Reinventing Yourself? Why You Need a Transition Story.

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The inside window ledges of the homes in Northern Holland tell stories.

During my ten-day visit I saw handsome turquoise pottery, painted pitchers, tall vases with flowers, ceramic birds and farm animals, wooden ships, and tin angels displayed in the windows.

In villages on the Frisian Islands, homes with large front windows edge the sidewalks. As I pause to look closely at what’s on a window ledge, I need only lift my gaze for a look straight through three rooms. Beyond the sofa area, a wood dining table with chairs and a small kitchen in the back complete the first floor.

Often I saw all the way through the back window into a yard with a garden or a clothesline full of floating clothes.

Curious as I was, I didn’t want to gawk. I kept my glances brief. Several times I surveyed the insides of these homes and missed noticing the people in the front room. They were more cordial than you or I might be to a stranger staring in their front window.

The father reading a story to a child on the sofa raised his head, met my eyes and smiled. The woman knitting in her corner chair gave me a pleasing nod.

Day after day I learned about people in places pronounced confidently and with staccato –Enkhuizen, Hoogkarspel, Oosterblokker, Wervershoof. They like order, tidiness, and enjoy a muted palette. They love flowers with large colorful blooms, Hollyhocks and Hydrangeas.

The Dutch are very polite. Because bikes are a primary means of transportation, bike paths meld into walkways and roads differentiated only by the color of the bricks. Many, many times a bike rider’s melodic, gentle bike bell advised me I was not on a foot path as I thought, but in the middle of the bike path.

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In villages everywhere I looked on window ledges, peered in homes, observed the young and old ride bikes, kite surf, maneuver boats and ships, and walk their dogs. I wondered about these people and their lives – who they were, their hopes, their dreams.

What were their stories? How did the things on the window ledges connect to them?

My window sills are bare and yours may be too. Still, we have stories. Everyone has stories.

Life is a narrative of stories. Unique stories, linked over time.

In our lives there are places where a story is about to stop before a new one has begun. That can be a confusing time.

When it’s time for a change in life – as a turning point begins and the future is unclear-that’s when you need a story the most.

Transitions without a story are hell to navigate.

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A Story of Change Pairs Courage and Confidence

In my forties, I changed careers. People do it all the time in different ways. In my case I left a professional identity with no clear understanding of what my future career might be.

While I wasn’t unhappy as a middle school counselor, I had no options in the public school system to excite me or increase my happiness. When I added being an instructor at the local university at night and management seminars for companies on days my principal gave me comp time, I was having fun.

But, life stretched thin – too thin. I loved using my talents in these three ways, but ended up not being home as much as I needed to be and felt the stress of constant preparation.

I withdrew my retirement from public education and told my new husband of 10 months, “I don’t know what I’m going to do but this is not it.”

I left all three of those jobs.

My in-between time was a year-and-a-half journey that was rewarding and stimulating as I explored possibilities.

Yes, I experienced confusion and at times felt disoriented and unsure. Looking back, it was a ‘transition story’ that proved the most effective tool I had as I navigated this unsettling time. The story kept me grounded and feeling sane for having quit a perfectly good job with no idea of what to do next.

amsterdam 129At the root of transition is “transit,” a voyage from one place to another. This period is not a literal space but a psychological zone in which we are truly between selves, with one foot still in an old way of being and the other making tentative progress toward an as-yet undefined new world.

Each of us has been through significant shifts in our lives. As I study individuals who navigate the transition from midlife to late adulthood, I now understand that one factor more than any other makes the difference between success and floundering: the ability to craft a good story.

Some people choose traditional retirement and launch their freedom into a life of travel, encore careers, hobbies, and grand children. They don’t transition; they shift into activities that fill time.

Let’s face it, given the choice of the time and effort needed to create a new working identity and life design, retirement is the easier choice.

Some will find contentment in a retired life; others enjoy a honeymoon stage then determine it unsatisfactory. They will seek more. Hello transition.

Transitions are full of loss, confusion, insecurity and uncertainty. This can be a scary time.

Without a story that lends meaning unity and purpose to our lives, we will feel more lost and unsettled than necessary.

The good transition story that we will tell others – friends, family, coworkers, new acquaintances, colleagues and clients – reassures them that our hopes and dreams make sense, our plans are logical and that we are indeed not crazy. Most important, the transition story reassures us.

The transition story doesn’t just ease the transition (although this is surely a plus); this story is a springboard that launches a provisional identity. We need a sense of self during transition otherwise the feeling is much like being on a rudderless boat in 10-foot waves. Ugh.

As a transition story bolsters our ‘transitioning self,’ we gain confidence and courage. The story – and the positive reaction it elicits from others – keeps us motivated and brave to meet the challenges as we gain clarity for our new future.

With no story, your transition could be a joyless wander alone in the wilderness far from home with only a cheese sandwich… for a long time. Oh, and there are bears.

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To be in transition is to lose the narrative thread of life.

