What does it look like when the entire world is in transition?
That’s rhetorical, of course – it looks like life in 2020.
A couple of years ago a mentor recommended this book to me when I was going through a life transition, and I found it very helpful. The other day I suddenly realised that it was newly relevant – to pretty much everyone in the world.
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes
by William Bridges
Released 2004 (this edition)
Bridges’ best-selling book was first released in 1980, and has been re-issued several times – most recently, I discovered in putting together this post, in February 2020. Serendipity, perhaps.
There are several key concepts woven throughout the book, but I would suggest the most fundamental is the distinction between change and transition. Change, he explains, is situational. It’s what is going on in our external world. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It’s about what is – or isn’t – going on in our internal world. Transition is the necessary internal work that must go on to successfully navigate change.
He also discusses:
1 – The three phases of Transitions
- Neutral Zone
- New Beginning
“We have it backwards. Endings are the first, not the last, act of the play.”
2 – The five aspects of Endings
“Looking back at the five words starting with dis, note that only “disengagement” refers exclusively to external things. “Dismantling” can be either an internal or an external process, and “disidentification,” “disenchantment,” and “disorientation” all refer to internal things. It is the internal things that really hold us to the past…”
“The old radio comedian, Bob Burns (“The Arkansas Traveler”), used to tell the story of eating army food for the first time after eighteen years of his mother’s deep-fat frying. A week of bland GI fare was enough to cure something he had never realized he suffered from: heartburn. But rather than feeling relief at his improvement, Burns rushed into the dispensary, clutching his stomach and yelling, “Doc, doc! Help me! I’m dying. My fire went out!”
Could it be that there are things that were unhealthy or unhelpful for us, yet they were so normal to us that we never questioned them? And could COVID have helped us realise there are some previously unexamined aspects of our lives where in fact, there might be a better way?
One of the other big takeaways that stood out to me was the importance of the neutral zone in our times of transition, and that during this time “anxiety can rise, we can experience mixed signals, and people can become polarized” (sound familiar?), but also that it can also be a tremendously creative time.
He also points out that during transition, what must come first is not learning, but rather unlearning. We need to let go of some of our assumptions about reality that may no longer be true – even, or perhaps especially, if they describe aspects of reality that were connected to our own experiences of success.
Of course, central to the ideas of the book is the critical importance of being willing to do the inner work of transition –
“some people begin at this point to turn away from the opportunities for development provided by transition and instead deal with the times of transition as temporary and accidental disruptions in an otherwise stable life. In the short run, these people seem to gain by avoiding the time-consuming shifts and inner reorientation that others are going through; but in the long run, they lose.”
For, he explains, sometimes only when we dismantle the things that are linked to a reality that has changed, do the new things that belong to the new season have room to blossom –
“What is standing backstage, in the wings of my life, waiting to make its entrance?”
“In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t “take.” Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. Unfortunately for us, it is the transition that blind-sides us and is often the source of our troubles.”
“Anyone who has ever remodeled a house knows a good deal about personal transition because such an undertaking replicates the three-part transition process: It starts by making an ending and destroying what used to be. Then there is the time when it isn’t the old way any more, but not yet the new way, either. Some dismantling is still going on, but so is some new building. It is a very confusing time, and it is a good idea to have made temporary arrangements for dealing with this interim (“neutral zone”) state of affairs—whether it is temporary housing or a time of modified activities and reduced expectations to make the old housing work. And as the contractors always warn you, remodeling always takes more time and money than new construction. Good advice in regard to transition, too.”
“The goal of one phase of life becomes the burden of the next. That is why rites of passage begin with a symbolic death.”
“Separated from the old identity and the old situation or some important aspect of it, a person floats free in a kind of limbo between two worlds. But there is still the reality in that person’s head—a picture of the “way things are,” which ties the person to the old world with subtle strands of assumption and expectation. The sun will rise tomorrow, my mother loves me, the tribe will endure, the gods are just: These things are so, and if they are not, then my world is no longer real. The discovery that in some sense one’s world is indeed no longer real is what is meant by disenchantment.
Right now, I think this book would be helpful for anyone trying to make sense of the varied transitions we are all experiencing. I would particularly recommend it for anyone responsible for making leadership change decisions, and those who are also helping others come to terms with the extent of all that is shifting.