting time and energy trying to change what cannot be changed. All by itself, though, “accepting what is” is usually not enough. The imbalanced, shadow side of acceptance is passivity, laziness, and avoidance. It is not mindful leadership. If we see a window of opportunity and fail to jump through it, no one benefits.

On the other hand, the shadow side of “fighting for change” is becoming controlling and rigid in our concepts. In truth, our everyday lives are largely centered around coping with change: managing it, responding to it, and sometimes driving or creating it.

To be effective requires knowing when to practice acceptance and when to drive change. This is more difficult than it sounds. Balance doesn’t mean finding the middle ground between acceptance and drive. It means having the freedom, insight, and skill to embody both at once in order to act effectively in each situation. It can be maddeningly challenging, yet simple, and forms the core of effectiveness.

Real change is at the heart of what it means to be human. With each change, we learn and we re-create ourselves. We are able to see in a way that was not previously possible. We can act and achieve in a way that we could not before. With each change the world is different, our relationships are transformed. With each change, we are continually expanding our ability to respond, to create, to envision, and to build our relationships and organizations.

To clarify my terminology, the phrase “fight for change” could also be expressed as “lead to improve” or to “transform.” That is, even as we accept that all things change, we recognize that many things can be improved, and so we take personal responsibility to actively pursue improvement. Thus, in work and relationships, we don’t simply wait for problems to arise and then try to solve them; we take the initiative to understand our current situation and envision a better future, a better now. We develop a vision, know where we mean to go, and start walking.

This is mindful leadership, and it is as vital to our personal lives as our work lives. They are intimately connected, and what “leading to improve” means in each can also be strikingly similar: seeing how we ourselves can be more open, honest, and effective, and exploring how we can better give of ourselves and bring out the best in others.

Even as we consider the challenges, opportunities, and threats we will inevitably face, we can see that effectiveness rests in taking a balanced approach: anticipating that some problems will arise from within ourselves and some from without. Some challenges will require action, some patience. Some will need money and resources, some understanding.

Exploring our vision of what we truly want can be difficult, uncomfortable, and even painful. We become all too aware of the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and examining that distance takes courage, patience, and a good deal of support. Like the archetypal hero, we see our dreadful inadequacies and the world’s insurmountable challenges and become afraid. We refuse the call:

“I would like to start a company, but I don’t have . . .”

“I would like a new career, but I can’t leave my job because . . .”

“I would like to be in a loving relationship, but it won’t happen for me because I’m . . .”

“I would like to exercise, eat healthy food, meditate, travel (and so on), but I can’t because. . .”

From where we stand right now, our goals, dreams, and visions may seem unrealistic or even impossible:

“There’s no way I can have what I really want because I’ve got a family to support. I don’t have the resources. . . .” 

Our aspirations can make us uncomfortable and uneasy, and so we may find ways not to dream. We become vague, unclear with ourselves: 

“Oh, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. . . .”

We bury our heads: 

“I’m way too busy to think about what I really want to do. . . .”

We practice avoidance: 

“I’ll do what I want when the kids are grown, the house is paid off, the recession is over. . . .”

We play it safe:

“All I want is an easy life free of stress and worry. . . ”

But here we come upon a couple of hard truths and a paradox:

– If we deny our passions, it’s difficult to be truly happy, and it will be difficult to find fulfillment.

– Pursuing what matters most often involves lots of stress and worry, and no matter how hard we try, we may never reach our ultimate goals. At least, not entirely or in the ways we imagine.

– Strangely enough, if we follow what we know is most important to us, with these attitudes or practices of acceptance of what is while fighting for change, we are unlikely to be disappointed.

In my experience, when we honor what calls us, and risk stepping into the unknown, we enter a creative realm that changes us from the inside out.

When we fight for change, we become changed, and there is literally no telling where that path will take us. Embracing this transformative effort becomes its own reward, and we sometimes prefer where it leads us to whatever it was we once thought we wanted. This is why I like to call the distance between our vision and our current situation a “creative gap” or a “creative opening.” And when it comes to creative openings, being uncomfortable and feeling tension are positive! Greet these feelings with enthusiasm!

True creativity involves the discomfort, tension, and excitement of real risk. You are stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone, entering unknown terrain. Why do we feel discomfort and tension when giving a talk, leading a meeting, applying for a job? In all cases, it is like the tightrope walker: our vision turns to the possibility of falling, of failing. No one wants to fall or fail. The remedy for this is easy, just stay off the rope. But the price tag for this choice can be your growth and development, and your happiness.

Accept where you are, make the changes necessary to move toward where you want to be, and slowly you will find yourself inching out and balancing successfully on that rope, sometimes unexpectedly failing, but then getting back up more skillfully.