Has the New Year brought change for you? Some of us plan changes like, “Get a new job.” “Retire.” “Change my attitude toward food or wellness.” “Regroup with my siblings on decisions related to my mother’s care.” For others, change is thrust upon us unexpectedly, like the woman who shared with me that she had a miscarriage over the holidays. This wrenching event seemed to smother her plans for change in the New Year. Still other changes influence us collectively, like those related to our new administration.
Change felt omnipresent this January. It was everywhere I turned. Or was it? Was it change or something more that I kept encountering?
If I’ve learned one thing since starting my transition, it is that change differs from transition. Yes, even though we use the two words interchangeably, they represent two very different life processes.
Changes are used to reach a goal, like the single woman from just outside of Chicago who shared with me a few days ago, “I want to re-enter the workforce in ’17.” She’s been caring for her aging parents for many years. The change she sought was fairly straightforward. A job.
Transition requires more than change. Even though we loath change – with its difficult, burdensome, chaotic nature – transition is still more. It is a process that we choose when faced with the need for change. It demands that we re-examine who we are and what holds value and meaning to us.
The most significant element of all of this is choice. Transition is our choice. There is no judgment. One choice isn’t better than the other. It is simply our own decision.
What will you choose the next time you face the need for change?
I remember when I first became aware of the difference between the two terms. It caught me off guard. I was having lunch with a colleague who had worked with me on the Compensation Committee of the Board of Directors at Iron Mountain. An important side note is that he and I were always embroiled in debates about compensation for our executives – all men, who demanded higher pay even though many made well over one million dollars per year.
At the time of our lunch, I was still working for the company even though I had announced my departure. My colleague asked, “What do you want to do next?”
What came out of my mouth was something I had never said out loud or even to myself. “I don’t know,” I said, “But I do know that if I spent the next decade pursuing wealth I would feel as if I’d left something undone.”
My guess is that my response was colored by our executive compensation debates. But there was something more. It was unmistakable. Surprising. Strong.
Now – five years after that lunch – I can tell you that change differs markedly from transition.
The questions we ask ourselves in transition differ.
Our notion of when transition ends, differs.
How others react to us in transition, differs too.
The voices of those in my research helped me understand this divide more completely.
One woman, now approaching 50, lived on the West Coast. She was a Mills College and UC Berkeley Medical School grad. In her early thirties her husband died suddenly leaving her to parent three lovely girls.
She talked about her husband’s death when we got together. The wrenching loss. The feelings of being overwhelmed. The bracing responsibility of raising her daughters. Alone. The anger at being yanked out of the life she’d planned and worked so hard to create.
She told me that her emotions consumed her for a while. Then she got down to business. “I had no choice. I needed my job.” She became a staff physician for a local community hospital.
But was it a transition?
A later event helped her answer that question with a surprising, no.
She joined my research not because she had been widowed but because of a later change that really rocked her. She had switched jobs along the way and became a medical director of a nationally recognized insurer. One day her entire team was let go.
“I am really struggling. Before it happened, I didn’t think I was the type of person who was defined by my job or title. But now that those things are gone, I am having a really hard time. Who am I? Before, when my husband died, I knew what I had to do. The options were very clear. This time, I feel as if the ground has fallen out from underneath me. In a way, this is much harder.”
Change and transition require different responses from us. The triggers or events that initiate the need for change can differ – like a job loss or widowhood. But the choice is ours. Which path will we choose?
One thing to remember, both choices offer us gifts.
Those in my research talked almost universally about transition’s gifts: peace or joy or engagement. Nearly everyone felt enlivened by the process. One quote I keep with me from these conversations simply said, “I felt as if I was breathing for the first time.” She was 56.
This year my hope is that you have the courage to ask yourself big questions when faced with the need for change.
May you also have the temerity to walk forward with grace as you begin to understand the answers.
Have one more minute? Reader another January blog, Permission? from 2013
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