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​How to Survive the Reinvention of Yourself

​How to Survive the Reinvention of Yourself

In the first line of the Roman poet Ovid’s epic poem, “Metamorphoses,” he says he intends to “speak of forms changed into strange new beings.” Beings that transformed into fantastic creatures, creatures that slipped between categories of nomenclature - becoming myths, the legends of history and time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformation these days, having been through some big disruptions in my own life recently.

  • left a job that I truly loved, where I worked with young people to connect them to opportunities to help fulfill their potential.
  • I moved from a central home in suburban Johannesburg to a bucolic home in a woodsy part of Nairobi, where warthogs frequent our garden.
  • My kids moved from a tiny, caring pre-school to a large preparatory school with several hundred children, structured extra-curricular activities, and homework.
  • I started work for an amazing new organization, whose unbridled energy and passion for impact and scale is both infectious and inspiring.

Despite the undeniable positive attributes of my new job - I chose to work as a remote team member, while also managing a project in a third country - I had to wonder: What was I thinking?

It’s no wonder that the past few months have felt like a series of earthquake tremors in my life. Ripped from the womb-like comfort of an environment and friends that I knew well and loved, I endured what felt like repeated birthing pangs, accompanying the breaking down and rebuilding of my psychological self, again and again.

These past few months have been been filled with the adrenaline rush of newness, but were also with fraught with questions and critical self-examination: Did I make the right decision? Was this what I wanted? Why was I doing this? Different parts of my brain were at war with each other while simultaneously being rewired. How was my limbic system - let alone myself - supposed to survive this?

Despite the endless questions, this has been an extraordinary, exhausting, and surprisingly exhilarating period of my life. The earthquakes in my brain have forced me to reckon with big questions and to develop a greater sense of self-awareness than I have ever before. Grappling with the changes and uncertainties forced me to intentionally rethink, rewire, and redesign my life with intention, now that the well-worn grooves of habit, ritual, comfort, and familiarity have been cast to the wind.

Yuval Harari talks about reinventing oneself as the most important skill to teach children in the 21st century. I have felt the stress and strain of reinventing entire chapters of myself over these past few months - and have also learned some valuable lessons on how to survive the reinvention.

1) Focus on what truly brings you joy.

The KonMari Method encourages us to only keep those things that speak to the heart, and to discard items that have outlived their purpose. Marie Kondo says we need to thank them for their service and let them go.

While I’m not a hoarder, I have always regarded this method as one of smug and self-righteous minimalism. I have been both despairing (how is this level of decluttering even possible?) and disdainful (you cannot humanly live such a minimalist existence!) And yet, having culled and packed away a lifetime of things and memories into a moving truck, it is clear to me that the process of sorting through life’s objects is less about self-help superiority, and more about thinking through what truly matters.

More figuratively, though, it was through the sorting and letting go of parts of my life that I was forced to recognize what was beautiful in my life, to thank it for its service, and to let it go. By clinging to the job and life I loved, I developed habits and patterns that were etched into my brain and may have encouraged me to become convinced of my own narrative, competence, and complacency.

Autopilot routines (gym-work-kids-wine-bed!) did not allow me to stop, think, and really examine each aspect of the routine. They were routines, and they worked! And so, I didn't question them. I packed my schedule and my life by adding more and more - without really examining what gave me joy and why they were there in the first place. By uprooting myself physically from my environment, I was forced to review what was important about my old life, and to think about what I wanted to take with me into the new one.

Strangely, my kids were better at practicing this than I was. They didn’t really care about their favorite playthings or their routines. They did love their friendships - and we made a concerted effort to spend time with each of their friends before they left. However, they seemed to casually wave goodbye to a house and a container of stuff, disbanding any pretense of attachment, seeing great possibility and optimism everywhere.

Instead, the here and now was where they lived - rooted, joyful, and real. The uninhibited joy they saw was in the present - despite its seemingly transient nature - and the excitement of possibility. I found that the categorizing of my lived experience, and the sorting through it forced me to understand what truly gave me joy - and to find joy in newness with the same intentionality.

[Related: How to Illuminate and Blaze Your Trail]

2) Embrace the discomfort, and plan ahead for it.

To make sure that my seismic shift was complete, I underwent eye surgery right before I left South Africa. Doctors implanted tiny lenses into each of my eyes in order to correct my severe short-sightedness. I am usually a stoic about these procedures, and this was no different.

However, my recovery was less than smooth - I was bothered by the discomfort, pain, and light-sensitivity that ensued, and was annoyed that I couldn’t exercise for nearly two weeks. I questioned the decision to repair my eyes, and was frustrated with myself for choosing to go through this procedure right before a big move.

After a surgery of any kind, you’re usually prescribed pain killers and rest. Your body needs to recover so the better, stronger, bionic you can emerge. Rest, recover, and be patient - and you’ll be able to see with a new pair of eyes.

Reinventing yourself requires a similar strategy of self-care and preservation. It is psychological surgery, to a certain degree. The changes of the past few months have come with some very tangible and very figurative discomforts.

For example, navigating peak traffic in Nairobi with hungry and cranky children in the backseat remains a highly uncomfortable experience. But it has also forced me to acknowledge and think through creative ways to address this discomfort.

To use a slightly different analogy: Upon moving into a new organization, I was forced to cast aside my old running shoes and try on a new pair of sneakers instead. I felt like I was still running the same race, and the shoes felt new and uncomfortable. I was slower. The running route was different. But with more patience, a good pace, and a healthy perspective, I could feel my feet getting into the rhythm of a new race.

[Related: Have a Destination in Mind? Put Your Foot on the Path and Start Walking]

3) Your “window of opportunity” is under construction.

I had a meeting with a tech startup in Nairobi, whose open-plan offices included a rooftop patio. The “door” to the patio was actually a window half a meter off the ground. You had to climb into the window and sidle your shoulder under the window frame to get onto the roof.

This relatively unorthodox entry onto the patio allowed us to have our meeting under a warm and wonderful Nairobi sun. Jackhammers pounded in the background as we overlooked a number of building sites that I had walked past to get there - on the very congested, under-construction, and maligned Ngong road.

Moving from a job I knew and loved to take on an unknown challenge in Nairobi was much like that construction site on Ngong road. Opportunity rarely presents itself as a shining, gleaming window beckoning you into a spotless new future. It is often a dusty construction site, a window with rough-hewn edges that requires you to hike up your skirts and climb onto the roof. To get onto a sunlit patio of possibility, you are going to have to first spot that rough-hewn window and pluck up the courage to climb through it. You never know what’s on the other side.

When Ovid wrote of the metamorphosis of mythical beings, I believe he was sharing a powerful metaphor for the transformation of the self into a future self - a more powerful self, a bionic self. Some transformations might require a decluttering of the soul. Some might need surgery and adjustment.

Ultimately, I have chosen to embrace the seismic shifts of the past few months by rearranging the facts of the shift into a new narrative - letting go, embracing the discomfort, and finding that rough-hewn window of opportunity and stepping through it. Who knows what mythical new creature might be born?

[Related: What If You Let Your Intuition Guide You?]


After building the foundation for the African Leadership Academy alumni network and careers offering, Sharmi Surianarain joined Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in July 2018 to lead the South African organization's efforts to address the pressing challenge of youth unemployment across the continent.

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