Book: The Way of Transition

In March, I got a book I enjoyed a lot, The Way of Transition by William Bridges. He said a lot of things I would say about life and changes.

He talks about the difference between change and transition. A person may have changes in their lives but that doesn’t mean they go through a transition. It’s the transition that makes the difference, and if a person is ready, a fairly small change can have a huge effect on them. So there may be lots of changes in a workplace, for example, and none of them bother a person who’s prepared to stay where they are. But for a person who’s ready to undergo a transition, a minor change at work may be enough to make them quit or ask for a raise or get training for a new job. He talks about how people may get divorced, which is a change, but not go through a transition, so they get married again but they haven’t changed at all inside, so the second marriage may end up exactly the same as the first one. Where a person who goes through a transition may stay in the same marriage, but their own internal shifts mean they handle things differently so a marriage that wasn’t working starts to work again. Or a marriage that was working suddenly stops being tolerable, because the person has shifted so much internally. The external change isn’t the catalyst unless the person is ready for change internally.

A transition begins with the ending of something: a marriage, a job, a phase of life. Then there’s a period of confusion or nothingness, of not knowing your way. He calls this “the neutral zone.” And then something new begins. If a person hasn’t gone through the neutral zone, then they haven’t gone through a transition. Transitions always happen in a life, it’s just that we aren’t very good in our society at marking them, and we have no rituals, like rites of passage, to make them formal. We don’t do vision quests or send adolescents out into the wilderness or make everybody wear a clean white shirt to get baptized in or something to mark the event.

He also talks about the difference between a decision and a choice. A decision, he says, is something you research, you get information, you weigh various factors, and you decide if you want this or that or the other. Whereas a choice always comes down to yes or no. Getting married is a choice. Buying a new car is a decision. Decisions are the product of evidence and logic. Choices are an act of will.

At the end of the book, he talks about how it used to be that elders were useful to a society because things didn’t change very fast. Someone who had been around longer had more information about the world than someone younger. But today, information moves so fast, technology changes so fast that a younger person may be more valuable in terms of ability to produce, ability to make decisions, because they only know what they know. They don’t have to unlearn stuff they used to know in order to learn new stuff, as us older folks do. But older people have the wisdom of having lived through many choices, of having gone through transitions, making mistakes, changing course and finding their way, over and over again. They can see their own lives in a broader context and be more philosophical about it. So they have wisdom, not simply knowledge.