A transition story is a true story that links an old life to a new life, an old self to a new one. When we are leaving “A” without yet having left it (or may we have left it) and moving toward “B” without yet having gotten there, what we tell ourselves and what we tell others is critical to the success of the transition.

People in transition often give boring answers or struggle to explain what they want to do next.

“What do you do?” “What do you see for your future?” “What’s next?”

These answers are often heard:

  1. “Well, I was….” (Recount of their last job, title and responsibilities.)
  2. “I’m trying to decide whether…” (Struggle to explain what they want to do.)
  3. I want to do something but I don’t know what.” (Admission of lack of clarity.)
  4. “I’m retired.” (Conveys a logical lifestyle that may not be the best.)
  5. “I’m a graduate of Vanderbilt, owned an award-winning business, and rose through the ranks in the Coast Guard and….” (Give laundry list of their credentials.)

These responses are rooted in the past or stuck in a muddled state of the present. While the past is part of the narrative, a good transition story takes the listener into the future. It’s not a future we’re sure about, but the story conveys fuzzy yet important ideas of how we envision a life of meaning, joy, success and opportunity.

Often people in transition bore us to death or sound so slightly screwy we’re not in the mood to continue talking to them. The good transition story interests others enough to want to learn more and can result others offering to extend their network and contacts to help us whether our future involves life as a volunteer, an apprentice in a new industry, project work, or a new business.

At the beginning of my transition time in my 40s, I did not know I would launch my own business and create a professional identity as a successful author, speaker, facilitator and coach. I certainly didn’t fathom that my work would be global.

You don’t want a clear path ahead when you are navigating the future. A defined destination isn’t part of the transition story. The transition time between identities is one of exploration and experimentation.

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A transition story can be effective as a set of outcomes that guide the investigation for what you want to achieve in a new life design – professionally and personally.

Here’s my transition story told to my family, co-workers, new acquaintances at networking events and conferences:

I’m looking for a new professional identity that:

  1. Gives me control of my time.
  2. Allows me to be more creative and enhance my talents.
  3. Provides opportunities to be compensated based on my value and worth.

This transition story links the past to the present and outlines my motives for change. The story implies I have a set of defined skills and a love of creativity that I want to utilize further. Life outside of work is a priority. The “3 above” – compensation element – was a true frustration of years of a published salary schedule based on experience not performance. I wanted a future where ‘results’ mattered.

This transition story was a catalyst for more questions. What were my skills and talents? How had I utilized them? What did I mean by ‘control of time?’ What were examples of a creative experiences in my work? How might my talents create value for people or an organization?

There are numerous ways to create a ‘transition story.’ In my next post, you’ll learn how to create yours.

Meanwhile, think back to the transitions you’ve made in life. Did you craft a ‘transition story?’ How did that story affect the time in transition? the outcomes?

If you’re in transition now without a ‘transition story,’ how’s that working for you?

Your Reinvention Years

In our 50s, 60s or 70s we ask ourselves, “What’s next?”

In a good transition, the answer leads us far away from clarity in the beginning. Instead, “what’s next” should spur a heap of other questions:

  • How will we extend our careers?
  • Is a new professional endeavor for our 30-bonus years a better choice?
  • How much will we work?
  • How much time, money and energy are we willing to invest in our future?
  • Is geographic location critical to our professional and personal life? Can we live/work anywhere?
  • How will our lives unfold if we want to combine a love of travel, time with family, an income and our own growth and development?
  • Does giving back to community or the world figure in our future?

Until we figure this all of out and are actively involved in this new life design, we are in transition.

William Bridges, the best-selling author of the book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, was a professor of English for twelve years before he became a consultant, lecturer, and writer on topics related to personal development. By his own account, it took him several years of experimenting to define a next career.

In an interview with author and management guru, Tom Peters, Bridges describes his struggle to find a real replacement for a new life and career. “It was a five year process,” stated Bridges.

Is that longer than you might have guessed? It takes time for a new identity and life to finally take hold.

In my experience, individuals create new lives post50 within transition times that vary from two years to six years. Most often, transitions last far longer than anticipated.

My last transition took four years. In retrospect, this long, unnecessarily painful time was a result of my not having a good transition story. (I’ll highlight my mistakes in my next post.)

The best way out is always through. - Robert Frost
The best way out is always through. – Robert Frost

A Secure Passage

“All transformation process, in nature as in society require a protected space for change – the cocoon, the chrysalis, the womb, the make-believe space, the apprenticeship or the internship,” writes Herminia Ibarra.

Ibarra, Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD in Fountainebleu, France and the author of Working Identity inspires my work on applying the ‘transition story’ to one of the most important and most difficult of passages in our lives.

You are not meant to know the future. If you feel somehow you should know what you want your last half or third of life, listen up.

You are meant to find and discover it….slowly. You are meant to craft it with care.

With less time in our future than in the past, our reinventions need not waste our time nor plunge us into unnecessary confusion.

Yes there is distance of where you are now and where you want to be. This is the time for your ‘transition story.’


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All Photos by B. Pagano, 2015, Amsterdam and Frisian Islands.

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About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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