For many, January is a time of reflection, forward-looking, and the choice to create change.
Newness is fun…
Can we agree that fully implementing New is hard?
Whether you’re a resolution-setter or not, you will have times of transition: sometimes it’s an intentional choice, sometimes it’s an unexpected adaptation. Sometimes it’s as small as becoming someone who flosses every day; sometimes it’s as big as a fundamental growth of character.
Regardless, Transitions-Into-New are often more disruptive than we give them credit for.
If it’s a serious change you seek (not just something that will last a few weeks or days), then it can help to understand what’s really involved in implementing personal change — so that when each barrier comes, you know how to meet it.
What Is A Transition Point?
First, let’s get our definition set.
What really is happening when you decide to make a change?
Transitions happen when you’re looking ahead at where you’re going, at who you’re becoming. It’s being in one place and seeing a new place that you’re reaching for, and determining to actually reach for it.
Transitions can bring up any or all of the following:
- (and more)
It’s a really complex situation.
We often underestimate this complexity because it seems like it’s one small thing: I’m here, and I want to go there. Simple.
But stepping into the new is anything but simple.
What Your Brain Thinks About New
“New” is simultaneously…
- the potential discovery of untold treasure
- potentially deadly
New is unfamiliar.
Unfamiliar means that you don’t know where the death traps are and where the treasure is hidden.
When you’re in a new place, it’s like you’ve been dropped in a completely alien territory. You’re like a prey animal in unfamiliar space (it’s the same biological circuits that are triggered). Your first instinct, naturally (and rightly), is to freeze and hide so that you’re not overtaken by any of the potential dangers.
Once you’ve found yourself a little hiding spot, if all is quiet and ok, then you peak your head around the corner.
You begin to take in the landscape, to scope things out.
As you slowly familiarize yourself with the new space, you learn where the dangers are and where the gold is. It’s a slow process initially (especially if the territory is vast or if it’s very unfamiliar)… but once you get going — once you’ve gained a threshold of familiarity — that momentum propels you forward.
Transition Points For You, Today
When it’s still new though, you don’t have the familiarity of the old. Nor do you have the momentum of the familiar. You’re in transition.
Sometimes transition is a response to something that’s happened to you (a reaction to an unexpected event); sometimes it’s a new (proactive) choice you’re making. Regardless, it’s something new and different that you’re reaching for (but don’t yet have).
There are two key things — two big stumbling blocks — that are often involved when you find yourself in this position:
- the passing of the old
- the entrance of the new
Letting Go of Yesterday
Running back to yesterday is an easy retreat from the discomfort of today’s New.
Yesterday is familiar. We know where the treasure was to be found in yesterday’s landscape. There’s something comfortable about what we had yesterday (even if yesterday was also very dysfunctional — at least we knew and understood those dysfunctions).
There also might be things that you really like about yesterday. Yesterday might have been awesome, making it even harder to let it go in order to step into today…
But what you don’t want is to find yourself “moving forward” while holding onto a weight that no longer exists. Without properly releasing yesterday, you may wind up holding onto something that’s actually dead and gone.
Yesterday is now dead weight — a carcass that no longer contains any life in it — because life only inhabits the present.
There are two key levers that can help whenever you’re having a hard time letting go of whatever yesterday held…
#1 Processing the Death
I recently learned the Frosty the Snowman story was created in order to teach kids about death.
Dealing with death is something the West isn’t great at…
I think that’s true not only literally, with the death of our loved ones or our own death, but also with the way in which we handle the death of things past — especially good things.
If it was awesome, how can you celebrate it? Do you need to take a moment to mourn its passing? What kind of pause is needed in order to process through what’s been? Most importantly, what do you need to do for yourself to help yourself recognize that it is no longer?
In moving on, you have permission to give the death of the old its proper due.
To state the thing that’s dead, to give it a moment’s total focus. To acknowledge exactly how you feel about it, honestly.
