Supplement to Chapter 1: ELVIS Overview
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It is the heartbeat of Experience Design Leadership, and so I repeat it often throughout the book:
Transformative experiences are learning experiences that have an identity impact, changing the experiencer's sense-of-self in some important way.
This make them different from any other significant or extraordinary experiences in our lives. You may have heard of some others who have investigated the nature of extraordinary experiences. I certainly looked deeply into them as I began my work in this area. They include examples such as Abraham Maslow and his description of “peak experiences” as transcendent feelings of pure joy at the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined his term “flow” for that creative experience in which one loses herself in the performance of a task, becoming unified with the action; Irish novelist James Joyce first described “epiphanies” as sudden revelations of spiritual or intellectual awakening that can mark big changes in our understanding of the world or ourselves.
But transformative experiences, although they may include elements of these other notions, are distinct. ANd yet they are occurring all around us. As I write this, the world is seeing the largest wartime refugee migration since World War II with millions of Ukrainian lives in transformation. COVID has killed millions and changed the trajectory of multiple generations across the world — especially our rising youth. Climate change is accelerating the rate-of-change in where and how people must live, especially in the world’s poorer coastal communities. At the same time, babies are being born everyday across the globe. People are dying everyday. New jobs, adventures and relationships are blossoming while others are ending. Growth and loss and regrowth are all around us as life on Earth spins on.
Most transformations are initiated by external drivers and of course these examples are not all intentionally designed experiences, but they are instructive as to how the process and psychology of transformation work.
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Transformative Experiences Often Require “Bake Time”
Part of the nature of transformative experiences is that they often require some “bake-time” for this full process to happen – sometimes more, sometimes less. Let’s revisit the space shuttle Columbia tragedy through the lens of the ELVIS framework. Although, again, it was by no means a “designed experience” with someone intentionally crafting every event and opportunity, as with nearly all transformative experiences it did include each of the ELVIS Framework Components. And it took bake time for those components to become woven into the thread of the full experience. For example…
ELVIS Framework Component 1: Discomfort Zone Experience The Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy stretched me into several different discomfort zones over time: As the re-entry disaster unfolded and the deaths of the crew became clear; With the months of depression and doubt that followed; Through my unemployment and inability and even lack of deeper inward journey desire to work; Through the ultimate decision I made for how to move forward by building upon their examples and
sacrifice. These were all different flavors of extreme discomfort for me, including feelings of being lost, sad, angry, fearful, and disillusioned — variations of which are quite common in transformative experiences.
ELVIS Framework Component 2: Narrative Translation of Experience
On the very eve following the accident, a CBS news crew was in my house interviewing me about the tragedy and asking me to relate my stories of the crew, their mission, and my work on the mission. Still in utter shock, my attempts to describe my experience at that time were completely inadequate and inarticulate… horrible! I did not have the perspective nor language nor time to make meaning of it all so suddenly. Looking back now, I understand my early lack of narrative clarity as a kind of necessary ineptitude. It was the forging fire required for me to eventually properly narrate what I was experiencing and how I was changing in a way that would guide me through it. This took multiple attempts over time.
ELVIS Framework Component 3: Identity Impact
Only after I surfaced from the post-accident period did I recognize myself as someone else, as fundamentally changed. Gone was the aimless and saddened young man who could not seem to get it together – vacant, dissipated energy, no optimism or direction for forward motion. In his place emerged someone on a new mission he fully owned, choosing to be fueled by what I had experienced and no longer derailed by it. I had taken on an identity of greater personal purpose and intention, more willing to embrace risk in service to something greater than myself. It was a critical re-birth into a new identity narrative with ripples that continue to this day.
To go through the entire ELVIS cycle with my Space Shuttle Columbia experience took about 12 months. This is not uncommon. Think of an experience you’ve had that did not seem like a big deal at the time, but later and with more reflection, it turned out to have ripple effects that were life-changing. It often takes weeks, months or even years for people to make the meaning from their most powerful experiences that may ultimately inform changes in their sense-of-self.
As leaders who design transformative experiences, this is important for us to understand because it suggests that the most critical stage of an experience – the deeper inward journey – is still occurring even after the externally ‘designed’ or most observable parts are over. Therefore, thoughtful and structured bake-time must be included within our designs.
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You may or may not relate to the stories we’ve explored so far — hold tight — there are many more to come. Whether you’ve climbed mountains, suffered illness, had a life-changing job, or none of these — I guarantee that you’ve had some kind of transformative experiences because you are human, and humans cannot NOT change as we live.
By first examining our own transformative experiences we are laying the foundation for designing transformative experiences for others as a new approach to leadership. So it’s OK if you don’t immediately see the practical leadership application yet — we are just getting started. My goal here in Chapter One has been to share some dramatic examples that begin to tease out the shape and nature of transformative experiences of many different kinds, but unified by a central flow and process — the Experiential Learning Variables & Indicators System and its underlying structure — the ELVIS Framework:
• Entering into Discomfort Zone Experiences that invite us to take risks
• The Narrative Translation of these experiences to make meaning from them, and
• Identity Construction - the process by which those narratives inform our sense-of-self, including who we think we are, what we think we can do or even try in our lives, and our relationship with the world beyond ourselves
Leaders who cast themselves as designers of transformative experiences position themselves as change agents in the lives of others. Such Experience Design Leadership occurs by creating the optimum conditions through which people can generate their own transformative experiences from within, and then helping to shape and guide those experiences.
Additional hidden factors reside within the ELVIS Framework that are key for designers. Among them, the bake-time (slow or fast) required for narrative translation and the ability to recognize and present transformative experiences as life invitations … inviting people to discover themselves anew in the world. In the next three chapters, we dive into the details of the ELVIS Framework so that we can build upon it with practical design strategies in Part 2 of the book.