My nephew’s wife has started, as so many others of her generation would like to do, her own company. I first heard about it at Thanksgiving, and thought it was a good idea, but when I saw her recently she told me to check out her newly designed website, and brought me up to date on how the business, in general, was doing. As we were walking down a noisy, city street, she made a reference I didn’t quite catch. “Yes, well since the pivot, things have really taken off.” It took me a moment to catch on to what she was saying. I mean, I know what a pivot is, but she meant it in a different context than I had heard it used in the past.
Apparently, it’s a well known business term, especially in the startup world. Turns out it’s an overused term, shows you what I know. PayPal, Twitter, YouTube, they have all done it. They start out one way, then realize it’s not going to work, or that they will do much better if they change direction, and then make an abrupt change of course. First coined by a Silicon Valley guy named Eric Ries, it seems to have become more the rule than the exception in terms of new businesses. And this has been going on for a long time. Some companies have just, well, grown. Amazon went WAY beyond books, Gap went beyond jeans, etc., but other companies have abruptly changed direction, the way we do in my cardio dance class when we walk towards the mirror and then, Chorus Line style, do a quick pivot away from the mirror (hopefully with a Beyonce hair flick) and walk towards the back of the room, BOOM. In fact, I remember the first time I heard the word “pivot,” I was seven and in a tap dance class. Eric Ries, intentionally or not, brings that image to mind when he explains that “pivots are rooted in learning what works and what doesn’t, keeping ‘one foot in the past’ and ‘one foot in a new possible future.’” The other term I keep hearing is “agile,” as in “an agile startup.” Of course, all of these terms relate to movement, coordination, dance, athletics. You need to be able to move fast, you need to be able to do a quick/change in this blink-and-it’s-over-world.
There is a reason these terms are being co-opted by new businesses, start ups, websites and the like. The world is changing SO FAST. People in their twenties are nostalgic for the different world of their youth, even if their youth was six years ago. Because six years ago we weren’t texting the way we are now, six years ago, streaming was just beginning, binge-watching was something we admitted to with at least some embarrassment, many of us still used DVD players. There was social media but it didn’t have the INSTANT affect of Twitter or Instagram, not to mention Snapchat. Everyone now needs to be prepared to do a pivot, often a quick one.
Flexible has become the new strong. Just ask Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player in the world, who will effortlessly slide into the splits while running for a ball or Roger Federer whose back twists when he casually hits a groundstroke into his opponent’s court while his head and gaze remain looking backwards. (Actually, if you want to see magic come to life, try and grab any kind of chance to see Federer play in person, it’s otherworldly.) And, although Serena Williams is known for her strength and power, she can also slide into a split and change direction in an instant. This kind of movement was rarely seen out of the dance or gymnastics world a generation ago, but now even football players practice yoga and the like to increase their flexibility. When you watch old footage of tennis players, particularly before 1980, they look oddly stiff legged. But the metaphor is apt. In order to be prepared for whatever is coming your way, you need to be able to get low to the ground, or jump high, or change direction on a dime. To pivot.
It’s also a way to keep your brain young. A pivot, both metaphorically and athletically, comes from reacting to something new, to realizing the path you are on isn’t going to work and to make a quick change. These kinds of changes feed the brain, it’s one of the reasons why, while any exercise is good for cognition, the fountain of youth, brain wise, is to move and react and make decisions at the same time. It’s one of the reasons interval training is so good for you, it keeps your brain, as well as your muscles, wondering what is coming next. If you had a complicated interval workout but it was the same one day after day it would deprive you of that adrenaline rush of….what now? When you are at the net in tennis you need to not only react to the ball coming at you, you need to think what you are going to DO with that ball, taking into consideration your opponent’s weak backhand or that the sun seems to be really bothering him today. All in less than a second. In basketball you need to be scooping out SEVERAL players’ strengths and weaknesses while you decide whether to pass or shoot. All of this makes your brain stronger and is, at least for me, a big part of why I find the kind of exercise you get playing a sport or learning a skill to be such a mood elevator. If I have figured out a way to win a point or managed to learn a (for me) challenging piece of choreography in a cardio dance class, I not only come out of a workout sweaty and happy, I have a little bit of a boost in my step from learning something new.