Something that I’ve seen a few different people talk about is a process of eulogizing whatever you’re leaving behind. They’ll literally write out a eulogy for whatever is no more. They’ll take the time to say goodbye to it, to thank it for its gifts, and to let it know where they’re going next and why. They explain to it their bittersweet pain in letting it go.
If you’re familiar with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it’s a similar idea to the one she talks about. It’s about bringing your full self to the moment as you consciously put the old thing to bed in a way that honors and doesn’t make light of your past life.
It may sound like a lot of hullaballoo for a small thing, but keep in mind our earlier point: new things often seem simple… when in reality they’re anything but simple. A lot of hullaballoo might be what’s necessary to actually make a change that sticks.
#2 Choose to Look Up
Once you’ve opened your hands and released that thing, be careful that you don’t fall into darkness.
You may not immediately find a new life — a new thing — that invigorates in exactly the same way. You still have to go through the process of transition, and that’s (unfortunately) not always speedy. But it starts with taking a deep breath, opening your eyes, and looking up and out with optimism, hope, and intrigue at the new and unfamiliar world in front of you, and choosing to maintain that position…
When you feel yourself looking back over your shoulder again, check yourself, and look up instead.
Navigating The New
As the old passes, there’s also the entrance of the new to deal with.
Before the tangible steps of preparation and implementation become relevant, there’s a psychological preparation to go through…
This step may be more natural for you and your current situation, or it may be overwhelming. In either case, there are two key levers here as well:
#1 Embrace Whatever Thrill & Curiosity You Can Find
While terrifying, the unknown also carries with it the thrill of an unknown magnitude of positive potential.
Lean into that.
The potential for really good things to come of this is real.
If excitement isn’t available in this moment, then what about curiosity? Is there some small element of whatever’s in front of you that sparks a flicker of interest?
Lean into that. (This is the birthplace of passion.)
#2 Pay Attention
Embracing thrill & curiosity has to do with the positive element of the Unknown.
Paying attention has to do with the negative element of the Unknown.
That-which-is-unknown always presents both positive and negative potential.
Paying attention means staying alert. It means not assuming that you’ve already got it figured out.
When you pay attention, you’re likely to feel more stimulated — maybe more jumpy. More sensitive to the danger.
That’s actually good — just remember at the same time to continue to lean into the excitement and curiosity of the positive potential in front of you too.
Use your alertness to recognize real problems before they take you out…
But whenever you feel that alertness keeping you frozen in place, return to the first lever so that you can keep moving forward.
This is the yin-yang, the constant negotiation that will get you through the initial stages of exploring and finding your way into the New Unknown.
The 3rd Pillar
I mentioned that there are two things involved in the process of a transition (letting go of the old + stepping into the new) — but there’s also a third, mediating factor: the return to the old.
I know, it might sound tedious, but it’s important…
Making a transition is not only about leaving behind the past and walking into the new — it also matters whether you effectively integrate the good from the past — the wisdom from the past — into your new situation.
This is what distinguishes your current position from the position of a child.
At a societal level, this is where we “stand on the shoulders” of those who came before.
At a personal level, this is where you don’t just throw things from the past out the window but instead you learn and allow yourself to expand to include the full reality of everything that’s behind. You don’t dwell in the past, but you do use what’s already been walked through to improve — to make more robust — the way in which you step into the new.
Two more levers help with this…
#1 Seek Out The Good
What lessons have been learned?
What tragedies have been overcome?
What nuggets of gold have been discovered?
What positive but failed pursuits or attempts of the past might be redeemed?
The past — your past — is not all-one-thing. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all good. It was an attempt to live in the best way possible by imperfect humanity operating on incomplete information under the pressure of high stakes. (And, spoiler alert, that’s what your future is, too.)
There were real problems that were solved, albeit imperfectly solved.
There were real lessons learned, even though there are more lessons to learn.
There were legitimate failures and selfish choices; blind spots, ignorance, and cruelty.
And there were nuggets of beauty.
