I was worn out. I’d been flying around the country for years, chasing big deals with my team, with intense pressure to close them. Our company needed the cash. I was caught between two top executives secretly undermining each other. And I was beginning to recognize that the fit between the company and my values was steadily evaporating.
I wasn’t taking care of myself. Slowly losing touch with my family and friends. Feeling frequent stress and pressure.
The excitement I had felt when we were starting up was slowly dissipating, like air leaking from a small hole in a balloon. I kept going for long runs around the lake, wondering if it was time to move on.
Then one day, I did. I’d had enough. I finally realized it was time.
So I jumped off the train.
I took my life back.
I felt alive and free. And I didn’t leap right away to the next thing. I knew I needed time to detox.
I gave myself an expansive self-imposed sabbatical. A healthy chunk of time to recover and renew. To get my health back. Time to regroup—and to find my way back to myself. I was fortunate to be able to do that. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was in transition. And that transition needed time and space to play out without me forcing it.
We all go through transitions in life and work. Some are planned, while others are imposed upon us. Some feel great. Others can be excruciating.
Transitions are common: Youth to adulthood. School to work. From living alone to being in a relationship, or in a marriage, or with a family. Back to school. New job or career. A new city, state, or country. New friends and interests. Transition to midlife, and to retirement, and to elderhood. Breakup or divorce. Empty nest. Illness. Loss of a loved one or pet. Becoming a caregiver.
One thing is certain: transitions are on the horizon. They’re coming for us. Transitions are inevitable.
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.” -Heraclitus, 360 BCE
Given their inevitability, we must learn to live with and manage them. Otherwise they can consume us or take us to dark places.
In his excellent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, author Bruce Feiler distinguishes between what he calls “disruptors” (regular challenges and setbacks) and “lifequakes” (which can rock our world). He defines a lifequake as a “forceful burst of change in one’s life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal.”
How does this play out over the course of a lifetime? Combining the two, Feiler explains:
“The number of disruptors a person can expect to experience in an adult life is around three dozen. That’s an average of one every twelve to eighteen months…. But every now and then, one—or more commonly a pileup of two, three, or four—of these disruptors rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events lifequakes, because the damage they cause can be devastating, they’re higher on the Richter scale of consequences, and their aftershocks can last for years.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
Feiler adds them up, and the totals are jarring: “The average person goes through three to five of these massive reorientations in their adult lives; their average duration, my data show, is five years. When you do the math, that means nearly half our lives are spent responding to one of these episodes” (disruptors or lifequakes).
Looking back on my own life, I see tons of transitions. Moving around so much during my childhood. Then moving to London for grad school, later moving to Sweden with my family, and then back to the U.S. after ten years. Transitioning from a nonprofit think tank to an education foundation to an online education startup company. Starting my own company, and then a partnership. Getting married. Becoming a father. Transitioning to midlife.
Typology of Transitions
Our transitions can be personal or collective. Personal transitions are individual changes related to our health, finances, work, etc. Collective transitions are ones we go through together, such as the coronavirus pandemic, global financial crisis, or 9/11.
Our transitions can also be voluntary, such as deciding to get a degree or change jobs, or involuntary, such as getting fired or becoming ill. Feiler notes that most lifequakes are personal and involuntary. Ouch.
And he shows how smaller disruptors can become bigger lifequakes. For example, some disruptors occur at a moment of personal vulnerability, such as when we’re already burned out or having relationship problems. Or it can be the last straw: when one disruptor occurs at the end of a long string of them, causing us to snap. Or it can be a “pileup”: when many disruptors clump together suddenly, much like a traffic pileup on a busy freeway.
Transitions are hard. They trigger all sorts of stresses and fears, changing our mental state and our physiology.
And they’re messy. When we’re in transition, we’re leaving something known behind for something new and uncertain. We’re grasping in the dark, suspecting danger right around the corner.
We can lose not only our sense of stability and security but also our identity. We begin to doubt ourselves.
When I left that intense job after months of deliberation, I didn’t know what I would do next. I thought about waiting—playing it safe and lining new things up before I left. That can be a smart play. But it didn’t feel right to me then.
I wanted to give it my all when I was in it and then leave it when I felt I couldn’t anymore—or didn’t want to. I sensed I needed down time to get whole again before figuring out my next move.
It’s unsettling to be in that in-between mode, without clarity our resolution. Who are we without that title and the social capital that we believe comes from our position? Can we handle the gaps, with all their perceived judgment and perhaps even rejection or condemnation?
“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” –Herminia Ibarra, professor, author, and career change expert
Though surely difficult, transitions also come with a host of benefits, many of them unacknowledged. Here’s a short list of eight main benefits:
- Transitions can lead to a better situation, or even a breakthrough.
- They’re opportunities for a “do-over,” when we can think and act anew, taking advantage of the tabula rasa.
- Transition time is alive time—when things are new or challenging, and when our lives are on the line. The adrenaline surges. Our hearts beat faster as we relinquish safety and venture forth into the unknown.
- Transitions allow us to slough off the masks we wear for others and to become ourselves more fully again. We can stop pretending and have the courage to be who we really are, even as we fear the reactions or rejection of others.
- When managed well, transitions can lead to powerful and memorable moments in life. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck writes, “Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
- Transitions are a real opportunity for a fresh start, when we set down old obligations and get a taste of true freedom once again.
