January 12, 2013

When in Transition, Think Like a Trapeze Artist

“I’d like this to be a smooth transition.”  If you’ve ever been fired, you’ve likely heard a version of this oxy-moronic phrase.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.”  But when one has just plunged into the abyss of a transition which often occurs when we decide to  go all-in to pursue our passion, beauty as a descriptor isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

In music, a transition is defined as a moment of modulation, a passing from one key to the next. In physics, it’s described as a change that results in the change of physical properties such as a phase transition (ice to water to steam). When we write an essay, it’s the sentence or passage that connects one topic to the next.  More generally, trans means “a going across.”

Jill Bowman, formerly a trial lawyer, experienced “a going across” moment.  She was working as an intellectual property litigation attorney for a large firm in Chicago when a pregnancy with twins caused her heart to fail.  After fifteen years of infertility, the twin pregnancy was an unexpected surprise.  Heart failure because of the pregnancy was an even bigger shock.  The toll on her legal career was even more unexpected. She eventually survived without a heart transplant, but she needed a career transplant.  Which led her to, for a time, work with start-up companies to avoid liability and protect their intellectual property.

Or consider the “going across” moment of Rebecca Jackson, a British-born former investment banker living in Brooklyn.  As a banker, she was able to base her self-esteem on external validation.  Yet she was miserable:  the powerful external validation she was receiving did not translate to internal valuation.  In 2011, finding herself experiencing jaw aches, heart palpitations and frequent tears, it was time for her to re-imagine who Rebecca is.  Changing her moniker from “banker” to “Rebecca” has been anything but clean and tidy.  If she were to include this transitional stint on her resume, she only slightly-tongue-in-cheek, would describe herself as “professional spaghetti thrower.”

Whether we are transplanting or transacting (exchanging the old for a re-imagined self, the self that is passionate about the future), the classic S-curve can help us navigate our transition.  As we start something new, or look to develop competence within a new domain of expertise, it’s been mathematically proven that initially progress is slow. But through deliberate practice, we gain traction, eventually propelling ourselves into a sweet spot of accelerating competence and confidence. Then, as we approach mastery, and the more habitual what we are doing becomes, the less our brains produce the “feel good” neurotransmitters involved with learning.

As our learning curve peaks, if we fail to jump to a new curve, we may actually precipitate our own decline.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a financial downfall, but our passion for what we were learning may take a hit.  Note, for example, that Rebecca Jackson knew she needed to make the jump, but it wasn’t until her physical well being waned, that she began to count the cost of not jumping.  Saul Kaplan, Chief Catalyst at Business Innovation Factory, shares: “My life has been about searching for the steep learning curve because that’s where I do my best work. When I do my best work, money and stature have always followed.”

Like a trapeze artist, there is sure to be a moment of mid-air terror as we bridge to our new self, terror which may include status-undermining stints as professional spaghetti thrower or underemployed IP expert.  Ironically, we are far less likely to experience a face-palming splat during a transition if we fling ourselves onto the next curve.  Remember too, that while we may think we crave the predictability of nary a transition or modulation to a new key of life, our brain requires the dopamine of the unpredictable.  It may well be that in the seeming terrible moment of transition as we leap to our passionate self, there is just enough—space, for us to discover who we really are.

P.S.  Thanks to author Annie Bourne for conversation in which she shared the metaphor of a trapeze artist.

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