The Meaning of Life: Transitioning

Once you’ve defined your purpose and identified some goals and projects based on that purpose, most likely you’ll find that you’ll have to move in a very different direction. You may have been trekking down your current path for years, and now you’ve set a whole new direction. It’s possible that almost every part of your life will have to change — your health habits, social relationships, work/career, and even your spiritual practices.

Having gone through such a transition myself multiple times (usually by conscious decision), I have some advice to share about making such a transition you may find helpful.

Shifting Gears

Clarity is greatly reduced whenever you turn a corner in life, so the first thing you can expect when you change directions is that you’ll experience a tremendous lack of clarity. Imagine you’re driving a car through a busy downtown area. You may be able to clearly see the road for many blocks ahead of you. But if you’re about to make a turn, you may not be able to see more than a few yards around the corner as you approach it. Your view is blocked by obstacles, and if it’s a road you’ve never been down before, you won’t quite know what to expect. However, once you’ve completed most of the turn, you will again be able to see very far down the road in your new direction.

Life is much the same way. Your ability to see what lies ahead will be very limited as you shift directions, but as you complete the turn, clarity will once again return.

I experienced this when I shifted my career last year from full-time software publishing to full-time writing and speaking. Before I committed to the transition, I had only a fuzzy notion of what the new career would be like. No matter how much planning I did, it was still fuzzy — there were simply too many variables I couldn’t predict. I was out of my element. As I began to transition, almost every week I had to rethink my plans — long-term planning was impossible because I was constantly learning new things that would corrupt my old plans. I had to live one day at a time through much of it. But after a few months, I was able to get my bearings and could see the road ahead of me very clearly. Then I was able to again set long-term goals with confidence.

Take Your Time

When you make a big transition in your life, take your time. You don’t have to change every area of your life simultaneously within the next 30 days. Changing too many things at once can be stressful, so take steps to manage the stress by keeping some parts of your life stable as you change others. If you turn a corner too fast, you’ll flip your car or spin out of control. But even if you take the turn gradually, you’ll still feel a force pulling you to the side. You have to maintain your grip on the wheel and keep control as you change directions. Once you’ve completed the turn, then you can relax and loosen up a bit — your new momentum will carry you forward.

During the past two years, my wife and I had a second child, we moved our family and businesses from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (with all the side-effects of moving to a new state), I began a whole new career, and we bought a new house earlier this year. My local social circle has changed completely — most of the people I spend the most time with now are people I didn’t even know two years ago. And then there’s all the personal development work I did, which caused me to experience many personal changes during this time, including changes in long-term habits.

This was a lot of change, and if we tried to do it all at once, it would have been overwhelming. But by splitting it up and spreading it out over many months, it became manageable. After our son was born and while we moved to Vegas, we kept our careers and incomes stable. Then we took a few months to get settled into our new city (new preschool for our daughter, exploring the city). Once we had a stable routine going, then I began building new skills and developing a local social network, and a few months later, I made the career switch full-time. During that time my wife kept her career and income stable, while mine was unstable. Now over the next year my work and my income are likely to change even more, so I’m keeping the other parts of my life relatively stable.

Usually I’m operating outside my comfort zone in at least one area of my life (but not all areas), and I find that the more I do this, the more simultaneous change I’m able to tolerate.

Preparing Your Environment for Change

One easy step you can take in beginning your transition is to prepare your environment to help reinforce your new goals. Most likely your environment reflects your current identity, so if you want to change your identity, you can start by changing your environment. For example, one of the first things I did when transitioning from software to speaking was to reorganize my office. I asked myself, “What kind of office would a professional speaker/writer have, and how would it be different from that of a software developer?” I made a list of changes and then implemented them quickly. I removed all my game programming books, packed up my shareware awards, packed up all the games, etc. I reorganized my filing cabinet with empty file folders for future speeches and cleared some shelf space for new books. This created a void to be filled with the trappings of my new career.

I did this clearing process about a year ago, and now that void is filled. My files are full of past speeches and reference material. My bookshelf holds new books on speaking, writing, and personal development. I have a shelf with a half-dozen speech contest trophies and plaques. So every time I walk into my office, it reinforces my identity as a speaker/writer.

I’ve written more about this in Environmental Reinforcement of Your Goals.

Dealing With Social Resistance

Aside from the things in your environment, you also have to deal with the people. Many readers have told me that social resistance is a big problem for them. They make a plan to change their lives, and then their friends or family talk them out of it.

You need to trust your own judgment more than the opinions of others. Even if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll learn more about yourself in the process and will be able to make better decisions in the future.

Many people fear change, and your attempt to change your life for the better is perceived as a threat. Ask yourself which of your friends will be able to handle the new you once you’ve completed the transition? Will you still be able to be friends after the change? Close, genuine friendships can handle such a transition. But many casual friendships and associations cannot.

The same goes for other relationships. Many relationships do not survive such a change. But what kind of relationship did you have anyway if making a change to better your life results in a breakup? It just means the relationship was based on something impermanent. You’re better off making the change and seeing if your relationship is strong enough to handle it than using the relationship as an excuse for staying put. A good relationship should help you grow, not hold you back, and there’s nothing wrong with temporary relationships. A breakup is not the end of the world. People do it every day and live to talk about it.

When I transitioned to building a personal development business, a lot of casual friendships were broken. It’s probably no surprise that many people in the gaming industry don’t respect the field of personal development, even though they often invest enormous time in improving their technical skills (which I see as a form of personal development). Such people reacted to my change as if it was a personal affront. I expected this though, so it didn’t slow me down. I went through the same thing when I first started my games business.

When you make a big change in your life, you can expect social resistance regardless of the nature of the change. Social resistance is ubiquitous– don’t take it as a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. Use your own intelligence to figure out if you’re on the right path. No matter how right your decision is, there will be people to tell you you’re wrong and that you’re making a big mistake. Just allow those people to be upset, and be on your merry way. Don’t take it personally. Most of all, don’t argue with them — you’re just wasting your breath. Focus on taking action, and let them adjust if they can.

I believe the best way to confront social resistance is by counteracting it with social harmony. Get involved with a new social group that will mitigate the effects of your old group. Develop new friendships in harmony with your new self-image. I recommend you do this as early as possible, before you break off any old relationships that can’t handle the transition. Start spending more time with your new reference group than your old one. Your new group will help pull you in the direction you want to go, which will automatically loosen the bonds with your old group. You’ll naturally enjoy spending more time with people who are encouraging you and less time with those who are discouraging you.

For me this involved joining Toastmasters, which is an organization devoted to personal growth, communication, and leadership skills. Over a period of several months, I built a new social circle starting with a single Toastmasters club and gradually branching outward, and my old reference group gradually faded as I spent less and less time in their midst.

A few old friendships were able to endure this transition with me. Some people that knew me for years as a game developer were able to accept my new identity, so we still keep in touch, but the nature of these friendships has changed. I think the best friendships are those that can stand the test of time, where the friendship is based more on who you are than on what you do or what you have.

For Deep Space Nine fans, say you’re friends with Curzon Dax. Could you still be friends with Jadzia or Ezri? It depends on the nature of the friendship.

I’ve written more about this in Are Your Friends an Elevator or a Cage?

When you consciously undergo a major life transition, be patient with yourself. When you meet with environmental or social resistance, take steps to reduce or minimize the resistance instead of struggling against it. Expect that clarity will be reduced as you turn the corner, but know that it will return as you’re speeding off in a new direction. Managing a major life transition is a lot of work, but you’ll come out the other side in a much better position. The long-term gain is well-worth the short-term pain.

This post is part five of a six-part series on the meaning of life: