A year ago today, I was laid off from General Mills in a major corporate restructuring. My first reaction was relief – to be free from a job that no longer energized me – and excitement – for the chance to pursue a dream I’d been imagining. Arriving home that first night, I tossed aside my severance packet, sat on the porch with my husband, and began brainstorming names for my new consulting business. This positive energy carried me through a series of events in which I was processed out of an organization where I’d spent 13 years. But once I read the severance packet and began to internalize the enormity of change ahead of me, I experienced my first — but not last — emotional riptide and spent three days crying. Through my tears, I realized that there is no emotional “free pass” through a lay-off experience: you don’t get to go over it, around it, or under it – you just have to go through it. While this has been a year of challenge and pain, it has also been a period of incredible growth and renewal. So what did I learn about turning adversity into opportunity?
- Embrace opportunity disguised as loss. My initial reaction of excitement propelled me forward and gave me creative energy and trust that the new life I was creating would be greater than the loss. Whenever you can flip the coin from loss to gain, you stand a better chance of landing on your feet.
- Change is not like a light switch. When the life you’ve been living comes to a close, you have to let go and experience a death within yourself. While the loss might be very painful to face, you must let yourself travel through the journey of death, decay, fertilization, gestation, and rebirth. Even if you desired the change, this journey is important.
- Seed of new is present in the shell of the old. You must shed habits and patterns associated with the life you leave behind or else you’ll create a new, stale reality very similar to the old one. We all know someone who quickly entered a new relationship on the heels of break-up – the face and name are different, but the relationship is the same. They changed, but didn’t transition.
- Sometimes non-action is the action. Taking time to “be” rather than “do” delivered me to new plateaus of insight and understanding. It also allowed me to recharge my batteries and redefine my daily rituals. Coming out of a “bias-for-action” culture, this was a hard lesson for me, but critical to moving on.
- We create what we think about. Thoughts are magnets for emotions and energy. By imagining a new story for my life, I’m creating a future I want, and every day it becomes more real.
So on this anniversary, I share my story of change along with some resources that have resonated with me and inspired my transition journey.
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. After leaving a career as a literature professor in his mid 40s, Bridges started a business as a consultant, coach, and trainer helping people make life changes. He draws on wisdom from ancient cultures and tribal societies who had rituals and mores that supported their people through normal life passages. Bridges distinguishes the physical or structural change in your life (e.g., onset of parenthood, divorce, empty nesting, retirement, lay-off) from the psychological/emotional transition that must accompany the change. He frames transition in three phases: Ending, Neutral Zone, and New Beginning. The Ending involves a symbolic death – letting go of the past. In tribal societies, coming of age was ritualized in ceremonies that marked the end of childhood with an extinguishing of outgrown ways – and, in some tribes, the childhood identity. The Neutral Zone is the metaphorical phase of “wandering in the woods” to face your demons and eventually find your new, transformed self. This is a very hard phase for people in our culture because we expect change to be like a “light switch” and are uncomfortable wandering in darkness and ambiguity. New Beginnings come only after endings and the time of fallow neutrality are finished, when we can launch ourselves anew.
Leadership and the Art of Struggle by Steven Snyder. Using real life stories from his extensive research studying 151 diverse episodes of leadership struggle, Snyder shows how to navigate intense challenges to achieve personal growth and organizational success. His framework taps into many of the universal truths that Bridges articulates with a useful visual framework:
Transformation and positive change are often born out of adversity. With wisdom, compassion, and a deep understanding of the human condition, Bridges provides a roadmap for anyone undergoing a significant life change. Synder shares stories from the trenches of great leaders who could have failed, but instead were transformed through struggle and adversity.
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell