The Ghost in the Machine
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.