At some point or another, we all get to a stage in our lives and careers where we go into exploration mode. Sometimes there's a catalyst, like a work or life change. Maybe you've experienced it when moving from a city to another, or taking a new job, or wading into a new field and industry.
We all want change, but few of us welcome taking the initiative to change, and even fewer embrace change when it happens to them. Transition's uncertainty can be terrifying, but it also open us up to opportunity by rethinking our assumptions.
Are transitions and change the same thing? If there are differences, how do they affect our success?
We typically see transition as a passage from one form, state, style, or place to another — we're familiar with where we are, and have hopes and dreams about where we're going. Moving to a new country, a brand new house or school, starting a new job are changes. How we feel about them is transition.
Going from what we know into our future can feel daunting. “Doesn’t it feel like the second you figure anything out in life, it ends and you’re forced to start all over again?” Soccer player, coach, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and FIFA Women's World Cup champion Abby Wambach experienced that transition when she retired.
In her recent Commencement address at Barnard#, Wambach says transitions come with bells and whistles. The world tries to distract us from our fears by creating ceremonies. She draws parallels between graduation and retirement — both terrifying moments because they symbolize an important life stage.
When the time came, she stood should to shoulder with basketball athlete Kobe Bryant and football’s Peyton Manning. They each walked away with enormous bank accounts and the freedom associated with them, while Wambach's hustling days were just beginning. Imagine how daunting it may feel. Our body of work has less leverage.
Hers is a familiar tale for many women. We've been programmed to be grateful for what we have. And we want to keep demanding what we deserve, even as our mileage may vary. The world may be changing, but this change is still unevenly distributed. Our transitions are filled with opportunities, and we need to cease them.
Transitions have a silver lining, a gift to use. They give us a permission slip to reset and rethink our assumptions and how we go about what's next. If we could go back and tell our younger self one thing what would it be? Wambach's answer is, “Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood; you were always the wolf.”
Businesses need transitions as well. Jess Lee, investing partner at Sequoia Capital and the former chief executive officer of Polyvore, says startups have a first phase, development, which is about proving “the value hypothesis,” and a second phase, when founding teams provide “the growth hypothesis.”
When we're in transition, we are active participants in making sense of what's happening. We search for or open a new door and we internalize what we need to do to go through it and prepare. That's the gift we can use to discover new opportunities, the silver lining.
Transition is the important part of change.
There are many ways to see change. One thing they have in common is a door closing. Scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell says, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
While transition is an internal process, change is an external situation. People react and adapt to change differently based on past experience with change and how change will affect them this time. Because, “Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture,” says William Bridges.
A story to illustrate the power of transition to change.
In 1995, Yellowstone National park reintroduced wolves after a 7-year absence during which deer population exploded. Without a challenger, deer kept grazing and reducing vegetation, to the point that river banks were eroding.
When the wolves came back, they started hunting the deer. “But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer.” The deer started avoiding the valleys, the vegetation regenerated, and trees quintupled in six years. This encouraged birds and beavers to move in. Beavers built river dams and otters, ducks, and fish came back.
As the animal ecosystem regenerated, the rivers changed, too. The reappearance of plants stabilized the river banks and the rivers stabilized. Just reintroducing the wolves changed the whole habitat. Other forms of life transitioned from one state to another.
Fear created the perception that wolves where a threat, when instead they were the ecosystem salvation. Wambach's analogy, “Women: WE.ARE.THE.WOLVES.” Change is happening, but we need a transition to make it stick.
The secret ingredient
Change is easier when it's a team sport. Wolves move in packs, we operate better in groups. Teams have rules, and these are Wambach's:
1) Make failure your fuel — athletes understand this, it powers them. The difficult lesson for women is that we're taught and programmed by culture to seek perfection. Like transition, or this is probably the hardest thing, to reprogram our thinking.
2) Lead from the bench — conductor Ben Zander says we should lead from any chair. But Wambach takes it a step further, and this is an important point, “If you’re not a leader on the bench, don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”
3) Champion each other — women should amplify each other's voices more, inside and outside organizations. Imagine saying something about a colleague similar to what defender Meghan Elizabeth Klingenberg sais of Wambach, a solid individual contributor, and a team player:
“Abby is another one of those pioneers. It's been really interesting being able to see how she handles the game, how she handles herself off the field, how she handles the fame of being Abby Wambach. That's not really something that anybody else on the team has had to deal with until this World Cup. She's always handled herself very graciously off the field and gives her time to fans and makes sure that she's always complimentary of her teammates and other teams and coaches and the media.
That's one of the things that I've taken away from playing with Abby and watching her is that the way that you act off the field and the way that you represent the United States Women's National team is important. You need to be able to be a good representation because you're not just representing yourself, you're representing the other people on the team. Abby does a great job of representing herself, but also the rest of the team. I am really thankful that I've been able to watch her handle that because I think it's made a big impression on me.”
4) Demand the ball — when we contribute our skill and talent, support from our team is critical. A lone wolf is a dead wolf, we need the pack.
Another name for support group is community. We cannot have just one, because each group supports us in different ways.
- I sing in a choir along with another 35-55 people, an amazing pianist, and a talented/experienced Director.
- A team of regulars at Barre is energizing.
- I'm now actively seeking a team for ongoing business projects — to join a collective, or find seasoned consultants with whom to partner.
- Along the same lines, I'm looking to start something to bring joy back into connecting with others (vs. just all transaction or business.)
Teams and communities are the secret ingredient. Who are yours? Where are they? The language we use can help us get into transition mode when we experience change.
Most languages use tenses to mark time. We talk in past, present, and future tenses to say what we mean and think. Some cultures and periods in history consider thinking about the past a waste of time, others learn from it. As individuals, going back in time helps us make sense of who we are.
Economist M. Keith Chen# of UCLA was among the first to explore how languages and economic behavior may be connected#. Some languages have strong orientation to the future, he says. In English, Italian, French, and Korean we make a sharp distinction between the present and the future.
But other languages don't have such sharp contrast between present and future. For example, Mandarin, Finnish, German, and Estonian. Chen called them strong-future and weak-future.
Chen found that speakers of languages that associate the future with the present save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. 30% more likely to save for retirement, and 24% less likely to smoke, for example. Testing Switzerland yielded data consistent with the main language — French (strong-future) or German (weak-future) — rather than country.
Cultures that are rooted more in history manage their future tense projection with more balance. It's natural to Americans to focus on “What I want to/do” rather than, “WHO I want to be” Wambach says the most important thing she's learned is that what we do will never define us.
Networks science and psychology also found# that we seek relationships where more that one context defines us. Research suggests that relationships built on multiple ties tend to be richer, more trusting, and longer lasting.
When you're at y our next group meeting — at the gym, school, work, or social, consider retiring the old “What do you do?” question and asking a better one... or two. One of the most shared articles in Learning Habit #141 provided more ideas on questions to ask when networking that can lay the ground more richer conversations:
- What excites you right now?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
- Where did you grow up?
- What do you do for fun?
- Who's your favorite superhero?
- Is there a charitable cause you support?
- What’s the most important thing I should know about you?
Whether you're looking for a new team, or to learn more about your current group(s), searching for or opening new doors prepares you for change.