Transitions (40th Anniversary Edition)

Making Sense of Life's Changes


By William Bridges

By Susan Bridges

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Celebrating 40 years of the best-selling guide for coping with life’s changes, named one of the 50 all-time best books in self-help and personal development — with a new Discussion Guide for readers, written by Susan Bridges and aimed at today’s current people and organizations facing unprecedented change

First published in 1980, Transitions was the first book to explore the underlying and universal pattern of transition. Named one of the fifty most important self-help books of all time, Transitions remains the essential guide for coping with the inevitable changes in life.

Transitions takes readers step-by-step through the three perilous stages of any transition, explaining how each stage can be understood and embraced. The book offers an elegant, simple, yet profoundly insightful roadmap to navigate change and move into a hopeful future:
  • Endings. Every transition begins with one. Too often we misunderstand them, confuse them with finality — that’s it, all over, finished! Yet the way we think about endings is key to how we can begin anew.
  • The Neutral Zone. The second hurdle: a seemingly unproductive time-out when we feel disconnected from people and things in the past, and emotionally unconnected to the present. Actually, the neutral zone is a time of reorientation. How can we make the most of it?
  • The New Beginning. We come to beginnings only at the end, when we launch new activities. To make a successful new beginning requires more than simply persevering. It requires an understanding of the external signs and inner signals that point the way to the future.


Managing Transitions
Surviving Corporate Transition
The Character of Organizations
A Year in the Life
Creating You & Co.
The Way of Transition

To all the people in transition that I have worked with during the past 30 years.

In the twenty-five years since this book was first published, my own life has gone through many (sorry, but there's no better word for it) transitions that I could not have foreseen when I originally wrote the book. In 1979, I was still an ex-literature teacher, but after Transitions I started a new career as a person who helped others deal with the changes in their lives. This little book got me launched.
At the time the book originally came out, I hardly imagined what could happen. I worried, in fact, that Transitions was too insubstantial to attract many readers or to stay in print for long. But now, twenty-five years, forty-one printings, and more than half a million copies later, it's alive and well. Amazing! And just as amazing, with all those copies in print, I have never come across one in a used-book store, although I often cruise the shelves of such places. I know from countless conversations with readers that people keep the book and reread it whenever a significant change hits them. They also pass the book on to their friends—who sometimes don't return it, but keep it to be ready for their next change or to pass it on to their friends. So there's no telling how many people have read the book.
From the beginning, however, some things about the book dissatisfied me. There was a chapter called "Love and Work," and I thought that I hadn't said enough about the ways in which those two critical areas of life can put you in transition, not to mention how being in transition can affect your relationships or career. I also wished there were some way to add further thoughts to the book, thoughts that were based on all the work I had done after the book was published. And finally, in a few places I felt that I hadn't been quite clear and wanted another shot at explaining myself.
There was another problem with the first edition: I had published it when I was in my mid-forties. Today, as I turn seventy, things look a bit different to me. Not surprisingly, the natural transitions produced by aging are more on my mind now than they were back then. I'm also fascinated by the profound re-conception of "retirement" that is going on today. Yet even those creative reinventions of retirement usually view retirement as a change rather than as a transition.
But that is partly my own fault. I don't think I made the change/transition distinction clear enough in the first edition. Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn't. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made.
In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won't work, because it doesn't "take." Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. Unfortunately for us, it is the transition that blind-sides us and is often the source of our troubles.
It is, thus, no accident that people imagine that they can prepare for, say, retirement by making adequate financial preparations, choosing a good place to live, and developing some new "interests." In those articles about retirement, you don't find anything about going through that three-phase transition process that this book deals with—or how little getting all set for the change prepares you for the transition.
Some other societies have paid much more attention to transition than we have, and in doing so they prepared people much more effectively for the experience of being in transition than our society has prepared us. Those societies typically had rituals (we call them "rites of passage") to help individuals let go of their outlived life-chapter and find a new one to replace it. They also had transition-punctuated concepts of the lifetime which prepared people to expect transitions to come along to come along at certain times. Lacking such concepts, we are like people with no idea of the year's natural seasons. We notice that it gets colder and warmer, wetter and dryer, but we chalk that up to the daily ebb and flow of "weather." We miss the larger picture.
The seasonal analogy suggests another way that traditional societies taught people about transition. Most of those societies had fairly elaborate seasonal rituals to mark the point where the days stopped growing longer and started getting shorter, or the point where one year stopped and the next year started. Oh, we have New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, but those are little more than occasions for a party or a day in front of football games on TV. Our New Years' celebrations do not give us a real experience of the world dying and being reborn.
Other societies, in short, regularly and repeatedly dramatized the transition process, which was the way that how-the-way-thingshad-been ended in a kind of death, and a new way-things-are-goingto-be took its place through a sort of birth. Through those dramatizations, people grew familiar with transition and learned how to handle it. You can wish that we had such rituals and celebrations, but we do not. We are going to have to learn to do individually and consciously for ourselves what once was done for people automatically and collectively by their society.
At the time I first published this book, I entertained the fantasy that I might someday launch a whole new profession. I even had a name for it: maieutics. Derived from the Greek word for "midwife," maieutics (as I imagined it) was the name for the assistance that a professional could provide people who were struggling with the death-and-rebirth process of transition. As it turned out, there were hundreds of thousands of people out there who were trying to make sense out of transition, but far fewer that wanted to be in the business of facilitating death and rebirth. ("Death and rebirth? Isn't that a little . . . uhh . . . drastic? Don't you have just some techniques for changing careers—or going through a divorce, or turning forty, or . . . whatever? Maybe a How-To manual?")
So the new profession did not emerge; but I went through the transition I was then in—the one that had led to the writing of this book in the first place. And I did build a new career for myself as someone who helped individuals and organizations handle the personal side of change (called transition) so that it is less distressing and disruptive and more productive. My own transition back in the seventies was the point at which I re-created myself. Your own transition (the reason you decided to look into this book, remember?) can do the same for you.
I wish you well on your journey.

The nine cities of Troy, each built on the ruins of its predecessor, were accumulated over millennia, from the Stone Age till Roman times. Pompeii was buried by volcanic eruption. . . . The Old World thus had its ghost towns, but more often than not they were buried and men built on the rubble of their ancestors' disappointed hopes. In America the archaeology of fast-moving men on a nearly empty continent was spread plain and thin on the surface. Its peculiar product was the abandoned place (the "ghost town") rather than the buried place. Its characteristic relics were things left by choice before they were used up.
The Americans: The National Experience1
AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN IN TRANSITION. Whereas Old World families trace themselves back to a place, New World families originate in an act of migration. Nor did the transition from an old life to a new one end when the immigrants arrived on these shores. From place to place and job to job, Americans kept moving. Drawn forward by the faith that better things lay just beyond the horizon, they lived a life marked by frequent transitions. European visitors often noted this and marveled that Americans seemed to thrive on it. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French student of American life, mentioned the trait in his diary:
Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more, he loves it; for the instability, instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.2
That, at least, was one half of the American story—the outer, the "official" half. Inwardly, this experience of being in transition was not so comfortable. Like old Rip van Winkle, countless Americans "woke up" to the impact of change on them at some point in their lives. Old Rip, you remember, had been put under a spell, so he had an excuse. But for those who had been seeking transitions as a pathway to self-advancement, the experience was puzzling. When he was fifty, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most famous American writer of his day, went back for a visit to his hometown of Portland, Maine. While there, he wrote a poem called "Changed"; here are the opening stanzas:
From the outskirts of the town,
Where of old the mile-stone stood,
Now a stranger, looking down,
I behold the shadowy crown
Of the dark and haunted wood.
It is changed, or am I changed?
Ah! The oaks are fresh and green,
But the friends with whom I ranged
Through their thickets are estranged
By the years that intervene.3
In the century and a half since that poem was written, the pace of change in American life has speeded up greatly. As Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, "Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it."4 (That statement, being thirty-five years old, is presumably also out of date!)
But it is not just the pace of change that leaves us disorientated. Many Americans have lost faith that the transitions they are going through are really getting them somewhere. To feel as though everything is "up in the air," as one so often does during times of personal transition, is endurable if it means something—if it is part of a movement toward a desired end. But if it is not related to some larger and beneficial pattern, it simply becomes distressing.
Moreover, the experience of being in transition is itself changing. Being in between marriages or careers takes on a particularly painful quality when those things are changing profoundly. It is as if we launched out from a riverside dock to cross to a landing on the opposite shore—only to discover in midstream that the landing was no longer there. (And when we looked back at the other shore, we saw that the dock we had left from had broken loose and was heading downstream.) Stuck in transition between situations, relationships, and identities that are also in transition, many Americans are caught in a semipermanent condition of transitionality.
One might imagine that writers and counselors would have addressed themselves to this situation long ago. But that is not so. If you go to the library and look up transition in the subject index, you will probably find that the headings skip from transit systems to translation—nothing on transition. Of course, there are entries under divorce, bereavement, and careers, changing; and a good deal is available on important specific life changes, but nothing on the inner and underlying process of transition itself.
It is true that back during the decade before Transition first appeared, a crop of books on adulthood had been published that at least justified the difficulties we experienced as "Catch-30" or the "Mid-Life Crisis." But such books were based on idealized life schedules that hung off us like one-size-fits-all clothes, so they did little to clarify the actual experience of being in the midst of transition.
The subject of this book is the difficult process of letting go of an old situation, of suffering the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness, and of launching forth again in a new situation. Because those three phases are going to be so critical to what we are discussing, let me reiterate: All transitions are composed of (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning. Drawing on modern research into adult development, I'll give you some useful ways of thinking about why transition occurs when it does. Recognizing that every lifetime has its own unique rhythm, Transitions provides the tools for identifying a personal developmental chronology. Cutting through the particulars of specific changes, the book identifies transition's characteristic impact on work and relationships. Finally, it provides concrete ways for people to help themselves deal constructively with times of transition.
Transitions is not simply a manual on how to cope; rather, it is based on a theory of personal development that views transition as the natural process of disorientation and reorientation marking the turning points in the path of growth. Throughout nature, growth involves periodic accelerations and transformations: Things go slowly for a time and nothing seems to happen—until suddenly the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole's tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins. With us it is the same. Although the signs are less clear than in the world of feather and leaf, the functions of transition times are the same. They are key times in the natural process of development and self-renewal. Without an understanding of such natural times of transition, we are left impossibly hoping that change will bypass us and let us go on with our lives as before. If we have learned one thing since Transitions was originally published, it is that change will happen—that change is the norm now, and somehow or other we will need to develop ways of dealing productively with it.

Being In Transition
"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar. . . .
"I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present," Alice replied rather shyly, "at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then."
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland1
I BECAME INTERESTED IN THE SUBJECT OF TRANSITION around 1970 when I was going through some difficult inner and outer changes. Although I gave up my teaching career because of those changes, I found myself teaching a seminar called "Being in Transition." (Rule number one: When you're in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.) The twenty-five adults who showed up for that course were in various states of confusion and crisis, and I was a bit at sea myself. I had, after all, left my career and moved my family to the country, where we joined several other families and formed a small community. I had set out to change my lifestyle.
I had imagined, I think, that the seminar would attract mostly other exurbanites and that together we could puzzle out this difficult transition. A few of these new country folk were in the class, but the mix was far richer than that. There were men and women who had recently divorced or separated. There were a couple of newlyweds as well as some people who had remarried, one a twenty-six-year-old man who had suddenly acquired four children. There was a widow and several recently retired men. There was the wife of a retired man (who didn't attend the seminar because his health had worsened a few weeks after his retirement).
There was a woman who had just given birth to her first baby; a man who had just had a heart attack; and even a man who had recently received a big promotion at work. ("What is he doing here?" the others asked resentfully. "He doesn't have problems.") There were three or four women who had just returned to college after years of raising children. There were two people who had just been fired. And there was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time. She was appalled to find that the rest of us, her elders, didn't have our lives in better shape. "It's OK to be messing around when you're twenty-three," she said, "but I plan to get it all together by the time I'm your age." (We all nodded sheepishly and admitted that we had planned it that way, too.)
At first, the seminar members were shy with each other and took refuge in the claim that they did not really have much in common. ("You still have your job." "Well, you're luckier. You still have your marriage.") But slowly they began to discover that, under the surface, their situations challenged them to deal with the same basic experience. As we listed them on the board the first night, the three main similarities seemed to be that we had all experienced (1) an ending, followed by (2) a period of confusion and distress, leading to (3) a new beginning, for those who had come that far.
Each person's attitude toward what we began talking about as the three phases of transition differed considerably, of course. Those who had chosen to make the changes that had put them into transition tended to minimize the importance of endings; it was almost as if the act of acknowledging an ending as painful was an admission that the change triggering the transition had been a mistake. On the other hand, those who had gone into transition unwillingly or unwittingly found it very hard to admit that a new beginning and a new phase of their lives might be at hand. They were as invested in seeing no good in their transition as the other group was in denying distress. But they all agreed that the in-between place was strange and confusing. They hoped to get out of it, in favor of either the Good Old Days or the Brave New World, as quickly as possible.
We decided to study these three phases of transition, and I announced that endings would be the topic of the seminar's second session. This dismayed the new mother. "I'm not sending him off to college," she said, "just trying to get used to having him." She was trying to cope with beginnings, not endings. He was, of course, a wonderful little baby (she repeated that several times), but she was having some small problems. How much should she let him cry, she asked her classmates, and how could she persuade her husband to help more?
In seconds, the air was thick with advice and we were drifting away from endings fast. Interestingly, though, our advice was of little use because she had heard it all before—had even read most of it before the baby arrived. This upset her and she grew angry, first with her husband, and then with her mother, who hadn't told her what mothering was really like, and then with the baby, and finally with us for "sitting there and nodding and acting sympathetic, when you don't give a damn if I'm falling apart—and I am falling apart!"
It was clear that we had come a long way from that wonderful little baby that she needed a tiny bit of advice about. But we also seemed to be getting somewhere, for in the next few minutes she talked very movingly about her life and her desire for children. She and her husband had been married for two years before she became pregnant, and they had been very happy together. Both of them had wanted children, but each of them was startled to find a fussy new infant so intrusive and demanding. "We aren't alone together any more," she said sadly, after her anger had passed. "I really do love the baby, but the old freedom and easiness are gone. We can't take off any longer whenever we please, or even live by our own schedules. I feel like it isn't even my own life I'm living."
This woman, who had wanted us to forget endings and get on to beginnings, was being confronted with the impact of several endings in her life. The problems that we hadn't been able to solve for her proved to be less important than she had first claimed, for no matter what happened to them, the underlying situation would remain. "I never thought of it this way," she said, "but now it seems to me that I've crossed some kind of threshold and there's no going back. My old life has gone. How come nobody talks about that? They congratulate you on your new life, but I have to mourn the old life alone."
In fact, this wasn't so. For as soon as she had put her predicament into words, half a dozen people echoed her experience and gave their versions of it. So why was it so difficult to talk about? For some people, it was the shame they felt for being sad or angry about a supposedly "good thing"; for others, it was remorse over lost opportunities. And for still others, it was simply the confusion and embarrassment over not being able to manage an ordinary life experience smoothly—something they imagined that others did easily. For all these reasons, they found it hard to talk about the unexpected impact of an ending in their lives—and the way in which that unacknowledged ending impeded their ability to move toward a new beginning.
And thus we came to rule number two: Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new one—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to people and places that act as definitions of who we are. There we are, living in a new town, but our heads are full of all the old trivia: where the Chinese restaurant was (and when it opened in the evening), what Bob's phone number was, what shoe store stocked the children's sizes, and when the doctor took his day off. No wonder those tribal rites of passage in which the group facilitates a person's transition from one life phase to the next often contain rituals for clearing the mind of old memories and information.2
We usually fail to discover our need for an ending until we have made most of our necessary external changes. There we are, in the new house or on the new job or involved in a new relationship, waking up to find that we have not yet let go of our old ties. Or, worse yet, not waking up to that fact, even though we are still moving to the inner rhythm of life back in the old situation. We're like shellfish that continue to open and close their shells on the tide schedule of their home waters after they have been transplanted to a laboratory tank or the restaurant kitchen.
Why is letting go so difficult? This is a puzzling question, especially if we have been looking forward to a change. It is frightening to discover that some part of us is still holding on to what we used to be, for it makes us wonder whether the change was a bad idea. Can it be that the old thing was somehow (and in spite of everything we thought we knew) right for us and the new thing wrong?
These questions arise particularly when a person's life situation is not an especially happy one. The full-time mother who finally decides to break the narrow bounds of housecleaning and carpooling by taking a part-time job, or the bored office worker who gets a chance to join the staff of a newly formed company—these people hardly expect to find the old roles difficult to shed. And the person who has been estranged from parents or siblings for years won't expect to be profoundly shaken by their deaths. How can we feel a "loss" when we marry after years of loneliness or receive an inheritance after struggling to make ends meet or achieve fame after a career spent trying to make it?
The old radio comedian, Bob Burns ("The Arkansas Traveler"), used to tell the story of eating army food for the first time after eighteen years of his mother's deep-fat frying. A week of bland GI fare was enough to cure something he had never realized he suffered from: heartburn. But rather than feeling relief at his improvement, Burns rushed into the dispensary, clutching his stomach and yelling, "Doc, doc! Help me! I'm dying. My fire went out!"
We feel these unexpected losses because, to an extent that we seldom realize, we come to identify ourselves with the circumstances of our lives. Who we think we are is partly defined by our roles and relationships, those we like as well as those we don't. But the bonds go deeper even than that. Our whole way of being—the personal style that makes you recognizably "you" and me "me"—is developed within and adjusted to fit a given life pattern. The very complaining that we do is part of that style. To hear Marge talk about Jack's inattentiveness, or to hear Jack talk about never really being given a chance to show his stuff at work, you would think they would jump at the chance to change. But then Jack brings home flowers, and Marge says, "What's wrong? I know that something's wrong!" And Jack is given an important assignment of his own and finally has the chance to get the attention that he has sought for so long, and he finds several things wrong with the deal.
Jack may say to Marge (or the boss may say to Jack), "See, you really don't want to change. You like to gripe, but when you get the chance, you mess it up or chicken out." And that is half true—but only half. For the wanting is true, too, and the desire for change is also really true. Transitional situations bring this paradox to the surface and force us to look at negative and positive aspects of our life situations.


On Sale
Dec 17, 2019
Page Count
224 pages

William Bridges

About the Author

William Bridges, PhD (1933-2013) was a preeminent authority on change and transition whose pioneering research provided a methodology and common language to guide organizations and individuals during the significant transitions that accompany a major change. As the founder of William Bridges Associates and a globally recognized speaker, author, and consultant, he advised individuals and organizations on how to deal productively with change. He was the author of ten books, including the bestselling Managing Transitions, Transitions, and The Way of Transition. With the publication of his groundbreaking book JobShift in 1994, William accurately predicted the explosive growth of self-employment, helping people understand how to prepare for a world in which secure jobs would be increasingly scarce. He later published Creating You & Co., which guides individuals on how to take charge of their career while navigating this new world of work. William received degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and Brown Universities, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pragmatic philosophy heavily influenced his teachings.
Susan Bridges is the president of William Bridges Associates and has spent thirty-five years advising executives and leaders in organizations facing significant transitions. She updated and revised the 40th anniversary edition of Transitions and the 25th anniversary edition of Managing Transitions. Susan holds a BA in Speech and MA in Communications, with an emphasis in Neurolinguistics and Neuropsychology, from the University of Colorado. She has served as a Drucker Foundation Mentor, guiding the business leaders of tomorrow. As a former board member for the Institute of Management Consultants, she developed the first nation-wide mentoring and professional development program for management consultants. She lives in Marin County, CA.

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