The plan can be clear. Timelines can be set. We can map out our next steps. We row with speed and confidence to our next shore. The next step.
But real transitions take their own time. Once we start to make a change, things can unravel like a sweater. Learning to stay in the question becomes an important part of determining “what’s next”. Transitions aren’t always A to B - especially large life transitions. We may be changing our lives, our identities, our family or more. In this in-between place of not being the old thing but also not being concretized into a new thing... there's an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
I left my corporate job in 2019 with a plan to take the summer off and then work with my sister in building out a midwifery training program with an NGO she had partnered with. The work was meaningful and seemed like it would be a great project to bridge my former life and my next professional steps which I projected having in order in 6 -8 months max. After all, for a long time I dreamed about working with an impactful nonprofit organization.
Almost immediately, that project was shelved by the NGO.
Okay, now what? I considered finding another role much like my old job. After all, there was a lot of interest from folks in my network. So I did a series of coffee dates, lunch meetings, Zoom conversations, and reconnection to see where I might want to land next.
In a conversation with my first choice company, the hiring manager expressed his desire to be in a position like mine. Not working, taking some time and reconsidering life options. He seemed unable to leave though he admitted he thought about it often. Ah, why am I rushing in when folks want to rush out?
If I couldn’t go back to a role similar to my last, what would be next? My plans seemed to be eroding and not getting replaced with better options.
My coach encouraged me to “live in the question.”
She meant that instead of having a tidy, packaged answer, why not continue some exploration by asking more questions about what I really want to create in my life - and without re-creating situations from the past, without making decisions I thought would please or impress others. What might be possible when I ask myself what I really want?
For me, this advice was like walking barefoot on a bed of nails...uncomfortable, tricky and scary. Something I was sure would soon end in disaster. I wanted my old shoes. I needed to pay my bills. I needed to get on with my life. I had a plan, and as that plan seemed to dissolve in front of me, I was not feeling much joy about the prospect of staying in this bardo any longer than required.
But, I trusted my coach and (tried) to relax into the process while everything around me started to melt, morph and fog up.
In fact, my experience of moving from tidy plan to wading waist deep in uncertainty and fog….dabbling in panic some days… is actually more accurately the process of transition. We think we know exactly how our life will unfold, then things get weird.
I’ve seen this with my clients as well. “I need to get a new job” turns into a personal quest much beyond (and much more fulfilling than) a change of employer.
We don’t talk about how transitions actually mean letting go. By letting go of something, we can receive our next opportunity. We don’t talk about how uncomfortable it is to NOT do the things that brought us recognition, bonuses, accolades and instead choose to throw our hat into the ring to take on something new that we aren’t good at, we haven’t done before, has no recognition, has no reward and could quite possibly fail.
Or move to a new community with no connections, new (or no) job, and a dream. Or advocate for ourselves in a job interview in order to get a new role that is a bigger step or more audacious challenge. Or make the time to finally stop thinking about writing a book and see how the hell you actually write a book - or even make the time to write the damn thing.
Why would anyone choose uncertainty and discomfort when we can be comfortable in the same old? Well, life has transitions even if you don’t choose them. Divorce, sickness, moves, parenthood, death… some or all of these will happen in a lifetime. Life grows - even if we don’t want to grow with it.
So, how do we live in a question? Can we handle transition with grace?
I don’t know for sure, but I can share a few things that helped me:
- Find support
Get the support of a therapist or a coach or some professional in the field where you’d like to make a transition. You need a real estate agent to sell your house. It helps to have someone with professional experience in the space you’ll navigate.
- Follow the energy and interest, not the panic.
I tried to say “yes” to opportunities that crossed my path that seemed interesting even if it wasn’t exactly what was expected. I tried to choose from a position of it being an interesting learning opportunity, never from a feeling of fear or desperation. When I’m choosing from fear, I can make short term decisions that aren’t in my best interest and I’m back to square one. It’s better to question my story, deconstruct what I’m actually afraid of and see if I can creatively make more opportunities.
- Be practical, but not too practical.
Through the past few years, as a family we needed to make practical choices -- but we also ended up moving to a new house (selling our old one), opening an AirBnB, starting a new company and putting our kids in a new school. We could have declined all of this to be more practical, but as each opportunity opened it felt like a risk, but the right risks that were taking us towards what we wanted as a family.
- Keep the long term in mind
We all think it would be better if things happened faster -- but the truth is, the journey is the fun (fun sometimes equals feeling like you’re on a ride called “Foggy Uncertain Boat of Undefined Destination” or “Uncertain Date with Uncertain Destiny” but it’s a journey nonetheless.) I keep the long term in mind and have faith that I will succeed, though it may take longer than I thought, even if success is in a different domain than I originally targeted.
- Build trust in yourself by showing up
Build trust and confidence by setting small steps and continually doing what you say you’ll do. When you don’t have expertise in what you are taking on, the best you can do is show up, show up, show up and do what you committed to doing for yourself.
Oh, remember, social media is pumping out everyone’s peak moments. It’s literally the 1% of the experience. The work, disappointment, support, failures, tough decisions, lonely times aren’t pictured. Instagram posts rarely share the running dialog in your mind at 3AM. No one posts pictures of themselves crying in the shower feeling like they are never going to land a job or a new client or a life partner. No one posts the valleys.
I like to think of transitions similar to any big trip that requires travel. We picture Italian villas, quaint restaurants, laughing heartily arm in arm with our beloved. We imagine the flawless itinerary. The endless fun. The great IG posts.
But the real deal is that flights are delayed. Someone loses their wallet. Arguments brew after you get lost for the twentieth time. It rains. The hostel is NOT as pictured and things can be bumpy. AND you can have an amazing trip, better than planned, with lots to laugh about and lots of stories to tell.
Resources: Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes