Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at a local tech event on the topic of career transition. People are still writing to me about how much they enjoyed the session, which is both gratifying and humbling. Because of the level of interest, I thought I would share some of the key takeaways so others could benefit.
I’m often asked for book recommendations and I covered two main ideas from William Bridges 1980s book Transitions. People are often surprised by by the titles I promote . It’s not that I don’t read current information, but if it’s not adding a ton of new perspective, I stick to solid classics—and this book, in my opinion, should be in everyone’s business book library.
First, I think it’s important not to use the terms “change” and “transition” interchangeably.
Change is situational. It is the external event that is taking place, a new strategy, a change in leadership, a merger or a new product. The organization focuses on the outcome that the change will produce, which is generally in response to external events. It can happen very quickly.
Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the endings that people have in leaving the old situation behind. Getting people through transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned.
This is when, with virtually every project at any level, we often find ourselves thinking: this would be such an easier process if the people weren’t involved!
Second, a process change is always accompanied by a psychological process. The psychological process is often accompanied by challenging emotions like confusion, ambiguity, and distress. We often confront because Western culture offers few rituals or rites of passage to mark us through whatever stages we find ourselves in, people often try to skip from the loss and pain of an ending directly to a new beginning, marked by enthusiasm, hope, and acceptance.
Related to this point, there is a wonderful passage in the book that I read to the group, which I’ll share here:
We usually fail to discover [the need for rituals] at an ending until we have made the most of our necessary external changes. There we are, in the new house or on the new job or involved in the new relationship, waking up to the fact that we have not yet let go of our old ties. Or worse yet, not waking up to that fact, even though we are still moving to the inner rhythm of life back in the old situation. We’re like shellfish that often continue to open and close their shells on the tide-schedule of their old home waters, even when they have been transplanted to the laboratory tank or restaurant kitchen. —William Bridges
That image, of opening and closing to tides (environments) experienced in past roles is a very visceral one for many, including myself. We’ve been where the waters are warm, cold, nurturing, and inhospitable—leading us to seek the right “climate” for our needs. But do we react well when we get there, or do we bring old habits, information, or practices with us, closing us off to opportunities in the present.
The panelists spanned multiple sectors from non-profit, technology, healthcare, and gigging. Each person brought vulnerability and truth to the conversation as they shared their career paths with the audience. Their bios are here, and worth a look.
Rebecca found her way through constraints. Her partner’s role took him out of the country, she followed seeking alignment with her skills in a new industry. Constraints can yield inspiring journeys and force us to tap into creativity we didn’t know we had.
Blair sought to gain greater depth as a physician by exploring it through other functions: policy, research, teaching, and business. Depth, the ability to gain deep perspective from multiple sides of a problem, helps people gain great insights that help lead industry thinking in new directions.
Dan’s background in education and his volunteer interests in teaching led him full circle after a career in enterprise technology. Sometimes it’s possible to link our career expertise with something we’ve been nurturing on the side.
Amy’s path was largely intuitive, following her pleasure and the kinds of projects they sparked her deepest curiosity, from writing copy for Bing’s Search page (those juicy images with interesting factoids, that was her!), to a Jungian based Fairy tale Factory helping people learn to tell stories, to writing and advocating for a broader spectrum of male fashion at Nordstrom, to her current copywriter role at Microsoft. Sometimes we can see a direct line to where we are going, sometimes we can’t—but there are no dead ends. Everything we do is in service to the direction we are heading.
In each case, there was a “breaking point” or a “crisis point” where an inner voice was starting to express itself. Was this the climate in which I want to stay? Am I willing to hide the biggest piece of who I am or what I have to offer in order to fit in? Are these the kinds of politics, or is this the kind of game I want to play?
At some point, our true selves come to save us from ourselves. They help us make the decisions we need to make, suffer the distress and ambiguity of change, and lead us toward our pleasure. All of the panelists, whether they designated these phases rituals or not, took time to discover what they really wanted. They considered their unlived life and weighed the consequences of going the course. And, they created a passage. They went on sabbatical, or sorts, even if it was just the week between jobs, to provide a clearing for what lay next.
They made space for a new beginning.
Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a pragmatic researcher, coach, and consultant focused on helping busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. Her book Craft Your Life, sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.