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.