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The Importance Of Molting


Each of us has been told about our potential like it was an unused balloon and asked if we had any interest in filling it before we died.

Filling it, we were promised, would lead to things like “success” and “happiness.”

Or perhaps it was a mountain analogy. “Potential” being the peak laid out in front of you. Scaling it would lead to the same rosy patch of human achievement and self-fulfillment as blowing up that balloon would.

The ideas are tangible because the frame and boundaries have been specified; there is some seemingly idealized shape or place we are supposed to grow into or onto. We just need to fill it. We just need to climb it.

Our personal stories literally ballooning or getting to the “next level,” uninterruptedly.

But this isn’t how life works.

I was in the Galapagos Islands a few years back. It’s like the Penn Station of evolution. All genetic (s)trains feel like they’ve come through there. Among the iguanas, finches, and tortoises going this way and that, there was an army of crabs scrambling their sideways inroads and retreats on the surf-blasted rocks. Amidst all the chaos, I watched as one crab hid beneath an overhang, safe from the birds of prey orbiting the scene. It then began to molt. Molting: a crustacean’s answer to a caterpillar’s chrysalis, except this happens live on stage, not behind the curtain of a cocoon. It’s one of the most amazing things to see.

Crab shells don’t grow. In order to get bigger, the crab needs to ditch its old shell and wait for a new one to harden around its body. This is a problem. Just ask the “soft-shell crab.” A soft-shell crab isn’t a kind of crab, it’s any crab right after it molts, much to the enjoyment of shellfish lovers everywhere.

And this is the power of the analogy. A crab— unlike the image of an expanding balloon or someone climbing a mountain— must literally let go of what it once was in order to progress.

Just like us.

From In Over Our Heads, by Robert Kegan:

"Adults must grow into and out of several qualitatively different views of the world if they are to master the challenges of their life experiences."

That sounds like emotional molting, or “emolting.”

In order to change, you cannot be two versions of yourself at once. As Derek Sivers pointed out yesterday, you cannot put one pair of clothes on top of the other. You must let one go.

Our big assumptions in life, the ones we need to make to go about our day, may not always hold true, for one or both of these reasons:

  1. Our desires and values change

  2. The world doesn’t care what we have planned for ourselves

But yet we must live, all the while holding two conflicting realities in the back of our minds:

  1. I want, feel and believe certain things to be true about who I am as a person today

  2. I won’t be this person forever

On top of this conundrum, our life between molts is the person that people come to rely on and understand; and the one they are invested in keeping the same.

Chip Conley talks about that exact challenge in his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss, explaining what he went through when he decided to sell his business after 24 years.

It was hard, though. It is very hard to sell a business that — for, ultimately when I sold it, it was 24 years — that has been your identity for most of your adult life. But it was actually harder for other people than for me. And that’s a fascinating piece of it. Is I realized my identity had moved on. I was ready for what’s next...but I had to deal with other people’s challenge in me changing my identity.

And there’s lots of ways people change their identity. You can get divorced, you can change your career completely, you can literally change your gender. But in my case, it was just changing the actual fact that I was the founder and CEO of what was the largest boutique hotel company in the San Francisco Bay area. And for some people who liked having their friend have that role and got a lot of free hotel rooms out of it from me or restaurant reservations or massages in my spas, they didn’t like it. But at the end of the day, it was the right decision.

Life has a restraining order on what we think we “truly” desire, making sure we always keep a certain distance from it so we don’t get lazy or complacent.

Let this liberate you.

You have the potential to have a say in your life, to adapt, to change your mind.

You’re not any less “you” because you’ve changed. You are more “you” by embracing who you have become. Just because the tide comes in and ruins your sand castle doesn’t make the sand castle any less important or valuable to your life’s story.

No shell is “wasted.”

This doesn’t make change “easy.” It’s oftentimes terrifying. I feel like I have molted 3 or 4 times in my adult life. In fact, I feel a little “case of the molts” coming on right now.

I just have to trust in vulnerability.

As the old poem from Chögyam Trungpa goes, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”

Maybe I can steal/bastardize. “The bad news is, everyone around you is climbing higher on the mountain, nothing to hold them back. The good news is, there is no summit.”

And yet we must walk. We must engage with the world and utilize our gifts and interests. It’s not about filling balloons or climbing mountains, but more about taking a hike, over the river and through the woods to some other place we’ll go, becoming who we never could have dreamed, many shells ago.

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© Bassam Tarazi 2020