You might have read my post a few weeks ago on leading organizational change and the importance of planning, communicating and executing the different steps of the process. Today I want to have a look at changes that happen in our personal lives, which, in contrast to organizational changes, often can’t be planned or managed, but rather have to be coped with.
William Bridges’ book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” was originally published in 1980 and has been a bestseller since. Bridges describes strategies to cope with changes many of us experience in life such as finishing college, changing or losing jobs, beginning or ending relationships or moving to a new city. I first encountered the book during my final quarter at business school and found Bridges’ perspective helpful to make sense of past changes in my life and deal with the one that was about to come up – graduating and returning to the ‘real world’.
We Need Transitions to Make Change Happen
Bridges differentiates between changes and transitions: While changes are situation or event driven (e.g. starting a new job, ending a relationship) transitions are 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’.”
For me, graduating from business school and leaving that community, moving to a new city and taking a three month break before starting my first job in the U.S. felt like the biggest transition I’ve ever embarked upon; even bigger than coming to business school and the U.S. in the first place. What made this seem so significant for me was the feeling of being on my own in this, without an environment (like business school or work) that builds community or daily routines. It felt like I was 19 years old again leaving home for the first time.
After reading Bridges book, however, this feeling did make a lot of sense. He argues that as we approach thirty we often enter into the
“first time of transition after leaving home originally when a person feels real doubt about the future … and distress is deepened by the old idea that if you did things right, you would have everything settled once for all by twenty-five or so”.
Bridges calls the period from 22 to 33 the ‘novice-period of adulthood’, which resonated a lot with me and reduced the pressure of needing to have it all figured out by now (how realistic is that anyway?). I’ve learned and grown a lot over the years, but sometimes I have the feeling that the more questions I answer, the more new questions I raise. The older I get, though, the more I come to believe that this is what life (and growth) is ultimately about.
The Three Phases of Transition
Looking closer at the psychological transition process itself, Bridges describes three phases:
1. Endings – the challenging process of letting go and acknowledging the end of an old situation
2. The Neutral Zone – what is supposed to be the period of reorientation at first seems confusing, unproductive and unsatisfying because we feel a disconnect from our prior life, and the things and people involved, but also haven’t fully arrived in the present
3. New Beginnings – the process of arriving in the new situation, experiencing the positive energy the change brings, developing a new identity and discovering a new sense of purpose
Thinking about transitions as three phases, and especially becoming aware of the Neutral Zone, was very helpful for me in going through my transition. At business school, I started to learn about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating endings instead of just denying or ignoring them. So, when I thought about how to honor the closure of my MBA experience, I invited my closest friends for dinner to celebrate friendship and talked to or wrote letters to individuals that had a significant impact on me. Crucial for me here was to find the right tone and frame of mind. Instead of seeing this as the end of everything it was the ending that was necessary for the New Beginning to happen which involves many of the people of the old experience.
Walking Through the Neutral Zone
When the ending finally arrived, of course with festive graduations celebrations, the Neutral Zone all of a sudden hit me. The contrast between the busyness and uber-social life at business school and the no-work, no-schedule life that started right after couldn’t be any bigger. While I truly enjoy breaks and vacations, for the first time I felt empty. I had lost my prior identity – before I knew what my environment was, who my people were and what my role in the community was. And since I wouldn’t start work until October, there was also no identity waiting for me to take over. However, what started as a confusing and sometimes frustrating period, even though I had the beach right in front of my doorstep, turned into what the Neutral Zone was supposed to be – a time for reflection and reorientation.
I had time to reflect on what the past chapter in my life has been about, how it has shaped and changed me as a person. There was time to be nostalgic and grateful, be comfortable being just by myself and connect with my life before business school. And there was also time to familiarize myself with my new home city that I began to love more than I expected and to get to know new people and nurture existing friendships. It was also during this time that Alex and I started creating the blog you are reading right now. Taking the time to embrace the Neutral Zone has put me in a really good place with a lot of energy and inspiration to embark on my New Beginning just a week ago.