The Ghost in the Machine

 In Business, Duty, Fred's Blog, Leadership, People, Transitions, Vocation

William Bridges wrote  “Transitions” 35 years ago and reading it helped me think about the difference between “change” and “transition.” It did not seem like much at the time but the distinction is important. Change happens all the time, and it doesn’t matter if it is small (switch grocers) or large (death of a spouse or a loss of a job). On the other hand, transition is psychological and is a process whereby people gradually accept the new situation and the adjustments that come with it. What matters most is making the transition from one thing to another.

Every transition has three stages: The ending, the wilderness (or neutral zone) and the new beginning. To make a genuine new beginning requires closure for the past and a time of “wandering” before we take hold of the next chapter in our lives. Too often we do not actually end things. We leave but we do not have closure. We move on but we have not finished. It is truly painful and instead of making a genuine ending of a relationship or work that was important we find ourselves dragging around many uncompleted endings in our lives.   

Many of us work hard to avoid the wilderness as we want to move as quickly as possible to what is next or, too often, we are uncomfortable dealing with the loss and getting to the new beginning helps us avoid the pain. I used to laugh with people about my own transition from my role at Leadership Network to The Gathering. I left Leadership Network on August 31 and started The Gathering on September 1. I considered an overnight pause as my transition. Now, I realize how short-sighted that was. Looking back today as I write this, I understood neither the gift of the neutral zone or the importance of ending well. So anxious about both moving on and the overwhelming emotional moments, I never allowed myself or close friends of more than a decade actually to say an adequate “good-bye.” Years later one of my successors said, “You are the ghost in the machine.” It’s just as true that they remained ghosts in mine for years. A friend once described it as a recluse spider bite. It heals quickly on the skin but the infection continues invisibly beneath the scab. The wound has to stay open long enough to heal what is beneath the surface.    

Transition many times includes genuine grieving and putting something to rest. It means letting go and being grateful. We cannot do that when we ignore the wilderness. While it doesn’t mean taking a six-week leave before stepping into what is next, it does mean we accept the wilderness and not try to eliminate or rush through it. As Bridges says, “It was in the wilderness that Israel received the Ten Commandments that redefined them forever.” Yes, it is often like Matthew Arnold described it: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” But, it is in that in-between space that surprisingly creative things happen.

A friend gave me an article from an issue of Fast Company titled “The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes” by Brent  Schlender. As everyone knows, Jobs was forced out of Apple and spent part of the next several  years angry and vengeful about that. ”Steve Jobs did not wander aimlessly into the wilderness after being ousted from Apple. No happy camper he was loaded for bear; burning to wreak revenge upon those who had spuriously shoved him into exile and obsessed with proving to the world that he was no one-trick pony. Not a good ending!  And then the “wilderness” begins – first with the failure of NeXT  and then with the purchase of Pixar’s assets for $5 million from George Lucas. But it was in that wilderness where Jobs learned new skills out of necessity. It was the most pivotal time of his life – and the happiest. Most important his work with the two companies he led during that time…turned him into the kind of man and leader who would spur Apple to unimaginable heights upon his return.” 

The application is obvious.  I know people who would benefit from this story right now. They need to know that the wilderness is necessary and, more importantly, it is productive. It is not an interruption or obstacle. It is what John  Lasseter at Pixar says is the key to all their success. “It’s  gotta be about how the main character changes for the better.” A well done ending and welcoming the wilderness will make that new beginning even richer. 

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Showing 19 comments
  • Fonda Latham
    Reply

    Thanks for the timely word today! I needed that reminder.

    • David
      Reply

      Thanks Fred, you speak of a time I am familiar with. I am now focused on my passion in teaching and mentoring people to think big and follow their dreams that many times get buried👍

      • Fred
        Reply

        David – Thanks for the time this morning. I like what you are doing.

  • Rod Mabry
    Reply

    Fred, the application of this article for me is spot-on and significant. I’ll think more about enjoying my transition and acquiring the certain new skills I might use in the next chapter. Best to you, Rod

  • Fred Smith
    Reply

    Rod – You may not need any new skills. You may already have what you need but will have an opportunity to use them in new ways.

  • Cathy Krafve
    Reply

    Fred, thank you for this today. I needed to be reminded to savor the pause and respect the nature if transitions. Blessings!

    • Fred
      Reply

      Cathy – We all need to be reminded all the time.

  • Ida Bell
    Reply

    A brillant assessment of the huge difference between change and transition I truly appreciate your fully describing the process with such practical, understandable examples. I’ll be sharing these thoughts a lot and trying to slow down enough to practice them myself.

    • Fred
      Reply

      Ida – Well, brilliant is probably more than I deserve on this one since everything is right out of the book – except for the parts about me. We are always going through changes, are we not? It’s the transitions that take the most work.

  • Duncan Campbell
    Reply

    Fred One of your best ever, … timely, thoughtful, encouraging,and helpful to many who are in transition Dunc

    • Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Dunc. I am so pleased I am going to see you in Carlsbad! Big hug waiting for me, I hope.

  • Ann
    Reply

    Thoughtful and Inspiring ! Thanks , Fred !

    • Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Ann. We all have this in common, don’t we?

  • Keith Cobell
    Reply

    As one who has been lead through the (figurative) wilderness a few times, and one who has led others through the (actual) wilderness, it is my experience that staying in the wilderness a bit longer than is comfortable is often where the best stuff happens. Thanks for the reminder that when going through a transition, it is important to tary along the way.

    • Fred
      Reply

      Thanks for this, Keith. I suspect you are right and it is difficult to stay any longer than what we think “necessary” for sure.

  • Sandy Olsson
    Reply

    Hi Fred,
    Haley sent this to me as I am in transition as I write with the handoff October 1st and committed to the wilderness experience as I wait for a new beginning. So timely and peace bringing. Thank you!

    • Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Sandy. Yes, ending and waiting is the hard part. Even when we find new work it is important to know it takes time to end the old.

  • John Fischer
    Reply

    Hi Fred.

    It’s been a long time (remember those PBC days with Ray Stedman?). This article has provided much needed insight into a deep need among many, if not all, of the Jesus Music people of the Jesus Movement that began 50 years ago. We ended poorly. Actually, we never ended; we just slowly faded from view, replaced by younger, more proficient versions of ourselves, traveling the roads we forged without ever knowing or caring how they got there. Now we are mostly forgotten, but still in small independent ministries all over. We need healing. We need closure.We need to come together. We’ve been in this wilderness at least 40 years. I’m beginning a study on this right now and this brilliant 3-step transition process is providing the perfect framework we’ve been looking for. Thank you so much for this piece. Love to chat sometime. – John

    • Fred
      Reply

      John – Of course I remember! Actually, I have followed your career since then and read your books so it is good to hear from you. Several years ago I talked to some of the young guys starting up social justice ministries about the danger of losing touch with the roots of the movement by ignoring men and women who had been at this a long time. They had little sense of history and putting new faces on the program was only encouraging that. I could not agree with you more and would love to talk about what you are doing.

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