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Letting Go

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Two of my friends were laid off recently. One was taken by surprise; the other knew several months in advance that his job would be eliminated. But both had the transition foisted on them. Their experiences reminded me of my own struggles with one of the most difficult and useful lessons of major life transitions: letting go.

The concept is easy to describe, to the point that it has become very nearly a platitude. Thinkers throughout the ages have embraced letting go as the secret to success. Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, "The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning." Common wisdom holds that the secret to finding love -- or happiness -- is to stop trying so hard to find it.

But while the advice sounds simple, I have found that following it is stunningly difficult. Perhaps this is because letting go is fundamentally a paradox. That which we need to let go of is often the very thing that matters most to us. Many of us who attempt to let go are just pretending and hoping the tactic will get us what we want in the end, when what we really must do is accept the loss.

I've struggled with this in particular as a husband and father. My 11-year-old son and I ride bikes to and from his school every day. I accompany him on the 20-minute ride through Manhattan, drop him off and return at the end of the day to pick him up. Some friends worry about the danger of riding in traffic, but I would rather teach my son how to manage the risks. We always ride together; sometimes he leads, sometimes I do. And as we ride, we talk about the ways to minimize the dangers: Don't go too fast, watch out for doors suddenly swinging out from parked cars, jaywalking pedestrians, etc.

But recently he asked me to start hanging back a half block or so. This way he could enjoy the sensation of riding on his own, with the security of knowing that I was nearby in case he needed me. The metaphor was painfully literal: Watching him ride ahead, I felt him slipping away from me. Soon, he will want to ride to school on his own, and I will no longer have this wonderful routine. It's one of the most excruciating experiences of parenthood -- recognizing that your presence is becoming less welcome.

This is healthy, of course, as my son needs space to develop independence in preparation for his inevitable departure from home. Ironically, the parents who are least willing to let go seem destined to suffer the most extreme rejection from the child. It's the psychological corollary to one of Newton's laws: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Malcolm S. Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine, famously advised, "Let your children go if you want to keep them." The first sentence of Red Flags or Red Herrings by developmental psychologist Susan Engel, reads, "You cannot dictate who your children will become." I understand this and am trying to let my son go in age-appropriate phases, but I still suffer.

Managers often make the same overprotective parenting mistake. They may spend significant time and effort to hire qualified and experienced employees, but then prevent those employees from taking any real risks or exercising any real authority. I have worked in an environment like that. The lack of empowerment infects the employees with a sense of inadequacy and malaise -- it's not the way to build a high-performing organization.

My dilemma as a husband mirrors the concern I feel as a parent. My wife has just left on a six-month United Nations mission to work in Libya. In the days leading up to her departure, we spoke openly about the possibility, however unlikely, that she might be killed. I struggled with a desire literally not to let her go, based on both fear for her safety and a wish not to be apart. But while I influence her decisions, I do not control them. Ultimately, it was her decision. Like the parent who encourages a child to seek independence, and the manager who empowers a team to take risks, I know that letting go is the wisest path in this case too.

In his touching and insightful book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, Gordon Livingston -- who lost two children, one to suicide and one to leukemia -- wrote, "Many of us are afraid of risk and prefer the bland, the predictable, and the repetitive." If this describes you, realize that sooner or later, your bland, predictable, repetitive life is going to be upended. You might get laid off, like my friends, and have to let go of your old professional identity. You will eventually lose your parents and probably a dear friend. If you have kids, they will grow up and leave you. And eventually you may find, as Livingston put it, that "experience has taught us well, but now we are too old to use the knowledge."

My friends are looking for new jobs and, to their credit, have sought advice and support from their personal and professional networks. One of them already received an offer for a new position and the other told me that he is considering changing industries, explaining that, "I was stagnating in my old job. It's actually energizing to let it go and decide what I want to do next." The devastation from losing a job is profound, but it can also create an opportunity for positive change.

As we travel through life's phases, we must let go of so much. And I don't think it gets easier with practice. But maybe just accepting that eventually we will have to let go is the secret to living a full life.

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