Why would you make a change when things are going well? Who would think it good advice to abandon something in the midst of success?
A good thing is a good thing—right? It would be foolish to jump ship or change course when the view and the forecast looks perfect. But is it?
One of the most frequent questions I have been asked about following the release of Tape Breakers is, “How do I start a second curve?” A question prompted by the exploration of the sigmoid curve. The path of life is a race (a life cycle) that ascends a curve from infancy to a peak and eventually turns to decline. The most effective way to look at life is that is not a single curve but a series of curves depicting the stages and events of our life.
Charles Handy in his incredible book, The Age of Paradox, says, “A good life is probably a succession of second curves started before the first curve fades.”
The second curve (personal reinvention) is about creating and designing your future before the future arrives. The future most assuredly sneaks up on us because we fail to start a second curve.
Creating a second curve is difficult and challenging because it requires us to think—think hard. It requires us invest time, energy and resources into new thinking at a time when things are going well. There are a number of reasons why second curve thinking is difficult.
Why we miss the starting line for second curves.
- Emotional attachment to what we have done and accomplished before.
- Confidence and energy are high based on our current success.
- Energy and enthusiasm for pursuing a new curve is low. Disasters, crisis and failure force us to move on while we cling to success—even if it is crumbling.
- Early success creates a sense of overconfidence and myopia.
- Self-awareness is low—our sense of comfort blinds us to the impending decline. We don’t challenge our current success but look for things to confirm our current curve is still solid.
- Lack of focus—attempting to pursue too many goals.
- Inability to define the problem.
- Near-term focus. If you thrive on self-gratification and achievement, looking beyond immediate projects and assignments is challenging.
The key to personal and professional reinvention is second curve thinking—a discipline to invest in yourself before you are forced to by changing circumstances or conditions. Handy defines reinvention the best writing, “The discipline of the second curve requires that you always assume that you are near the peak of the first curve and should therefore be starting the second.”
It is thinking that is paramount to reinventing yourself and preparing yourself for a future that is going to arrive faster than you think. We should never mistake the fact that the future always arrives faster than we think. Committing to second curve braces us for the fact that what seems like a flash in time we can find ourselves looking at a world we are unfamiliar with and unprepared to conquer.
In a recent interview, Charles Handy shared a funny story that points out the paradox of second curve thinking. Handy describes stopping to ask for directions to a favorite Irish destination.
The Paradox of 2nd Curve Thinking
“The Wicklow Mountains lie just outside Dublin, Ireland. It is an area of wild beauty, and I return there as often as I can. Roads are unmarked, and I still get lost. Once I stopped and asked the way. ‘Sure, it’s easy,’ a local replied, ‘just keep going the way you are, straight ahead, and after a while you will cross a small bridge with Davy’s Bar on the far side. You can’t miss it!’. ‘OK, I’ve got that, straight on to Davy’s Bar’, I said. ‘That’s right. Well, half a mile before you get there, turn to your right up the hill.’
By the time I realized that the logic made no sense he had disappeared. As I made my way down to Davy’s Bar, wondering which of the roads to the right to take, I reflected that he had just given me a vivid example of paradox, perhaps even the paradox of our times: by the time you know where you ought to go, it’s too late to go there, or, more dramatically, if you keep on going the way you are, you will miss the road to the future.
If you think the way to the future is a continuation of where you’ve come from, you may well end up in Davy’s Bar, with nothing left but a chance to drown your sorrows in a couple of beers and reminisce about the past.
The second curve is the cross road that says, “Uphill to the right.” It is rarely, if ever, clearly marked. You have to discover it on your own. I’ve fallen into the decline stage of the curve many times. It has taught me to be on second curve alert.
Creating a second curve—the starting line of reinvention.
- Set your direction by answering two questions. If you are going to start a second curve (which is the art of reinvention), you want to head in the direction of the people and contributions that are going to matter most.
- Who do you want to be remembered by?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
- Think about where you are along the curve of the important races in your life. It is likely the momentum and seasons of life have moved you further along the path than you might have thought.
- What does it say or reveal? Your goal is not to reinvent the same life because that would merely perpetuate the first curve. The second curve builds out of the first using what is good and discarding what is unnecessary to support journey to the next finish line.
Comfort commonly blinds us to our impending decline. Not because it is not there but because we don’t expect or anticipate it. Who hasn’t tried to hold on to past success hoping to extend it just a bit longer—I have.
A good life filled with impact requires personal reinvention—a succession of second curves started before the first curve fades.