My husband and I were hiking in the Orkney Islands and spotted a run-down, Stonehenge-like cluster of rocks on the other side of the expansive field. Rather than try to find a road, which could take hours, we opened the pasture gate and started across the field. Despite the cold rain. Despite the cows and that one big bull who gave us the evil eye.
After about 50 yards we started sinking into the mud. Past our hiking boots, halfway up our shins, soaking our pants. With every step came a loud sucking sound as we pulled our feet out of the mud.
As we slowly, slowly made our way across the field we became discouraged. Was mucking in this rain and mud worth it? What if the stones were just a pile of big rocks and nothing historically significant? Might the field become firmer and less muddy up ahead? Should we turn back? Once we make it to the rock Cairns, how do we get back to the inn? And, oh yeah, are you sure this is just mud and not cow dung, too?
Mucking in mud vs. failing fast
Pursuing a new idea at work usually means a whole lot of uncomfortable mucking about in the mud. And the most effective rebels and change makers at work are both idea people and skilled mud sloggers.
While many entrepreneurs urge us to experiment and fail fast, that’s not realistic when you’re trying to create change inside a big company, government agency, hospital or school system. Things just don’t move at start-up speed, and failure is rarely looked upon as a badge of honor.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist spiritual leader, has said, “No mud, no lotus.” Without suffering through the mud, you cannot find the happiness of the lotus. Without grit, there is no pearl. He also believes that when we know how to suffer, we suffer less.
When we’re creating change there will be mud and all its discomfort and messiness. Perhaps this is a more useful wisdom than “fail fast” for those creating change inside of big organizations.
Of course we all yearn for for predictability, and faster if not instant-gratification. It would be nice to fail fast because we would minimize the duration of the “making something new work” suffering.
Creating change requires doing the homework, building alliances, forming a realistic picture of what’s possible, standing up to the naysayers, and steadfastly moving forward, planning the next step and the one after that. Many days sinking up to our knees in mud, others restraining ourselves from angrily tossing cow flaps at people who resist what we’re trying to accomplish, and some laughing and commiserating with our co-workers.
Ban the heroes. Together, it’s less uncomfortable
Our relationships with people at work may be the only way to suffer less. The comfort in being able to talk through a problem and have someone listen intently without judgment. The trust in being able to ask difficult questions and get honest answers. The kindness of an unexpected latte on your desk after a tough meeting. The surprise of hearing belly laughter floating above the cubicles.
The optimism from the human spirit lifts the suffering and injects new energy to keep going. Even though you may still be in the mud.
No one person can or should try to be the big idea change hero. We need our co-workers, collaborators, compatriots. They improve on our ideas and help us figure out how to sell it and get it adopted. As importantly, they ease the suffering of that goes with most change efforts.
It took us hours to get across that Scottish field that day, and neither the rain nor the mud ever let up. We did find a magical standing rock formation thousands of years old, and the bath that night was one of the best in my life.
This article originally appeared in Forbes on 1/18/15.