This is what transitions look like

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds on what my friend Molly refers to as the Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. I’ve been apartment searching in Boston, packing to move, preparing to start a new full-time job after three-plus years on my own, and starting to lead a seminar at UMass Amherst entitled, ironically enough, “Living Strategically.” (I taught my first class last week by the way. Let it be said: I love my students. And I love teaching.)

On second thought, “living strategically” isn’t so ironic after all. If not for the strategies I’ve learned, practiced – and blogged about here – over the past few years, I’d undoubtedly be in far worse shape than I am today.  Hard as things are right now – and they are pretty hard – I have tools and perspective.

That is when I remember to use them.

Last week, I was going through an especially difficult patch. I’d made the two-hour drive into Boston from western Mass based on a realtor’s promise to show me four to seven apartments only to discover on arrival that none of them accepted cats, despite my having clearly indicated that one would be coming with me. I start my Boston job a week from tomorrow. I still have no place to live, and once I find one, I’ll still have to move. It all began to seem utterly overwhelming. Was this whole thing a mistake? What had I been thinking?

And then, just in time, I remembered: This is what transitions look like. Not in every specific, of course, but in the experience.

In life coach Martha Beck’s Change Cycle model of transitions, I’m right on track, smack dab in the middle of Square 1 (Death and Rebirth). “The bizarre, formless, zero-identity netherworld of Square One is what anthropologists call a “liminal period,” Beck writes in Finding Your Own North Star, describing such a time as one “where you’re on the threshold between identities, neither inside nor out, neither one thing nor the other.”

She continues: “During most of Square One, you’ll probably feel panicky, groundless, and desperate. Problems and complications seem to attack from all sides: big ones, little ones, strange and unfamiliar ones. You rush around in frenzied activity but feel as though you’re getting absolutely nothing done.”

Yes! And yes and yes. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling.

For his part, transitions guru William Bridges describes this uncomfortable stretch as “the neutral zone,” a “period of confusion and distress” that follows an ending and precedes a new beginning. He devotes an entire chapter of Transitions to this difficult time, including a number of suggestions to ease the way.

The first of these: Surrender — we must “give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it,” he counsels.

If you’re caught in a riptide, you’re supposed to stop fighting and let yourself drift. If you’re facing an angry bear, you should lie still, pretending to be dead. (At least, this is what I’ve always heard; in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve tested neither of these.) Both of these responses would seem to go against our basic survival instincts. I imagine that, in the instant, knowledge is often a poor match for adrenaline-powered impulse.

But, as I know from long experience, the first impulse isn’t always the right one.  As I continue through this month of dramatic change and uprooting, I’ll be calling on the collective wisdom of all who have gone before me (and here, I include not only others but also my own past selves.) While surrender doesn’t come naturally, it’s nonetheless what’s called for.

Life Experiment #9:  “The present moment is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of the child.” I love this line from one of my Buddhist teachers. The focus of this month is surrendering to – and caring for – the present moment, the only thing we ever have to work with.

5 great guidebooks for Plan B Nation

Compass Inlay

When venturing into territories unknown, the more knowledge, the better. We need to understand the terrain, the weather, and likely dangers. We need to equip ourselves with maps, proper clothing, and medications.

Just as I’ve relied on guidebooks to navigate foreign countries, I’ve also turned to expert guidance for my Plan B Nation travels. While every journey is unique, it helps to be prepared. In this spirit, here are five guidebooks I recommend stashing away.

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck (Crown 2001)

There’s lots to love about this book by Oprah darling Martha Beck, which has the advantage of being super funny as well as super smart. Beck writes a lot about resolving the conflict between what she refers to as our social and essential selves, but to my mind, the aspect of the book most useful to us Plan B Nation voyagers is her elaboration of the so-called Change Cycle, a structure that underlies every life transition. While Beck’s isn’t the first popular book about adult life transitions — William Bridges’ modern classic Transitions came out in 1980 – I’ve found her model especially helpful and, even more, reassuring.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein (Yale 2008)

In this book, professors Thaler and Sunstein – pioneers in the field of behavioral economics – start with the idea that human beings are not rational. We make decisions for a whole bunch of reasons, many of which have little to do with our real best interests. This is why we need to pay close attention to the “choice architecture” of our lives – the external conditions that nudge us to behave in certain ways. For example, if I don’t buy ice cream, the choice architecture now in place makes it far less likely that I’ll  devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watching “The Bachelorette.”  Make sense?  Like many profoundly important ideas, the concept of choice architecture is at heart a simple one, but paying attention to it day by day can be transformative.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck (Random House 2007)

For those of us accustomed to a world where effort brings results, Plan B Nation can be enormously demoralizing. How to surmount the danger of learned helplessness, the tendency to give up when our best efforts fall short, sometimes again and again?  I found part of the answer to this question in Stanford psychologist Dweck’s distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.  As Dweck explains it, if we have a fixed mindset, we tend to believe that our successes and failures reflect something absolute about who we are. On the other hand, if we have the healthier “growth mindset,” we are able to view challenges as opportunities to learn, improve, and transform. “This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives,” says Dweck – underscoring why it’s such a critical asset in Plan B Nation.

Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach (Bantam 2003)

If you want to drive yourself nuts, start thinking about how things (most notably, yourself) should be different from how they are. You should have made different choices. You should have said different things. You should have married (or not married) that guy/girl you didn’t (or did).  Brach’s Buddhist-infused psychology is a perfect antidote to such self-imposed suffering, offering techniques for breaking out of what she calls our “trance of unworthiness” in the context of illuminating personal stories. “Radical Acceptance means bringing a clear, kind attention to our capacities and limitations without giving our fear-based stories the power to shut down our lives,” she writes. Over the years, I’ve recommended this book countless times, and if you haven’t read it yet, you have a treat in store.

Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School 2003)

This is, without a doubt, my all-time favorite career book. Its message: The idea that you can (and should) figure out what you want to do then simply go out and do it is hogwash.  Rather, research shows that successful mid-career changers – the research demographic that informs the book — live their way into new lives through a process of trial-and-error experimentation. Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior, illustrates her points with compelling case studies and concludes with a series of nine “unconventional strategies” employed by successful career changers. I go back to this book again and again and can’t recommend it more highly.

Do you have titles to add to this list?  Please share them in the comment section.

Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

an unwitting victim...bwahahhahahaa

Scanning over my recent post about transitions, it struck me that I glossed over one key fact: Transitions always suck.

That lost, confused, hopeless feeling that seems like it will never end?  No, it’s not just you. It’s the nature of the beast.

How do I know this?  Well for one thing, I’ve been through a lot of transitions, and it was ever thus. For another, I’ve read a ton about transitions, and everyone seems to agree.

Those who study and write about transitions even have their own names for this uniquely unsettling phase:  Change guru William Bridges describes it as “the Neutral Zone.” Life coach Martha Beck calls it “Death and Rebirth.” Novelist and journalist Sara Davidson refers to it as “the Narrows.”

But while the names may be different, the core feelings are the same: Disorientation, anxiety, fear. Panic and desperation.

Fun, isn’t it?

So, you may be thinking, it’s all well and good to know that I’m on track, but that only goes so far. How do I keep moving forward when I don’t want to get out of bed?

In his groundbreaking book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges offers the following 10 suggestions for navigating these challenging times.

1. Take your time

As I noted in my previous post, transitions often take a long time—far longer than we’d expected and far longer than we’d hoped. Think years not days or weeks.

2. Arrange temporary structures

Do what you need to do to bridge this period of dislocation. It may be taking a temporary job, adjusting your commitments at home or at work, connecting with a spiritual community, or joining a support group. Ask yourself what practical adjustments you can make that are likely to ease your passage.

3. Don’t act for the sake of action

As Buddhist teachers sometimes quip: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”  Recognize that sitting with uncertainty is often the best option—and in itself, a real accomplishment.

4. Recognize why you are uncomfortable

You are uncomfortable not because you’re doing something wrong but because you are in transition. Remind yourself of this again and again (and again).

5. Take care of yourself in little ways

In particular, Bridges suggests small pleasures that bring a sense of continuity. Think watching a favorite TV show or eating a favorite meal.

6. Explore the other side of change.

This is an interesting one.  As Bridges sees it, both positive changes (such as having a baby) and negative changes (such as losing your job) both have upsides and downsides.

If you’re facing a change that you didn’t choose, Bridges suggests spending some time reflecting on its possible benefits. On the other hand, if your change was a welcome one and yet you’re feeling inexplicably uneasy, he suggests giving some thought to what the change may have cost you as well as to its gifts.

 7. Get someone to talk to

Having at least one reliable and empathic listener is critically important when your life is in flux. If no one in your network can serve that role right now, consider finding a professional counselor or joining a support group.

8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life

Bridges notes that transitions open up space in our lives for us to grow in new ways. Ask yourself: What is waiting to happen in my life now? (Try setting aside a bit of time to put this down on paper. You may be surprised at what comes up.)

 9. Use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning

What do you need to learn right now, and how can you start to learn it?

10. Recognize that transition has a characteristic shape.

As I wrote earlier this week, every transition follows a similar structure. This period where everything sucks is normal and necessary. The good news? This phase will come to an end.  (It just may take a while.)

Do you have a strategy that’s helped you to navigate a major life transition? If so, please share it in the comment section.

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.