I recently had the honor to co-facilitate with three of my colleagues a two-and-a-half day Fierce Conversations workshop for leaders in the Episcopal Church. The Fierce Conversations materials, which include two books and a series of other leadership resources, have had great success and popularity in the business community and are now being used in schools and churches.
One of the most important principles taught in the Fierce Conversations framework is based on a line from an Ernest Hemmingway novel. In Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked how he went bankrupt. He answers, “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Most problems, including bankruptcy, develop gradually and then … suddenly. Fierce Conversations takes this idea and expands it to matters other than one’s financial stability, stating, “Our work, our relationships, and, in fact, our very lives succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”
There is much to unpack in this statement, but here I would simply like to focus on the phrase, “gradually then suddenly.” Most of the time when we experience a “suddenly” in our lives, that “suddenly” follows weeks, months, years, or even decades of “gradually.” As problems develop gradually, it is easy to choose not to have the conversations that need to be had, or to make the changes that need to be made.
It seems easier in the short run to ignore the whispers and hope the problem will go away. Problems never seem like a big deal in the “gradual” stage. “Gradually” can easily be minimized because each step of “gradually” does not seem that significant at the time.
The problem only becomes a big deal when “gradually” becomes “suddenly.” That “suddenly” could be when a person gets a DUI arrest, a partner has an affair, a person loses their job after years of under-performing, a child is suspended from school for using drugs, or a person experiences a health crisis following years of ignoring warning signs.
The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last month are an example of a “suddenly” that happened following years of not resolving or taking seriously underlying issues and tensions in a community. Whenever a “suddenly” happens, challenges can no longer be minimized and must be addressed to move forward.
It is also worth noting that this same truth applies to growth and positive changes that we make. It may seem like any of the following happen “suddenly”:
The reality is that while these changes may appear to happen “suddenly,” they are in fact due to many small choices and changes that were made “gradually” over a longer period of time. When we are working to create positive change in our lives, the gradual things we do each day, each week, each year, may seem like they are not all that significant—that is, until the positive change “suddenly” crystallizes.
Is there a “gradually” in your life that you avoiding that needs to be tended to before it turns into a “suddenly?” Might it be related to work, family, a friend, or your own well-being? Is there a positive “gradually” that you would like to start in motion somewhere in your life such as at work, within your family, with a friend, or for your own well-being?
If so, why not start today? Stay positive, even if your progress seems slow and gradual. Because in the end, there really is no other path to “suddenly” than “gradually.”