The Power of Understanding Yourself: The Key to Self-Discovery, Personal Development, and Being the Best You - Dave Mitchell 2019
Veraison: The Evolution of Me
True love is like wine, it gets stronger with age.
— Farid F. Ibrahim
“Can people change?”
This is the question I hear most frequently after I speak — one that is asked out of sadness as often as hope. It seems that people are split on people’s ability to change. The fatalists appear resigned to the fact that the stars are cast, whereas the optimists hold hope that humans can achieve better behaviors. Even more interesting, when I ask people about what they want to change, I realize that they are referring to someone else. Rarely do people feel the need to change themselves. Of course, the irony in that is the only person that we can change is ourself. That is no easy task. As mentioned in Chapter 4, “Core Ideology,” Piaget believed that much of our cognitive development was completed by the age of 22 or so. But, what if something important provided the impetus for a change after we achieved full cognitive development? Or, what if the mere passing of time and all that it entails could slowly guide us into new directions?
In the world of wine, the most wondrous moment of change is called veraison (ver-AY-zhun). During veraison, the grapes turn from green to purple. There are so many spectacular metaphors here for our own development. The grape is ripening. It is evolving to become a better vessel for making wine. Its contents become more appealing. Best of all, there is no clear explanation for what precipitates this evolution. It is a beautiful mystery. Without veraison, there would be no wine.
I believe the same is true about people — at least, the best of us. To reach our fullest potential, we must experience our own veraison. And, I think life provides us with the impetus to experience this transformation. Some of us recognize these moments and change; others of us do not. Or, more accurately, perhaps they do change but not in a way that maintains their desired alignment. Remember the graphic on organization alignment in the earlier chapter? As depicted in that chart, we are a product of life inputs, particularly those that we experience early on. Those life inputs don’t stop happening as we mature, but their impact often does. Fortunately, we still experience events later in life that have the force to initiate veraison. They have the force to bust the concrete of our minds. Fortunate, provided that we maintain our practice of metacognition and integrate these new inputs into our core ideology to align with our outputs.
Some of these life experiences are obvious and common. Getting married, becoming a father (twice) and losing my parents were all life events that had a major influence on me and are common to many people. Any or all of these can create immediate, thoughtful changes in our alignment. Although it is not certain, there is a very good chance that life events such as these (large changes in inputs) will require a change in your core ideology in order to maintain alignment. For example, most of us will experience the death of a parent. We will grieve, reflect, eulogize, and then move on with the memories of our loss. There may be changes in alignment needed, but without the conscious effort to identify how this input has affected our outputs we won’t know the best way to adjust our core ideology.
However, for a few people, this experience may force a deeper self-exploration and a change in the way they orient themselves to life. These are people who manifest exceptional metacognition. In these instances, the life event (input) will initiate a veraison. For me, all the aforementioned referenced life events had a major impact, but not all prompted a purposeful reevaluation of my core ideology. Just because one has an experience of this magnitude does not mean that a person will fundamentally change. Our version of veraison most often combines a substantial input (life experience) with metacognition and commitment to new ways of thinking (alignment) to arrive at a new or modified core ideology.
Any of these aforementioned significant life experiences have the capacity to stimulate veraison. On the other hand, many times our veraison occurs slowly and nearly imperceivably and is not the result of a purposeful alignment but rather a subconscious one. When I was younger, for instance, my tertiary interactive style preference was Mastermind, based on my MBTI results (INTJ) and my clear tolerance for risk, loosely defined situations, and new experiences. I didn’t really have much to lose, so I had little sensitivity to taking chances. As I aged, got married, had children, accumulated assets, my willingness to accept risk diminished. Also, having spent the past 23 years traveling around the world nearly 200 days annually, the reassurance of routines became more appealing and the attractiveness of new experiences diminished. Slowly my Mastermind preference dropped and was replaced by my Expert as my tertiary style. Although this doesn’t represent a quantum leap in change, it does provide me with an understanding of why I am less open to new ideas and more likely to fall into patterns now than I was in my youth. The style change was a long, subtle evolution of my core ideology brought about by a change in inputs and outputs over time.
