“People change and they forget to tell each other” – Lillian Hellman
I can’t remember how or why I came across it in the first place, and I don’t know much about the author, but I’ve personally found it very helpful in the last few weeks as I’m going through rather a lot of change at the moment.
“Transitions” is not specifically about careers, more about all the big changes that make an impact on our lives. It was first published in 1980 and it has since been revised several times… so one can only assume it’s helped a number of people since.
Have you already had periods in your life when you’re no longer the “old you” and whatever you enjoyed previously (your old friends, your job, your city, whatever) suddenly no longer satisfies you? Or times when you felt empty or depressed for “no reason”? That’s the signs of transition, baby.
The big idea
According to the author, since Western society has evolved over the centuries to be primarily focused on productivity/ efficiency, we’ve had a tendency to view humans as “mechanical”. People are seen to evolve like on a production line: they are born, grow to their adult size while being equipped via education, and at the age of 21 they are fully-formed adults who do not change until the end of their lives… except for the fact they get old.
Yet we all know from experience that it’s not really true – I personally don’t feel like the same person I was 15 years ago, do you? Not only do our external circumstances change but we also evolve with regard to our identities, who we think we are, and what we want for ourselves.
Understanding the psychological transition that goes on around major external changes can help us figure out why we sometimes react in inexplicable ways… especially when we find ourselves getting depressed “for no reason”, or following a positive external change like a big promotion at work or the birth of a child.
“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.”
Ending before beginning
In ancient societies, people didn’t have smart phones but they were more in touch with their internal lives than we are, and they had rites of passage to help individuals go through major life changes.
Whatever form they took, those rites usually involved a “dramatic ending” to the old familiar situation, followed by time spent in a “neutral zone”, and finally a “new beginning” when the person returns with a new identity. (You might have heard of such rituals in tribes when boys were sent to spend time on their own in the wilderness, as a symbolic rite of passage in order to become men? If not they’re copiously described in the book, alongside ancient Greeks myths and the life of Jesus and other spiritual figures).
Crucially, the “new beginning” comes right at the end of the process; it won’t happen until the person has A/ fully accepted that he/she can never go back to the old situation (which may cause considerable grief) and B/ spent the appropriate time in the neutral zone doing some soul-searching.
Why it will change your life
We’ve all heard about the mid-life crisis (and the red sports car clichés), but it’s not true that all of us will go on a major identity crisis at 40 – rather, our identities evolve constantly in our own time, and we may well go through several such transitions depending on our circumstances.
Each of us will be faced with several periods of “floating” and readjustment which may be extremely painful, especially if we have no clue what is going on… so understanding the process can help us navigate it more easily and gracefully.