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All In

Suggested Song: All In, Better than Ezra Suggested Drink: Agavé peach wine

The story went like this:

We were all called into the break room at the end of the day on Friday for a special group meeting. I was half way out the door when Ernie (the group manager) asked us all to take a seat. He had no other way to say this then to just say it. Starting next Monday, Mike, who’s been a great part of this lab team for 5 plus years now and you all know very well, will be showing up as Michelle. He, or she as of Monday, will be dressing as a woman and wearing a wig and makeup. Basically, the full-on getup. You ladies should take note that she’ll also be using the women’s restroom. Yep, that’s right. Be respectful and if you have any issues come see me about it. Have a great weekend.

My roommate was not the excitable type, but he and his entire crew were clearly caught by surprise with this news. He ended the recounting with a wide eyed coda of, Holy shit, can you believe it!?

We had both been working at a large government research laboratory outside San Francisco when his colleague – a married father of 2 – made the decision to get gender reassignment. A precondition for the treatment and procedure was to live as a woman 24/7 for at least 12 months first. Some things cannot be done in half measures. Mike was obviously not a weekend explorer. Inside he already was Michelle, and perhaps to feel complete he needed to be Michelle to the world outside as well. He went all in.

The John Tracy story also centers on an abrupt and major revision of oneself. John v1.0 was a science geek (physicist and aspiring entrepreneur) who founded a diode laser company in Tucson in 1992. This was the digital gold rush era when founders of companies that made lasers and other parts for fiber-optic networks were becoming overnight zillionaires. He sold Opto-Power at the market peak a few years later and decided on a complete life change. (No, not gender reassignment!)

John v2.0 and his wife Deborah moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 2000, bought a vineyard in Sonoma County, and took a blind dive into the wine business (think Green Acres, 21st century). When the vagaries of the grapes market become apparent he doubled down, hired a winemaker, and expanded into a winery – Owl Ridge Wines – in 2004. More recently John has diversified into becoming a negociant (bottling grapes from other vineyards) and developing a completely new wine line through his Agavé Garden brand.

I caught up with John last week over a call from Aix. There are days when he misses the technology world – a lot in fact – and never intended to divorce himself of it completely. But running a winery and vineyard is a full time job times 2. Pursuing one’s passion demands complete and uncompromised commitment. He will tell you that he’s learned on the job, made every mistake possible, and invested himself wholly into this endeavor. He’s gone all in.

Many of us dabble in hobbies that we dream will become lifestyles. But It is difficult to establish a radically new trajectory when there are bills to pay and families to support. Mike had the expectations of family, friends and coworkers to counter. Just imagine the discussions in which he had to engage. Abrupt life changes may be required, however, in the pursuit of our personal visions, those passions that define who we are and why we are on this spinning planet. In fact I believe that abrupt changes are more the rule than exception when going all in on a mission that truly matters. And our missions must be respected, must truly matter. Or aren’t we just dabbling?

The problem with the weekend warrior model to a new you is two-fold: your immersion isn’t long enough to affect real change – you become v1.1 (v1.0 with a feature upgrade) rather than a distinctly new v2.0, and it is difficult to attain escape velocity sufficient to overcome the gravitational drag of your existing reality. This is not to suggest that radical change should be pursued without ample preparation, and that is done before the leap.

Joe Murphy teaches a course at San Francisco State University on life planning, and he outlines 6 stages of change that define a major transition. I’ve modified Joe’s steps slightly to highlight the elements you may want to consider when thinking through the all-in process of real personal change.

  1. Pre-contemplation: do I want to repurpose and redefine myself? Assessing one’s current state, defining new opportunities, understanding the pros and cons of change, getting feedback from others, and identifying sources of resistance.

  2. Contemplation: what would this change look like? Envisioning v2.0, outlining a plan, identifying resources needed and available, understanding one’s fears about change, and establishing the calendar of change (to avoid being either premature or overcautious).

  3. Preparation: getting ready. Laying out the steps to your v2.0 release date, establishing interim milestones, identifying personal behaviors to add or subtract, clarifying the mission and message, rallying support, developing financial estimates, and testing the waters.

  4. Action: time to go all in. Implementing the vision plan, avoiding one’s favorite diversions, being confident and assertive, rewarding progress, attaining new and required knowledge, remaining motivated, and validating and tracking results.

  5. Maintenance: staying there. Sending out announcements, turning new behaviors into habits, reframing your personal pitch (to that familiar question, “and what do you do?”), respecting danger signs, accepting credit for accomplishments, continued learning and pivots, and staying vigorous through diet, exercise and meditation.

  6. Recycling: bouncing back from relapse. Pushing the reset button, preparing for complications, learning from failures, giving oneself a break, continuing to seek the guidance and support of others who care.

Not everyone is driven to redefine themselves dramatically and this is understandable. Real change is unsettling to pursue, requires tremendous energy and significant resources, can be viewed as a threat to others, and opens ourselves to criticism and embarrassment. Still, for many of us it is not an option to remain static. If much that defines us is outdated or simply inaccurate, then we are compelled to unveil a new model. Otherwise we are all Mike – pre-Michelle – presenting ourselves falsely, struggling to dance in a straight jacket, and never realizing our true gifts. How unsettling is that?

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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