Ultimately, what stimulates veraison in you may range from the glacier-like trends over decades to the flash points of love, death, joy, or tragedy. Or, it could be a vampire.
A Shift in Perspective
In 1995, my lovely bride was working part time as a travel agent in Orlando, Florida. One of the perks of that profession is the occasional offer to experience a tourism destination at a substantially discounted rate so that said destination can familiarize the travel agent on the benefits they offer. These trips are referred to as FAM trips (short for familiarization). One such trip was made available to Lori from the country of Romania. So desperate was Romania for tourism that they offered a one-week, countrywide tour at no cost to the travel agent. That alone would have caught our eye; but the real hook was Dracula. The tour of Romania included visiting the region of Transylvania. Lori and I are huge fans of horror movies, so a trip to Transylvania bordered on a journey to the Holy Land for us. We jumped at the offer.
Without engaging in a discussion of Romanian history — a conversation that I am woefully unqualified to lead — suffice it to say that this was not a high watermark for Romania. The country was just a few years removed from the communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu who had been executed with his wife in 1989 after being convicted of genocide by starvation. Six years later, Romania was struggling with a new socio-political system and a weak economy. When we landed at the airport outside Bucharest, the plane gingerly navigated the bomb craters on the runway. Armed security guarded the luggage area. The customs experience was akin to being processed into the Gulag system. It was frightening.
Fortunately, our tour guide and host for the week collected us almost immediately after we exited customs. This was not your average tour guide. Nicolae Paduraru had been in the Ministry of Tourism under Ceaucescu, heading up the Department of International Relationships and, to our amazement, was the founder of the Transylvania Society of Dracula. We had struck gold.
Nicolae will forever be on my shortlist of the most gracious people I have ever met. His kindness and his intellect combined to make him an incredible guide. We were stunned that a man of such importance to the country would not only be our guide, but personally pick us up at our hotel. Upon transporting us to our first hotel in Bucharest, he invited us to a welcome dinner that night with the rest of the tour participants. My wife and I went to our room to rest, but were undermined by the excitement we were experiencing. We changed and got ready to join the throngs of people with whom we would experience Romania.
It turns out that a throng in Romania is eight people. One of those was Nicolae. Another was the bus driver.
Imagine our surprise that we would spend a week in Romania on a tour with a former leader in the Ministry of Tourism and founder of the Dracula Society with only four other people excepting the driver. We were giddy. Being giddy, however, was not the prevalent response by the rest of the group. Within a couple of days, the group was down to five — Lori and me, one other intrepid travel agent, Nicolae, and the driver. The slow decline in tour members seemed straight out of a grade B horror movie, particularly when your tour guide heads up the Dracula Society and you are traveling to Transylvania.
We left Bucharest to visit Sibiu, Sighsoara (birth place of Vlad III, aka Dracula) and Cluj-Napoca considered the capital of Transylvania. In each city, we were simultaneously enchanted by the charm of the cities and the people — while also being keenly aware of the extreme economic hardships. We watched children joyfully playing games they had fashioned out of pieces of tree bark and a rock. We realized that our life experiences growing up are tremendously influenced by the affluence of our country and how so many others in the world have such a completely different set of life inputs. It feels silly to say, but we understood for the first time — in our mid-30s — the nature of privilege. Neither Lori nor I had come from wealth, but compared to what we were witnessing in Romania, we had lived like royalty. This trip had already changed us. Romania was the motivating force for our veraison. Then, it was on to the Carpathian Mountains.
To say that the Carpathian Mountains or Transylvanian Alps are scary is like calling Stephen Hawking smart. Perhaps it was the situation, the weather, the time of day, or the stories of Vlad III, but I don’t think I have ever experienced such creepy geography. If it were possible to convert the experience of physical shudders and goose bumps into a landscape, it would look like the Carpathian Mountains. It is little wonder that Bram Stoker was inspired to create Dracula based on secondhand knowledge of the area. Imagine how scary the book would have been had he actually visited Transylvania. The five of us navigated the road through the mountains on our modest tour bus on our way to our final hotel stay of the trip: The Hotel Castel Dracula (insert ominous music).
Arriving at this hotel after dark, in Transylvania, during a thunderstorm is almost otherworldly — or completely otherworldly. Now, to be clear, this is not Bran Castle. This is a rustic building — part castle, part old hotel — that had the good sense to brand itself as Dracula’s Castle. I now know that the structure was built only 12 years before and in retrospect, we were basically experiencing a themed up version of a Hampton Inn. But given the situation, we were pretty sure we were entering the location of our untimely demise. And what followed did nothing to dispel that feeling.
Knowing Lori’s and my fascination with the legend of Dracula, Nicolae invited us to join him for a tour of the crypt. A tour of the crypt. You know that moment when you are presented with a very bad idea and you turn to the love of your life and your eyes meet and you telepathically say, “That is such a bad idea, but I really want to do it”? Of course, we said yes. One hour later, we met Nicolae in the lobby and followed him to a remote area of the hotel. Nicolae unlocked a heavy wooden door, lit a torch and headed down a long, narrow, stone staircase. Lori followed. I brought up the rear in near darkness.
The light disappeared momentarily as Nicolae turned a corner and entered an empty chamber. Dirt floors and stone walls contained a space of 10 feet by 10 feet. It was empty with one notable exception: the coffin.
Let’s pause here to review. Lori and I are alone in a crypt in the basement of a castle, lit only by a torch held by the founder of the Society of Dracula in Transylvania. That is a complete butt pucker moment. And yet, it hadn’t even gotten that scary for me — yet. That happened next.
As Nicolae, by the tiny little light of that torch, stood at one side of the room discussing the legend of Dracula, I decided to do what my Y chromosome demanded. I decided to open the casket. Now, if you are a fan of horror movies, you know that there exists in all of them that one character who decides that the stupidest of all actions is the correct one to choose. I never realized that I was that character. Anyway, I made my way over to the coffin waiting to be admonished by Nicolae. He did not stop me. Eventually, I was standing right next to Dracula’s eternal resting spot.
I hesitated. My heart raced.
I reached under the lid of the coffin and pulled up.
I have never been able to adequately re-create verbally what I experienced in this next moment. I always feel compelled to explain that I am a salt of the earth, Midwestern pragmatist who, while fascinated by the notion of the supernatural, is not ready to believe in what I have not personally experienced. Although I am emotionally sensitive, I am outwardly guarded, a remnant of my being raised by a stoic father. I am not prone to exaggeration, fantasy, or hallucination. What happened in that moment is as certain to me as the existence of the laptop on which I type these words.
The moment that I began to lift the casket’s lid, a thin, pale appendage curled out from under the top and held it shut. I refer to it as an appendage rather than a finger because it bent more like a caterpillar than a finger. It seemed jointless. It stopped the lid’s movement immediately. It had the opposite effect on me. I shot back like I had been shot out of a cannon. I have never, never experienced that degree of abject fear. Lori, who had been focused on Nicolae, caught my retreat out of the corner of her eye. I watched the coffin for further movement. None came.
Within a few moments, Nicolae finished his story and turned to walk us back up the stairwell. Lori quickly followed. The light was rapidly leaving the crypt, so I hustled behind them. We exited the crypt and left the area in silence.
