3 things you should know about transitions

Come Together

Two years and eight months ago, I found myself abruptly launched into a pro­longed tran­si­tion that con­tin­ues to this day. The job I’d held for the past five years sud­denly dis­ap­peared when my boss was tapped to join the fledg­ling Obama admin­is­tra­tion as solic­i­tor gen­eral. (You may have heard of her: She’s now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Elena Kagan.)

As is so often the case with major change, there was much ambiva­lence. While I was anx­ious about the plunge into unem­ploy­ment, I was also ready to move on.  On the one hand, the news came as a wel­come push. On the other, I was freak­ing out.

But what­ever my reac­tion on a given day, there was one thing I never imag­ined from the van­tage point of April 2009: That this tran­si­tion would go on and on in pre­cisely the way it has.

In ret­ro­spect, I shouldn’t have been so sur­prised. After all, my lay­off came at the peak of the Great Reces­sion. Still, I had great ref­er­ences, great skills, and a great edu­ca­tion. I some­how assumed they’d ease my way. In large part, I was wrong.

Which is dif­fer­ent from say­ing I have regrets. The more I learn about tran­si­tions, the more I real­ize that what I’ve expe­ri­enced is com­pletely nor­mal. Just because some­thing is painful and hard doesn’t mean it can’t yield fruit.

Years ago, I took a course with psy­chol­o­gist Robert Kegan at Harvard’s Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion, and one thing he said stuck with me. (Well, actu­ally, many things he said stuck with me, but this one is rel­e­vant here.)  He said, and I para­phrase from mem­ory: “Growth comes from stretch-not-break challenges.”

In other words, hard times—if they are too hard—can crush us. When they’re just right, they may be uncom­fort­able, but they also move us forward.

One of the things most help­ful to me in nav­i­gat­ing this tran­si­tion has been get­ting a bet­ter han­dle on what to expect. Over the past two-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours delv­ing into the sub­ject, and for the record, here are three of my most use­ful takeaways.

1. Tran­si­tions take a long time.

Three years, five years, seven years—these are the time frames that popped up again and again in my read­ing.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”

2. Tran­si­tions have a pre­dictable structure.

Tran­si­tions guru William Bridges—author of the ground­break­ing Tran­si­tions: Mak­ing Sense of Life’s Changes—has iden­ti­fied a three-part struc­ture reflected in every major life tran­si­tion:  An end­ing, fol­lowed by a period of con­fu­sion and dis­tress, fol­lowed, in turn, by a new beginning.

In Find­ing Your Own North Star—a book that I count among my per­sonal favorites—life coach Martha Beck describes a four-part “change cycle”: A shock­ing “cat­alytic event” is fol­lowed by “death and rebirth,” “dream­ing and schem­ing,” “the hero’s saga” (a trial-and-error imple­men­ta­tion stage), and finally “the promised land,” or equi­lib­rium regained.

3. Tran­si­tions aren’t linear.  

It’s tempt­ing to think that tran­si­tions can be neat and orderly, that we can fig­ure out a game plan and sim­ply exe­cute it. In fact, tran­si­tions are almost always messy, punc­tu­ated with false starts and regroupings.

In Work­ing Iden­tity, an exten­sive study of suc­cess­ful mid-career career chang­ers, busi­ness pro­fes­sor Her­minia Ibarra con­cluded that the “plan and exe­cute model” is not real­is­tic. Rather, suc­cess­ful tran­si­tions tend to adopt a “test and learn” approach, fol­low­ing a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.

Well into the third year of my tran­si­tion, I’m finally start­ing to feel that I’m turn­ing a cor­ner. I can’t say for sure that the feel­ing will last but I’m enjoy­ing it in the meantime.

Look­ing back, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how lit­tle I could have pre­dicted where my var­i­ous steps were lead­ing.  For bet­ter or worse, our tran­si­tions seem to shape us at least as much as we shape them.

© 2011, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “3 things you should know about transitions

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  6. On a related note (per­haps) a friend and co-worker has been shar­ing her expe­ri­ences learn­ing about The Art of Host­ing (http://www.artofhosting.org/home/), a pro­gram designed for group inter­ac­tions. They describe a process which often starts with con­fu­sion and chaos, and ends with uni­fi­ca­tion and order. But the mid­dle part is the hard­est for me, when the path remains unclear, but much of the dis­cus­sion has taken place. They call it the ‘chaordic’ path (chaos to order). I don’t thrive there, but I have to learn to live with it. It helps to know why I am uncom­fort­able dur­ing this part and I need to make sure I don’t rush through it to a pre­ma­ture deci­sion or conclusion.

    I think that change is rarely easy, and it gets messy most of the time. But if you can embrace it, life finds a way to push you into the right space for the next part of the path. Some­times you CAN trust things to turn out right. Con­tin­u­ing good luck to you on your journey.

  7. Pingback: Three things you should know about transitions | Plan B Nation | Buffy Hamilton's Unquiet Commonplace "Book" | Scoop.it

  8. Wow — right on! Your obser­va­tions ring true, Amy.
    Seems to me each of your posts here is bet­ter than the one before — say­ing a lot, since you started with a pretty high bar in the first one.

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