William Bridges' book Transitions was first published in 1979, but somehow in all my research on the literature about mid-life transitions, I had never encountered the book. A few weeks ago, I met with the president of Converse College about some transitions that are coming up in my life (more on that in a future post), and she gave me a copy of the book. She is leaving her post after eleven years, and so she’s learning a bit about navigating major life changes.
Bridges explores the typical transitions that we all make throughout our lives including career changes, retirements, job loss, marriage, having a child, losing a loved one, getting divorced. These transitions may be forced upon us by circumstances outside our control, or they may be things we initiate, but he points out that all transitions are stressful. He makes a distinction between change, which he says is situational, and transition, a psychological process that requires an “inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of these changes into your life.” (xii)
Transitions often begin with “the discovery that roles and relationships were starting to pinch and bind,” say Bridges. (36) He points out that all transitions include an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. I was most intrigued by his description of the neutral zone. He describes this period as a fallow period in between the ending and the beginning, and he notes that many people describe the neutral zone as a period when they felt empty.
We will encounter transitions throughout our lives, alternating between periods of stability and change, but Bridges points out that during the middle years, people often seek out transitions as they experience a growing concern for “significance and meaning” in the activities that occupy their time instead of climbing a ladder or accumulating possessions. He characterizes this as a shift from being motivated by developing and demonstrating competence to being motivated by finding meaning in what one does.
Bridges himself has weathered many transitions, with one of the most significant being his voluntary departure in the 1970s from a job as a literature professor to work as a writer and consultant for individuals and companies navigating transitions. His background as a lit professor stands him in good stead as he uses compelling stories from literature to illustrate the complex and protracted process of transition. He offers concrete strategies to help reader plot a course through their own transitions. Bridges’ book is a practical guide for anyone facing the bewildering terrain of life’s transitions.