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Understanding life’s transitions

Feb. 1, 2007
“Now that makes sense!” This was my reaction after reading William Bridges’ book, “Transitions,” 20 years ago.
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by Doug Young, MBA

“Now that makes sense!”This was my reaction after reading William Bridges’ book, “Transitions,” 20 years ago. Having revisited his concepts, this remains my reaction today. The impact of change has been a continuing theme of this column, and Bridges has added immeasurably to my understanding of how I can best handle those times when the ground shifts dramatically beneath my feet.

Change and transition are intertwined, but they are different. Change is an event that deals with the external details of a situation - a new job, a health crisis, moving to a new home. Transition is an internal process concerning our feelings about the changed circumstance in our life and our ability to embrace it. My former partner, Bud Ham, poignantly captured the essence of this difference in his story, “Trail’s End.”

It was late afternoon on a cold, blustery day in mid-December. Light snow had started to fall. The old rancher sat slouched and comfortable in his saddle. Balanced on a small flat board in front of him, resting on the saddle horn, was his “tally book.” He didn’t dwell on it, but the thought crossed his mind that he couldn’t remember ever before shipping cattle this late in the year. Oh, there were all sorts of reasons why he had delayed, but he knew they were just excuses.

The herd was small, and there was just the old man and the truck driver, who helped him “punch” the cattle up the chute and into the semi-truck trailer. As each cow-critter went up the chute, he made another stroke in his tally book, just the way his daddy taught him to do, maybe 50 years ago.

As he watched the cattle load, he felt emotions he hadn’t experienced in many years. And the whole episode sent his mind flooding back over pleasant memories of past shipping days. Especially the ones when there were a dozen or so cowboys, a convoy of semi-trucks and trailers, lots of noise and dust and heat and sweat. Then, when the job was done, the unbelievably refreshing taste of a cold Coors and the ribald, good-natured banter of young cowboys.

And then he would come face to face again with his pain of knowing that today, as the last animal entered the trailer, it would be the last cow he would ever ship. It was like a knife to the gut. He had known for a long time this day was coming. What really bothered him was the burning question, “What will I do now?”

The sequence of transition

Can you sense the rancher’s emotion as he wonders, “What’s next?” He is experiencing a major transition because he knows his “old life,” a life he loved, is about to disappear. And with it will go a piece of his identity. He is not alone. We all mirror his experience in some way.

Transitions are normal. They signify our passage from one chapter of life to another. We go through them many times, and although some are uncomfortable, they are manageable. The rancher’s challenge is to reinvent himself, and to embrace the good news that with reinvention comes growth. To reinvent himself successfully, his first step is to understand the transition process

Transitions have three stages - (1) an ending, followed by (2) a period of confusion and distress called the neutral zone, leading to (3) a new beginning. Reading William Bridges’ description of this process was a “light bulb moment” for me. Not only is the sequence important, but we also must have the courage and discipline to give each stage the time it needs. If we don’t, our internal emotional work will not get done. This concept became even clearer when Bridges used the analogy of nature and the leaf. In the fall, the leaf dies and falls from the tree. This ending is a precursor to winter, a time when the ground lies fallow, awaiting the beginning of spring and the emergence of a new leaf.

Stage 1 - Endings

What can be done to ease the passage through a transition? For the rancher, one aspect of life as he knew it was over, but his life was not over. New opportunities would appear, but would he be able to see them, appreciate them, and take action? Could he let go of the past and move to another mode of being? We must ask ourselves these same questions when life shifts dramatically. So, what do we need to know about endings?

Creating a good ending to one of life’s chapters paves the way for a good new beginning. Even if the transition is difficult, remembering the best of “what was,” while anticipating “what could be” helps to create a positive mindset.

Acknowledging an ending by marking it appropriately may help. Our son, Scott, died in 2003 after a life-long battle with his health. Marlyn and I felt that his memorial service should be a celebration. Of course there was sadness that afternoon, but there was also joyful remembrance, music, laughter, friendship, and love. For us, this service was an important ritual in completing the ending and initiating the process of letting go of life as we had known it.

Stage 2 - Neutral zone

Endings are not immediately followed by new beginnings. In between, there is a necessary time of redefinition, confusion, and waiting. What “was” is gone. What “will be” hasn’t been identified or isn’t comfortable yet. We often try to rush through this unsettling period, but it needs to be honored and appreciated for what it offers. Think about nature again. Winter may appear as a time when little is happening, but this is not so. The ground is actively renewing itself for the rebirth of spring. In the same way, the neutral zone is our time for renewal.

Our focus during this stage should be on assessment, brainstorming, and questioning the “usual.” This period gives us our best opportunity for creative thinking and development. It is not, however, a time of certainty. One day everything is clear, and the next day it’s cloudy. It’s a time to be flexible, and to experiment with new ideas and possibilities.

Stage 3 - New beginnings

John Galsworthy, the English novelist, wrote, “The beginnings … of all human undertakings are untidy.” Everyone struggles with them, so letting go of perfectionism and striving instead for progress and achievement makes sense. This can be a joyful and exciting time, yet it can be frightening. There is no going back, and until you can truly become the person your new situation demands, your vulnerability will be high. Done well, however, your new identity will become increasingly more comfortable.

What’s next for you?

Why have I chosen to present Bridges’ work on transitions? Well, some of you will remember the spinning plate performer from “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s. It always amazed me how he could keep all those plates spinning on their poles without a major crash. For me, the plates symbolize the enormous number of changes that we are constantly dealing with today.

How do we keep these changes and the accompanying emotional component of transition from crashing down on top of us? Quick fixes don’t exist, but learning how to handle change and transition can improve your quality of life. Any feedback about your story in this vital area of life would be welcome.

Doug Young, MBA, and his spouse Marlyn, MCC, have a professional speaking and executive/team coaching business in Parker, Colo. They co-author this column and share an interest in leading-edge business concepts, achieving personal and professional potential, serving patients, and improving how people work together. Marlyn’s insights into people and relationships and her coaching skills complement Doug’s motivating and mind-expanding presentations. Contact them by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at 877-DMYOUNG, or visit their Web site at

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