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  • The Art and Skill of Navigating Life Transitions

    The first in a series about navigating retirement, divorce, empty nest syndrome, and the other life transitions that are part of our evolution as human beings. 

    My first one nearly killed me.

     On a warm summer afternoon the year I turned thirty, I was a cocky young man helming a speedy new catamaran off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. On board with me was a woman I’d just met who didn’t know how to sail. She had been a little reluctant to join me, so to reassure her, I showed her two life jackets strapped to the deck and promised her she would be safe. 

     Then, about a mile from shore, merrily skimming over the afternoon chop in a stiff breeze, my foot slipped out of the safety strap that held me on the deck. I did a backwards somersault into Vineyard Sound. When I surfaced, the first thing I saw was the distant shore, and a woman with two life jackets sailing away without me. 

    The next ninety minutes were the longest of my life.

     While my tale had a happy ending (obviously), I did not make it back to shore unscathed. I had assumed my sailing knowledge and experience were enough to keep us both safe. It was a faulty assumption, In fact, many of my assumptions about life and who I was didn’t make it back to shore that day. 

    I had crossed the threshold of my first major life transition. 

    My brush with death opened the gates to a horde of fears, anxieties, and insecurities which I had been holding at bay since childhood. The next six years were a time of confusion, loss of direction and identity, emotional upheaval, and lots of therapy! The end of that phase arrived six years later when I moved from Boston to California, where a month later I met my future (and present) wife.

    Recently, Bruce Feiler’s best-selling study of life transitions, Life is in the Transitions, gave me a fresh perspective on that tumultuous period of my life. While that phase of my youth seemed like a stand-alone time of disruption and change, I now see the pattern, there have been others–getting married and becoming a parent, creating and losing a business, and getting cancer stand out in my memory.

    In fact, Feiler’s analysis of over 250 life stories clearly shows that we spend nearly a 30%-50% of our lives going through major life transitions.

    That’s 30-40 years of an average western lifespan!

    Feiler’s analysis also clearly demonstrates that Life transitions are as normal to human life as shedding its skin is to a snake. These phases are how we grow and evolve as human beings; they are times of extraordinary creation and reinvention. 

    The problem is that when we enter a Life transition we often feel we’ve lost our way. Our sense of identity, purpose, direction, or belonging may disappear. When that happens, we are faced with confusion, fear, sadness, anger, and doubt. It can seem that something is wrong with us or the circumstances of our lives,  but our feelings are normal symptoms of the self evolving.

    If disruptive life transitions are an integral part of our journey, can we learn to cross them with skill and grace?

    Given that most of us will spend many years navigating oceans of change and reinvention, Feiler suggests that it would be in our best interest to develop skills for navigating them. By learning to surf and ride the waves of change we not only can get through them quicker, but there’s the possibility of actually enjoying the ride.

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would say that:

    Surfing these transitions is a skill that can be learned, for we were born with a complete set of tools for the work. It’s just that nobody told us they were already there, inside us.

    When someone arrives at my door looking for help in navigating a major life transition, they often tell me that life has stalled for them, leaving them in a limbo filled with uncomfortable feelings and questions they can’t answer: 

    Who am I? How do I find a sense of purpose? Where am I going, and how do I get there? 

    After I inform them that what they’re going through is a life transition, and that their feelings are normal. There’s nothing for them to do but look inside with a fresh understanding of what’s really going on. I often begin by introducing them to a simple set principles:

    • That we create 100% our experience of life from the inside-out, through their thinking. 
    • That our feelings of wellbeing, happiness, belonging, and purpose are not a result of our work, relationships, health, etc. These feelings were part of our design the day we were born, and stay with us, inseparable, until we draw our last breath
    • Wellbeing, happiness, purpose can’t be harmed, damaged, or taken away by change, or anything that life throws at us. We do, however, lose sight of them on occasion, and focus instead on our fears of what lies ahead. Sound like your typical life transition? 
    • Our sense of belonging, purpose, and wellbeing are right here–inside. We could no more lose them than we could lose the sun and the sky on a stormy day. 

    When a client gets eyes for these simple facts, their journey seems to get a whole lot easier.

    The next step is to introduce them to their inner compass, their very own self-correcting inner GPS, which will guide them across the dark unknown seas to the promised land beyond.