Seek them out.
While there’s no need to be naive about the bad, you’ll reinforce what you dwell on. (And the reality is that it wasn’t all-bad anyway.)
Seek out and recognize the good wherever you can find it. Give true appreciation to any progress made, despite all else.
Life will always contain darkness. But light exists too, and we can find it any time if we’ll only flick the on-switch.
#2 Banish Your Own Dismissiveness
The practice of duck-and-cover during the Cold War is often laughed at by people today. How could anyone be so clueless as to think that hiding under a desk would protect you from a nuclear explosion, we ask. But as usual, we don’t know the full context, and the leaders who implemented this practice knew more about what they were doing than we credit them for…
When a nuclear bomb goes off, everyone within a certain radius is just dead, period.
But beyond a certain proximity to the bomb, there’s a mid-range radius where a nuclear explosion won’t cause instant death — but it will cause tons of damage and flying debris. It’s for the people in this mid-range that the practice of duck-and-cover was meant to protect. For these people, duck-and-cover could be the difference between life and death, between safety and a life-altering injury.
In the same way that we can dismiss the (misunderstood) actions of others, we can also dismiss our own mistakes and past actions as “terrible, stupid, or unforgivable.”
A mistake is a mistake, and weakness is weakness. But is it possible too that there was more going on?
Be careful about hand-waving the past as though it were nothing, or as though it should have been easy, or as though success should have been inevitable. Getting things right isn’t inevitable, and it’s not inconsequential when it happens. Life is really hard, and the fact that anyone does anything good or gets anything right ever is something of a miracle. It’s ok to appreciate it as such.
Keep reaching for those positive outcomes — they’re within reach — but the thing that makes them within reach is the choice to carry appreciation for the failed attempts at reaching them.
And be careful about the assumptions you make. Be careful about being dismissive toward past mistakes. Don’t dismiss anything you see as ridiculous. You may not understand the whole picture in the way you think you do — your brain may have had you working through questions that are not obvious from your current perspective.
Instead, seek to understand what was happening.
Because that was yesterday. It’s gone, but it can be used to sharpen today.
These three processes — leaving behind the old, stepping into the new, and re-integrating the old — together constitute the path of a full transition.
When we look at it this way, it’s easier to recognize why we so often fail to adopt (and fully inhabit) the transitions we want to make. While we might be embracing part of the process, there’s likely another part we’re skipping over.
What To Do About It…
Take some time to view your situation through this distillation. Pick one thing you’ve tried to change or pursue, and analyze it through these three stages.
As you review your situation, watch for these common mistakes:
🚩 Error #1: Underestimating the difficulty
New places, no matter how small, are terrifying.
An unfamiliar landscape makes your brain leap into freeze-and-hide mode.
That’s natural, and that red alert is important to help you transition well. When underestimated, however, you might find yourself surprised and prematurely discouraged.
🚩 Error #2: Trying to hold onto the past
Good, bad, or ugly, you’ve grown accustomed to certain things.
Nostalgia is powerful.
What good or bad things of the past have you not yet released? What deaths do you need to give some attention to in order to process through it more fully?
Are you looking up? Have you set your sights on anything new — any new possibilities or curiosities?
🚩 Error #3: Radical newness (underappreciation of the past)
The past wasn’t all-bad, and any good that came of it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Whatever dysfunctions came along with everything that’s behind you, how can you acknowledge and give appreciation to the (real) progress of the (imperfect) past?
Change is hard. New things are hard. Finding your way through it — not just up to the looking-glass then back to the comfortable same-old — is no small feat.
But it is available. (And it can be both exhilarating and gratifying.)
If it’s something that’s important to you, don’t give up.
Just understand that there’s a battle to be fought — it won’t be handed to you without demanding a price. There’s a journey to engage with and sacrifices to be made.
But if you decide that it’s worth the price, then pay it, and then you’ll get to watch the process unfold and blossom. 🌱
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
To receive the next publication, sign up below: