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  • Writer's pictureAna Lucia Jardim

How to Make the Most of a Life Transition: Part 1

We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.
― Alan Watts

Life is like a three-legged stool, a friend once told me. One leg is where you live, another is whom you love, and the third is what you do. Changes to one or more of these legs can make life wobbly for some time.

About three years ago, I changed all three legs of the stool at once. I got divorced, quit a 15-year career at the company I worked for, and returned to my homeland after two decades as an immigrant in the US and Germany. In general, I do have a tendency to “go big or go home” when it comes to change, which I don’t necessarily recommend. But I usually had something concrete lined up as a Point B, which made the transition easier. This time, I did not have a clue what I would do next.

At first, it was daunting, but then I realized the precious opportunity that lay in front of me. How many times do you get the chance as an adult to live without obligations or expectations? What would you do if you had that opportunity? More importantly, who are you when you are not working to fulfill all the roles and goals you have?

I decided to take a year off (which organically turned into a year and a half) to answer these questions. It was a privilege and a rare opportunity.

Three years have passed, and after slaying the bureaucracy dragons of international relocation, I am crafting a new career path as an independent executive coach and keynote speaker, I’ve established a new home, I’m in a new committed relationship, and am slowly integrating my American and Portuguese identities.

Amidst this major transition – still unfolding-, I've gleaned profound insights into my relationship with change and the art of its navigation. Conversations with friends and clients going through their own life transitions have also unveiled some patterns.

In the next couple articles, I’ll share what I’ve learned so far. I’d love to hear from you on your own transition experiences, and what you’re learning works for you.

In the scope of this reflection, I include open-ended changes to the three-legged life tool, such as:

• Departure from a job or career without a mapped-out next step.

• The dissolution of a longstanding partnership, voluntary or otherwise.

• Departure from a place where you were rooted, whether by choice or by displacement, without a clear destination to settle into yet.

I can think of other major changes that don’t neatly fit into these buckets (such as aging or the death of a loved one), but those often lead to a decision to make the above changes. Speaking for myself, the loss of a close friend and also entering my 40s definitely contributed to my desire to take time off to reassess the direction of life.

The conventional approach to transition: get through it asap!

It can be thrilling to have a blank slate in front of you. So many possibilities!  And, it can also generate anxiety. A transition is akin to what William James described as the “waiting room of existence”. A mélange of intense and uncomfortable emotions, such as grief, disorientation, and even panic. It's during such moments that our survival instincts can kick in, to restore us back to a place of comfort and familiarity. Having a defined endpoint is reassuring. We think that “when I get there, everything will be alright again”. The problem is, we run the risk of making premature decisions and setting course for the first option that comes to mind, or settle for the first offer we get, as illustrated below.

A  ---------------------- > Any B!

Priority: Expedite the Journey

Even when we have a set destination, life inevitably happens, derailing our perfect plans. That happened to me. On my last official day at work, I fractured my foot. Definitely not the glorious start to the sabbatical that I had envisioned.  

Another trap we can fall into is hyperactivity. In the early days of my sabbatical, my schedule was packed to the brim, catching up with friends, taking workshops, writing a book, traveling, etc.  Except that this time, I couldn’t blame my job or other people for this frenzy.  I alone was responsible. I was so used to being busy that I did not how else to be. As a mentor once said to me: "Wherever you go, there you are". I could have moved to the moon and still find ways to be productive. Deep down, I was afraid of slowing down. I was afraid I would get bored, miss out on what everyone else was doing, or feel lonely. If you’re not careful, even with the luxury of time and space, you can fall right back into old habits and never get to explore who you are beyond those.

I draw a parallel to this conventional way to the times when, as a youngster, I’d go out dancing with my friends. We would arrive at the club, and stake out a spot on the dance floor that became “our territory”. We would only dance if we liked the music that the DJ played. If we didn’t know a song, we’d walk over to the bar. And that was it, back and forth, all night. The dance floor was large, the music diverse, but we only experienced a small part of it.

An alternate approach: dancing through it

Unless you are under financial duress or pressing commitments, I encourage you to embrace the unknown for some time. Keeping things open for a while will allow you to introspect and explore what life is calling you to do next.

Let’s take the dance floor analogy again. Your dance floor is like a field of possibilities for life. That field is contained by things like your purpose, values, beliefs, skills, or resources. Within the dance floor are well known places, but also unfulfilled aspirations, long-shelved dreams, fantasies and undiscovered likes, dislikes and talents. The goal of the transition is to explore the dance floor as much as possible, and hopefully even expand it as you update your beliefs and identity.

It can also happen that, as a result of your exploration, you let go of old dreams. This is especially useful. For example, how many of us dream of quitting our jobs to ___________________ (fill in the blank with your dream, eg, moving to the country and opening a cute B&B), but have never really sat down and gone through what it actually takes to make that happen? In my case, I had always wondered if I should have been a professional dancer, and had various regrets around it. During my transition, I took 5 months of rigorous professional dance training. I loved it, and I also experienced the hard parts of that life. The conclusion: I’m definitely not cut for that life. I felt a great relief, and also appreciated even more everything I already love about dancing.  

Some basic principles

Having some guiding principles for your transition can help keep you grounded through the ambiguity and avoid falling into the old habits I described earlier. The principles below did not become clear to me right away, but revealed themselves over time, through reflection, conversations and simply going through the process. I share them in the hopes they can support your own transition.

Synchrony over urgency

Resist the temptation to rush through it. Make it a priority to get back into synchrony with your natural rhythm. Spending time in nature is very helpful, as well as making sure big chunks of your days are unscheduled. Much of your true nature is revealed when you observe yourself respond in real time to what comes your way.

Example: For the first few weeks, one of my main activities was looking out the window. That simple. I started seeing things I had not paid attention to before. I noticed the habits of different kinds of birds, in different kinds of weather. I noticed the subtle changes in temperature and the color of the sky as the day progressed. The subtle changes in plants from one day to the next. I felt my rhythm slowly aligning with the planet’s. It created a sense of wellbeing and harmony that invited creativity and deep connection with people around me.

Sensing over planning

Don’t plan too far ahead. In my case, I found that a two-month vision into the future was sufficient.

Rely mostly on what your intuition and wisdom tell you to take on next. Maybe have one central activity for your days, to provide some light structure / routine, then leave the rest open. This way, you allow life events and activities to unfold, naturally and hopefully expose you to new places, practices, people, or inner experiences. As an example, a dancer I met during my time in Spain told me about dance movement therapy, which I had never heard of before despite studying adult development and dancing for so many years. I ended up enrolling in a one year program, and it has greatly influenced how I work with clients today to help them think with their whole body, not just their brains. Had I planned my sabbatical in detail, I wouldn’t have had the flexibility to make the pivot.

Dancing ugly over looking good

Be willing to struggle and make mistakes. Run experiments to validate whether this path might the “the right one”. You might run various experiments at the same time, not all of them will work, which means you need to start over, or pivot to something else. Open your heart to people around and share your struggle.

This is the hardest principle for me to live by, and the most important. I have felt (and still do) the pressure to project an image that this whole period of exploration was one big fun adventure, when in fact there are a lot of ups and downs. I’ve had plenty of days where I wondered what I was doing with my life, and whether I should just get a job and get back to a “normal life”, like everyone else.

It helps to stay connected to people who are on a similar path. Writing about my journey helps me make sense of things as well. When I get feedback that my vulnerability inspired someone else to make a big life change, and transition consciously, it makes it all worthwhile.

The benefits of this approach

Taking time and space before committing to the next step will give you greater confidence and satisfaction with your decisions, because:

  • you used your time wisely to learn what you needed to learn, and minimized the chance of repeating mistakes of the past.

  • you know yourself better, and have explored and expanded our options.

  • you were guided by values and purpose (which are broad and evergreen), rather than goals and expectations (potentially limiting and fickle).

Also, you developed skills that are important to thrive in a time where change is coming at us faster than ever. You learn how to:

  • reinvent yourself, to pivot and recover from setbacks quickly

  • pace yourself, enjoy the journey and minimize burnout

  • continuously learn new things

  • tolerate (even appreciate) ambiguity

In Part 2 of this exploration, I will dive deeper into what to expect at each stage of the transition and also recommend practices and resources for the journey. More soon!

Are you considering making a big life change right now?

You don’t have to do this alone. Schedule a complimentary coaching session and get support to begin the journey.

Thank you for reading Dancing Through Change. This post is public so feel free to share it.

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