- They’re an opportunity to reassess and determine if there’s a gap between the life we have and the one we want. Those gaps can last years, or even decades, as we drift through life, so even painful transitions bear a gift with the wakeup call that can lead to needed change.
- Getting good at managing change and transitions is a key leadership capacity. According to leadership expert Warren Bennis in his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, “the one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders—the key competence—is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.”
The Mistakes We Make in Transition
Despite their relative frequency, transitions generally don’t occur often enough for us to develop natural capacity to manage them. We have to work at it. Meanwhile, we tend to make mistakes, adding to the pain. Here are some common mistakes:
-Awaiting perfect clarity before making a decision or taking action. So we never get off the starting blocks, or we wait much too long.
-Having unrealistic expectations about the pace or scope of change.
-Rushing it, often because we’re feeling behind. Premature decisions can set us up for failure by trapping us in recurring negative patterns.
–Going it alone, trying to solve complex life equations without tapping into the wisdom of others who’ve been there before and the support of people who can witness our suffering and sit with us so we don’t feel so scared and alone.
-Choosing for the wrong reasons, such as the desire to please our parents or impress our friends and colleagues. A sign of the “prestige magnet” in action.
-Being confined by our past, our relationships, or our self-identity (e.g., “I’ve been a lawyer since I was in my twenties, many of my friends are lawyers, and I don’t know who or what I’d be if I weren’t practicing law”).
“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” -Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
-Wallowing in negative thinking, focusing on the worst case, or ruminating on mistakes or sleights. These only place us in a mental prison of our own making.
Tips for Navigating Transitions
Since many transitions are so hard, we’re bound to fumble through them at certain points. Still, there are things we can do to lighten our load. Here are some quick tips:
-Take care of yourself. Invest in good sleep, exercise, nutrition, socializing, hobbies, and other self-care practices. Without these, everything else will just be harder.
-Develop healthy routines and rituals, leveraging the power of habit. Find what works for you, potentially including exercise, breaks, meditation, prayer, reading, journaling, sleep, and more—especially in the morning and before bed.
-Look for small wins and take a systematic, intentional approach, avoiding the temptation to try to force a breakthrough. Take it one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, as long as we’re also awake to opportunities and willing to take action.
“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…. Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.” -John Wooden, legendary basketball coach
-Avoid premature resolution. Try to hold out longer in the fog of transition time. Be sure to give yourself adequate time and space to do the necessary inner work of reflection, conversation, pattern-spotting, meaning-making, and experimentation.
“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.” –Joanna Penn, author
-Get clear about your individual purpose, values, vision, strengths, and passions. These can serve as a safe harbor to return to when you hit storms in your life. They give your life meaning as you tease out the patterns from your personal history.
“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back upon himself.” -Charles de Gaulle
-Be willing to join the dance of change, alternating between leading the dance, being led by others, and observing yourself in the dance from afar with your mental observer (your ability to step out of your unintentional thought flow and observe your thoughts and reflect on your life).
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” –Alan Watts, philosopher
-Expect and embrace imperfection, messiness, and the unexpected. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the saying goes.
-Focus on changing yourself, not others, and focus on what’s in your control, not on complaining about the way things are.
-Recognize your abilities and assets—and all the previous transitions you’ve navigated. Have a little faith.
-Give yourself grace and practice self-compassion. Recall that transitions are hard for everybody.
-Let go of relationships that are no longer serving you. As terrifying as this can be, sometimes it’s the missing key that will unlock a better future, though it’s likely to take time, pain, grief, and healing.
-Reframe change and transition from something to be avoided to something that’s natural, inevitable, and an exciting opportunity for an adventure and growth. View it as a challenge to overcome, or a puzzle to solve. Transitions can be great opportunities for learning and growth.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” -Frederick Douglass
-Think creatively and boldly about potential change, even fundamental change, over time (while also not rushing it and remembering the power of small wins in the meantime). Otherwise, we risk settling for poor or mediocre outcomes and wasting the potential embedded in the transition.
“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, investor
“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Closing thoughts: As much as we can struggle with them, we should give ourselves more transition times in our lives. Too often, we stick it out in a sub-optimal situation for too long.
We should also work to get good at them, allowing ourselves to transform as we learn and grow and as the world changes around us. As we do so, we reduce our self-inflicted wounds and have more time and space to enjoy our lives.
Give yourself more transition time—and get good at it.
- Are you in need of a voluntary transition? Have you been waiting too long? What’s holding you back?
- Are you taking advantage of the transition times in your life, or jumping right away to the next thing?
- How can you get better at navigating the disruptors and lifequakes you experience?
Postscript: Quotations on Transitions and Change
- “To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it.” -Herminia Ibarra
- “It is when we are in transition that we are most completely alive.” -William Bridges
- “She knew this transition was not about becoming someone better but about finally allowing herself to become who she’d always been.” -Amy Rubin
- “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” -William James
- “All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra
- “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” -C.S. Lewis
- “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” -Marilyn Monroe
- “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” -Albert Einstein
- “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” -Rumi
- “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
- “Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
- “Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on personal development, life design, and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion, co-written with Christopher Gergen) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great,” co-written with Bob Vanourek). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter, access his Manifesto on the Common Traps of Living, or check out his TEDx talk.
Topics: transitions, life transitions, work transitions, career transitions, life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, designing your life, crafting your life