So….back to the pivot. We are all doing a lot more of them, we are changing houses or jobs or even career paths in a way our parents, not to mention our grandparents, couldn’t have imagined. I think it’s one of the many reasons for the upswing in popularity of Buddhism, which reminds you of how impermanent everything is. Our children giggling in their beds upstairs, our homes, our spouses, our jobs, our perky boobs, our thinking. Coming out as gay is so 2002. Now we are transgender or pansexual, gender fluidity is a THING. My only point is that things CHANGE. And, as Buddhism tells us, they always have. But I don’t think it’s just me that recognizes that, hey, these changes are happening SO much faster than they did twenty years ago, or even two years ago. So, we need to be ready, we need to recognize when we need to make a change, we don’t always have time to think, we need to react, and we need to do it decisively. For someone like me who thinks the biggest luxury in the world is a two hour walk, this talk of quick changes can be kind of scary, but as I head into my seventh decade, a decade in which I will surely lose both my parents and just might see grandchildren come into the world, I am determined to embrace it. That old saying, “the more things change the more they remain the same” runs through my mind a lot these days.
Sometimes a pivot can be small. Maybe you replace that fifteen year old couch in the living room, or at least get it slipcovered. And when you walk into the room it looks different, it’s not, really, the same room, so you get to be different in it, too. Maybe you sit differently on this couch, maybe you read a different kind of book on this different couch, maybe, perhaps, you even think different thoughts on this different couch.
Or, possibly, a bigger, but still not gigantic pivot. Perhaps you take up a new activity or sport or hobby or take a class and you meet new friends who are equally enamored with this new endeavor. You never realized how obsessed you could get with knitting or making your own jewelry or fantasy football or learning how to play the guitar. Maybe some of these friends are a lot older than you, or younger. Maybe….ok, I realize this is getting to sound a bit like “If You Give A Moose A Muffin,” but I think you get the idea, that even a small change can have a ripple effect through your life. I remember so clearly my parents putting their friends, and themselves, in boxes. “Jeanne likes to cook, Ted likes to golf but he doesn’t read, Sally lives for her grandchildren.” As if that was the sum of their whole lives and personalities. I find myself slipping into that all too easily. I don’t like that, I like this…..I don’t like traveling alone, for instance. Except, wait a minute, maybe I do?
I remember being a kid and visiting “old” people, mostly related to me. Many of them wore clothes that were at least two decades out of style, they went to the same beauty salon or barber shop every Friday, they used the same lotion on their hands, they made the same food, everything felt kind of stale and….old. They watched TV shows that reminded them of years gone by, they tended to denigrate anything new, saying that none of it could be as good as it used to be. And maybe nothing was as good as grandma’s peach pie from 1947, but, I’m sorry, nobody can convince me that Lawrence Welk was EVER the least bit entertaining to anyone. I am not saying we should all be chasing after the newest new thing, that exhausts even twenty somethings and when I was a kid the creepiest thing in the world was that wild (drunk?) aunt in the corner who wanted to “hang out” with the kids and be “groovy.” (A term that even when I was ten was already out of date.) We don’t need every new iphone upgrade the minute it comes out, and it’s good for the environment and our pocketbooks if we wear the same LL Bean snow boots for fifteen winters. But life is not a straight line from birth to death, and it shouldn’t be. We will undoubtedly zig zag, change direction, and sometimes pivot into an entirely new place.
So I guess what I am now talking about is a real pivot, like, I am going to retire early, move to Montana and open up a used bookstore. (Maybe a decision not made as a way to generate income!) For most of us, this kind of drastic change is impractical or perhaps just too scary. But I have friends who are looking towards their third act and thinking….maybe? Maybe we rent our place and live on a house boat for a year. Maybe we do a late middle aged version of backbacking through Europe. (That might be called the airbnb version.) Maybe we turn the kids’ bedroom of our house into our own airbnb for some extra cash, or maybe we ditch the car and leave the suburbs and move to a condo in that new, cool downtown area where we can walk everywhere. There are older people who travel the world as Peace Corps volunteers, or make annual pilgrimages to certain areas and help build a house with Habitat for Humanity. This time of life can also lead to re-examining old friendships and even marriages, wondering if they still provide the emotional sustenance we need moving into this third act. These are all pretty big changes to contemplate. But I think it may have to be at least a bit scary in order to be a true pivot. Because that’s kind of what a pivot is supposed to be, you take a step, you look fiercely forward and put all your weight on that foot and then you—-swing around and start moving in the completely opposite direction. The world looks jarringly different, kind of like when you were a kid and hung upside down from the monkey bars.
I am interested in life pivots any of you are contemplating or have done. It’s not for everybody, but I am thinking it just might be something to consider, and what the hell, add that hair flick for good measure.