When we got back to the lobby, Nicolae asked if we would like a cup of coffee. I thought surely the reveal would happen here. Surely, Nicolae would share the ruse that accompanies the trip to the crypt. Perhaps I had messed up the climax when the hotel staff member rises from the dead to scare the guests. Granted, I couldn’t quite reconcile the malleability of the finger and it’s completely unnatural appearance. Really good makeup on a double-jointed member of the bell staff? Maybe. A trained albino snake? Less likely. But surely, there must be some kind of final act to this hoax.
“Do you take cream and sugar?” asked a completely nonplussed Nicolae.
“Yes.” I was looking forward to hearing how this normally works. I had just finished five years working a stone’s throw from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I understand the notion of creating a fantasy experience. In fact, despite a much more unsophisticated technical approach, I was quite impressed with the level of discipline it took not to play out the big reveal.
“How is your room?” Nicolae continued this charade of normalcy.
“Um, are you not going to discuss what happened in the crypt?” Now I was becoming irritated. My blood pressure and heart rate had still not recovered from what happened less than 15 minutes before.
“What happened in crypt?”
“Seriously? There was somebody [something] in the coffin.” By this time, I was incredulous.
“Really. How do you know?”
“Because I tried to open the lid and this finger like thing came out from under it and held it shut!”
You know that character in a horror movie who first sees the ghost (monster, vampire, werewolf, alien) and tells the police and they think he is completely goofy? I never thought I would be that character either, but here I was.
“You tried to open the casket and a finger from inside held it shut?”
“Well, people say they see strange things in the crypt.” And with that, Nicolae sipped his coffee and changed the subject.
My mind was swimming. I couldn’t reconcile what I had just experienced with what I knew to be true. Are they really this good at the scare? No American experience would leave the reveal unrevealed. Or did I just experience something paranormal? Is there something truly magical about Transylvania? For a multitude of reasons, I could not sleep that night. In many ways, my life would never be quite the same.
One of my crusades in life is helping people reconcile some distinctly human challenges: that we are all living our own delusion and that we believe our perspective is absolute truth (it is not) rather than a part of a greater truth. The Romanian trip galvanized this crusade. It made me realize just how much our life experiences shape our delusions and forge our perspective. It impelled my commitment to a career in promoting civil discourse, enhanced communication, healthy conflict resolution, and dialectical thinking. In many ways, the Leadership Difference, Inc. — my company — was the equivalent of my grapes turning from green to purple. It was Romania that pushed me beyond a desire to have a positive influence on the life of others and into a purposeful process of delivering on that desire.
Identifying Your Veraison
Now it is your turn. Remember, your veraison involves three elements: input (major experiences in your life), outputs (what you value) and core ideology (how you align yourself to connect your experiences with what you value). The trip to Romania was a new input. It made me realize how limited our version of reality is and how important it is to broaden it. Civil discourse and understanding others’ perspectives became a new core value for me (output). Perhaps it had always been, but this new life experience (input) had given me greater clarity and initiated veraison (change). It prompted me to put greater emphasis on finding ways to positively influence others by teaching courses on metacognition and dialectical thinking (more on this subject in the next chapter). It expanded my core ideology.
Time for metacognition and reflection. Ask yourself these questions:
· What major life experiences (inputs) have occurred to me since adulthood?
· How did I react to these experiences?
· How did these experiences change what I valued (outputs)?
· Did I change my core ideology as a result of these experiences? If so, how? If not, why?
· What changes in my core ideology would I make now, having reflected on these life events more?
Just as veraison’s trigger is a mystery, so is ours. Sometimes a major life experience will not provide a substantial change in our core ideology. Don’t be hard on yourself. I burned out of three careers before I had my chronic-stress veraison. As the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Quitting three jobs because I couldn’t manage stress were significant life inputs. I remember engaging in metacognition — long before I knew of the term — before, during, and after each of these events. Still, I did not commit to a meaningful change in my core ideology until that fateful meeting about the employee opinion surveys back in 1995. Not coincidentally, Romania happened later that year, further defining my veraison. Apparently, 1995 was a good vintage for Dave Mitchell.