If we understand transitions properly, however, we can curb our natural tendency to fight against them—a futile battle, given their inevitability. Indeed, with a shift in mindset, we can make transitions into a source of meaning and transcendence.
Psychologists call the state of being in transition “liminality.” Scholars at INSEAD, a business school in France, and Rice University define this as “being betwixt and between social roles and/or identities.” In other words, liminality means that you are neither in the state you left nor completely in your new state, at least not mentally. This provokes something of an identity crisis—it raises the question “Who am I?”—which can be emotionally destabilizing.
Even good transitions can have this effect, as I know all too well. I was in a liminal state even before the coronavirus hit. After a decade as the president of a think tank, managing a large workforce of scholars at the vortex of Washington, D.C., policy battles, I left last summer to join academia, walking away from the people and job I knew and loved, and the excitement of being near the action of policy making.
This was all of my own volition, but that’s scant comfort. My wife and I are still disoriented. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and mentally prepare for a day at the think tank, before remembering that was the past and I am in Massachusetts, not Maryland. Weirdly, I notice that my signature seems to have changed, as if I am trying to impersonate someone else. I don’t regret the decision to change careers, but it has been difficult.
Transitions feel like an abnormal disruption to life, but in fact they are a predictable and integral part of it. While each change may be novel, major life transitions happen with clocklike regularity. Life is one long string of them, in fact. The author Bruce Feiler wrote a book called Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. After interviewing hundreds of people about their transitions, he found that a major change in life occurs, on average, every 12 to 18 months. Huge ones—what Feiler calls “lifequakes”—happen three to five times in each person’s life. Some lifequakes are voluntary and joyful, such as getting married or having a child. Others are involuntary and unwelcome, such as unemployment or life-threatening illness.
Even huge collective transitions such as the pandemic happen with regularity, though the shapes they take vary wildly. Consider: If you are 30 years old, you were born during the collapse of the Soviet Union. At age 11, you saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At 18, you lived through the 2008 financial crisis. Today, it’s COVID-19. In the coming decade, there will almost certainly be another unwelcome cataclysmic event—we just don’t know what it is yet.
But here’s the good news: Even difficult, unwanted transitions are usually seen differently in retrospect than in real time. Indeed, Feiler found that 90 percent of the time, the people he spoke with ultimately judged their transition to have been a success, insofar as the transition ended and they found themselves once again on solid ground.