College students spend 4 years (or more) looking forward to the big day when they graduate – when they finally don’t have to take another exam – or write another term paper – or get up early for an 8:00 am class. But when that day comes, it often feels kind of unsettling. College life is familiar. And what’s next feels like the unknown. Leaving college is a time of transition. Learning to navigate transitions in life, like graduation, getting married, having children, changing jobs or careers, retirement etc., is a skill that can be practiced and learned.
Around graduation time each year, I share this essay with seniors on transitions. I also get to thinking about the last day of my own college career. I took a final exam in the morning, packed my car to drive home, and was working at my first post-college job that same night – pumping gasoline (39 cents a gallon) at a Mobil station a half-mile from the house I grew up in. Not much progress yet. By the next week I had a job cleaning bathrooms at a local synagogue. Not much prestige yet. But I was making money, which I needed because I was to be married within a few months and then off to graduate school. Big transitions! My memory of that last day in college was all about “so what’s next?” I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony – I was moving on – but not navigating this big transition with dignity and grace.
Over time, I’ve learned a bit more on how to navigate endings, beginnings and particularly that confusing time in between called “the transition zone.”
You would think that humans would be good at managing change. We see so much of it in our daily lives. There are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and among individuals that seem to come at us faster and faster. Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is not what it used to be.” In the past, trends could be analyzed and future directions could be predicted. This allowed for continuous, evolutionary transitions. Today we are faced with mostly unpredictable, discontinuous, and almost revolutionary change.
While some people see this period of rapid global transformation as an opportunity, for others it is a time of painful and reluctant adjustment to a seemingly confusing and chaotic world. In fact, when faced with the possibility of change most people choose the more familiar, the status quo. Perhaps this is due to fear of the unknown, or fear of losing power, status, control, or possessions. Letting go is frightening – like jumping into a void. Henry David Thoreau seemed to be recommending the life of a change seeker when he wrote in his journal on March 11, 1859; “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”
Graduating college can surely feel like a “leap into the dark” even when you know where you are headed tomorrow – a new job, an old job, a vacation, or the uncertainty of heading back to your parents house, to figure out what’s next. So I wanted to give you a few thoughts on the process of transitions to help you think about how you are managing this transition out of college. This will not be the last transition of your life, so you might as well learn how to do it well.
William Bridges book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life actually begin with endings. Letting go of the familiar is the beginning of beginning and requires two things; ceremony and grieving. The graduation ceremony is an important step in acknowledging that something significant is over. Ceremony is needed whether you loved college or hated every day. It is over. Saying good-bye is an important part of the process of letting go. In some of my classes, we sit in a circle on the last day of class and students are invited to say a few words of appreciation to the group and than conclude with the words “good bye.”
I find that we are not good at endings. We are a future focused society always looking forward and moving on to the next thing. This was certainly my focus on the day I graduated college. But a constant focusing on what’s next can result in a “treadmill existence” that can become quite pathological. Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, unfinished work or learning. You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.
So my first gift to graduating seniors is the knowledge that endings are important. And saying the words “good-bye” is an important part of the process of moving on.
The second gift I’ll share is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time between endings and new beginnings called the transition zone. It is a period of time that may be no more than a weekend or may take years, in which you may feel lost, empty and frightened. This is good. The transition zone is a real thing. To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening isn’t healthy.
Our culture doesn’t generally value or appreciate the “in-between” times. Earlier cultures developed rites and rituals to mark these periods. We just don’t know how to deal with the feeling of emptiness that is quite normal during these periods. We are somehow embarrassed about not being “productive” and we don’t know what to call ourselves at these times. You are no longer a college student but you may not yet be a doctor, lawyer, artist, poet, account executive, farmer, teacher or whatever.
During the transition time, nothing feels solid. Many graduating seniors spend the summer or part of the next year living at home. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right. Both of my older sons took this route for convenience and economy. It is a normal part of the transition time, yet both reported feeling like they didn’t quite belong. Bridges suggests that we learn to value this transition period as a time that can give us a unique view on our personal growth. He offers several suggestions for activities that you might consider to help you appreciate this special time.
The first suggestion is to find a regular time and place to be alone. This doesn’t mean laying in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do. Some people get up early and read, meditate, walk, or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the presence of the early morning sun. The point is to be as completely unproductive as possible and just notice how it feels. For me, I do some spiritual readings every morning and in the summer I try to spend a few minutes in my garden just noticing the plants. This is a practice I developed one of my own transitions.
The second recommendation is to keep a journal or perhaps to write an autobiography of your life. The journal should be used to record feelings not to make “to do” lists. The paradox of this recommendation of course is that this might be a time when “nothing is happening.” If so, write how you feel about that. The practice of journaling was one I began during a period of rapid change. I now have dozens of personal journals recording what I was thinking and feeling at various stages of life.
The third recommendation is to ponder the question “what would be unlived in your life if it ended today?” What is it about you that feels to be core to how you think of yourself, that others don’t know about or you haven’t done yet. For me, I spent much of my life thinking of myself as a sailor – but I didn’t sail much. I was always too busy doing the next productive thing in my career or family life. So I bought a sailboat where for many years I spent much of the month of June – with family on weekends but during the week, mostly alone. Today, I am a caregiver for someone I love and I feel fulfilled in this work.
Bridges recommends that you spend time completely alone in a totally new environment where nobody knows you. This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest. It may be a week or weekend at the beach or in the mountains. Don’t bring a book to read or a cell phone – that’s right… no Facebook! No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you. This is can be really difficult. This is a journey into emptiness. Find a place to walk and notice your surroundings. Pay attention to details. Journal about your feelings and thoughts. And don’t worry about being productive. Just be. If it appeals to you stay awake one entire night with the only activity keeping a fire going or counting the stars, try it. And don’t tell anyone what you are doing to avoid the questions and odd looks you will get.
If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness. One person may sit outside, draw a circle around them self in the dust, and just be. Another may write a list of all the things they wanted to accomplish in the past year and burn it. Another may talk to the moon and still another may carve a walking stick. Find a ritual that works for you
This transition will surely not be your last, so it might be useful to practice living in the transition zone before it gets too complicated. There is more acceptance of “doing nothing” right after college than there is in midlife. Since over 70% of UMass graduates report that they do not have employment in their area of study immediately after college, if you don’t yet have a career – well, you’re not alone. Good. Enjoy it. When your parent’s friends ask you the inevitable question, “so what are your plans?” You can respond that your immediate plan is to “actively experience the emptiness of the transition zone”. That will usually end the questioning.
And so the final stage of transition is new beginnings. We generally celebrate beginnings as a time of opportunity. But we also recognize it as a time of uncertainty. It is like the first step of a trapeze artist onto a high wire crossing Niagara Falls. The first step is the most difficult and requires letting go of both the patterns of the past and expectations for the future.
Remember the scene in the Disney flick “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the belly of the whale trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death?
Remember…. “we must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”
John M. Gerber