Unlock the Secrets of Personal Change: Master Transitions vs. Transformations & Thrive in Both
Discover the key differences between personal transitions and transformative change, and learn how to effectively navigate each process. Uncover the secrets to mastering life's constant shifts and develop the skills to thrive in both transitions and transformations.
“Adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.” - William Bridges
I hear people talking about “being in transition” so much, potentially because my bubble - my generation, even - is changing careers, life partners and cities more often than every generation before them. I’ve lived in eight different cities on three continents before the age of 25 and I am probably not even an outlier in that regard. Now that I’ve squarely landed in the coaching world, I hear colleagues speak of “transformative change” and “transformational coaching” all the time. I feel that these terms are mostly used without thinking about the concepts much. When I read brochures of coaching companies, people on social media… It annoys me because it is not fair to those who go through a real transformative time in their life.
There is a difference between being in transition and going through a transformative process as a human. We are often using these words interchangeably, but having shepherded many clients through times of change, and experiencing them myself, I now recognize how different those two processes are. It is important to know the difference because handling a transition effectively requires a different approach than dealing with transformative change.
You need to face transformation with exactly the opposite attitude than you’d face a transition: you will need to surrender to a transformation where you can definitely control a transition. But transformation (and surrendering to change) is talked about disproportionately more - it just makes for better headlines and social media engagement… so most people struggle with change: they surrender where they could get a handle on their lives, they try to force control when they need to let go. We talk way too much about the magic of transformation (happens rarely!) which leaves us disempowered in the face of a transition (happens regularly!).
On Human Change
We humans go through major and minor life changes all the time. The reality is that change is constant. Our values—the set of rules and principles we live by—are always gradually and ever-so-slightly shifting.
We are generally unaware of the inner workings of our psychology. The formation of our values is a subconscious process—it would be overwhelming if we negotiated with every piece of information and constantly amended our values. The work we do with coaches or self-help books is the observing, uncovering and labeling of our values.
But every now and then, life gently awakens us to the reality that our values have changed. These triggers may be major professional setbacks or significant personal events like a round birthday or getting married. These trigger events are shining a light on how our psychology and perception have evolved to see the world differently. We suddenly feel the dissonance between how our living circumstances stayed constant—say our job, our relationship, our circle of friends—and how our values and views on the world have evolved. As a result, our priorities start to shift and we feel compelled to change. The kind of personal change I just described is what I refer to as a transition.
The more drastic the trigger events are, the more likely they create the conditions for transformation: a fundamental shift in how we experience our environment. Transformative change feels radically different from a gradual transition. In this essay, I want to explain how and why a transformation is different from transition, how you can recognize either one in your life, and what you can do about it.
Transition: Aligning our lives to our values
Values are the foundational pillars of how we live our lives. Based on them, we form principles: rules to live by. If we succeed in bringing them to life, they become virtues: behaviors others observe in us.
Let me illuminate this in the simplest terms: Imagine you find a wallet on the street. The value of being honest makes you think about doing the right thing. So, the principle of always telling the truth guides you to return the wallet to its owner. When you do this regularly, people see you as a truthful person. That's the virtue of truthfulness.
Transition is when we align our outside reality to match our evolving value system–your combined values and how they work together to influence your choices. Shalom H. Schwartz, a social psychologist and a cross-cultural researcher known for his work on values, defines it as "a person's value system is the organized set of values that guides their behavior and shapes their perception of the world."
I have previously written about the push and pull factors of personal change: Most of us have some inertia and don't bring about change easily. Once the push of our inner reality is greater than the pull of our inertia, we begin to effect changes in our lives.
When I speak about “dissonance”, I am actually describing cognitive dissonance: a mental conflict that occurs when your beliefs don't line up with your actions. It's a pretty uncomfortable state of mind—you're living a contradiction. It takes constant mental energy, like trying to hold up a weight from your outstretched arms while going through your daily life.
This cognitive dissonance model maps more closely to the push factor in my previous article. People might be able to “sit on it” and live with the cognitive dissonance of their reality being at odds with their values, either because…
the dissonance is not yet strong enough,
they are lacking the skills for personal change or
they simply cannot change under their current life conditions (that applies to most of us to some degree).
Transitions happen on a spectrum. Some of the transitions we go through create a huge splash in our lives. Sometimes a change in our relationships makes us leave town and find a new job. But often, a transition can be minimal: my need to spend more time in deep work will be reflected in my calendar looking different, even though few might be aware of this transition.
Whoopsie, how did I end up here?
When we are not so clear about how our values turn into principles and then into virtues, we fail to recognize how they’re drifting apart. But ultimately, we’ll notice: something is off. Transitions feel like we are releasing tension that has been building up gradually. This tension is the dissonance I referred to earlier when your life and your values gradually diverge.
Those are the “when did I sign up for this?” moments when you sit in an airport waiting for your flight from one meeting to another without seeing your apartment in two weeks. You had promised yourself to build a community, to grow roots in your town, and then, slowly, steadily, life got in the way. So now you’re sitting at the gate, your flight is about to be called up for boarding and you’re scrolling through your phone, looking at the messages from friends back home, thinking “at what time exactly did I decide that multi-week business trips were in alignment with my values about ‘settling in’?”
The Four-Phase Transition Blueprint
Once you do decide to change your outer reality (life circumstances) to align it to your inner reality (values & principles), you are likely in the process of transition. I have observed this process to look strikingly similar across all the clients I have worked with so far.
I recently read about William Bridges’ transition model (Endings, Neutral Zone, New Beginnings) in his book Transitions. In my coaching work and in my experience, i've observed some different patterns, so I was inspired to document my own transition phases. Of the transition phases I’ve identified, everyone goes through each phase at their own pace. Only one rule applies—trying to skip a step will lead to frustration later on.
The phases of transition I’ve identified in my work are The Build Up, Letting Go, The Doodle and The Emergence. Together, I am calling them the The Four-Phase Transition Blueprint.
1 - The Build Up
Transitions begin with a gradual build up of dissonance between your values and the reality of your life. For most people, it takes quite a bit of time until they can put a finger on this feeling of dissonance. Once they do, that’s when transition begins.
“The Build Up” is this phase of doubt and discomfort. In this phase, you face three variables: (1) your discomfort, (2) the risk of changing your life, and (3) the level of courage to make said change.
As the dissonance grows stronger, individuals start contemplating different possibilities and embark on a journey of experimentation. The purpose of experimenting is to methodically assess the risks involved and figure out if it's secure enough to take the leap. These risks might stem from concerns such as failing, causing pain to a loved one, or facing financial challenges. You make the jump when your courage outweighs the risk of taking that step. It's not about having all the answers, but rather, answering what you can and embracing the uncertainties that you cannot resolve.
Many models of transition include some recommended phase of experimentation, where you find small ways to practice or ease into the change you want to make. But I believe committing to change is the key to effective transitions. Many people procrastinate in experimentation—they get stuck in a protracted loop of thesis-testing instead of making the change they already know they want to make. It is why you need to think through what you are looking to find in your experiments. Set a goal or a fixed time-frame to evaluate the results of your experiment.
When I was trying to find out whether coaching was for me, I ran two experiments. The first was signing up to a year-long, in-person coaching degree program. It was part-time and helped me understand if I enjoyed going deeper into this profession. The second experiment was a simple market test: I posted on social media whether someone in my network was interested in receiving coaching from me. I thought maybe five people would respond. 25 did, in less than 24 hours.
These experiments helped me gather valuable information and experiences to assess the viability of my desired change–I was motivated by the work, and I had access to an interested network. I committed myself to offering coaching to entrepreneurs and investors, and haven’t looked back.
2 - Letting Go
Every week I get messages from people who are in some sort of a life transition and need advice. It is not super coach-like to give advice without knowing the circumstances. But the one thing I always say is ‘if you can afford it, try to put a bit of space between “changing away from” and “changing towards”, close the current chapter before you make decisions about the next one.
We keep talking about the things we want to start when we are in times of change. But “Letting Go” is significant because we need to make space in our lives for the future. It is only natural to hold on to what we already have; “loss aversion” is a common cognitive bias. Bridges writes, "It is not the change that people resist, but rather the loss that they fear. By acknowledging and addressing these losses, we can help people move through the ending stage more effectively and embrace the new beginnings that lie ahead." In this phase, I try to help my clients understand exactly what it is that they fear losing. Clarifying this fear often helps dealing with it and moving through it.
The first and most important step: figure out what it really is that you want to end. Most people look to external life circumstances, like a job they want to quit, and sometimes that’s enough.
In this stage, it’s common to get sidetracked by diversions—personal change that looks like a transition on the surface but is not. In these diversions, we feel restless about one thing on the inside but don’t dare to address it, so we change something else on the outside. We’re trying to change our external circumstances, like ending a relationship or getting into a relationship, moving cities, or changing jobs. But this doesn’t resolve our internal sense of dissonance, it just paints over it by the excitement and novelty for a while, and then the original feeling returns. Cue the middle-aged man buying a motorcycle or a flashy car? He might be dealing with something else than an evolved sense of mobility. A diversion is when we create change in our lives without addressing the underlying shift in values, possibly without even understanding the values mismatch in our lives.
Try to look deeper for what it is you need to let go. Maybe it is letting go of your old city and moving on to a new one. But t might just as well be an internal idea about yourself that you need to let go of—maybe you’re not really a city person anymore. When I changed careers, the identity of a VC investor was in some ways harder to let go than the money and security.
3 - The Doodle
It is important to create space in times of change. In communities around the world, ancient coming of age rituals acknowledge the need for marking time around transition to this day. Bridges writes: "In many indigenous cultures, there are ritual ways of assisting people to move from one stage of life to another. These rites of passage are regarded as absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of the community and the individual."
I call this in-between phase “The Doodle”—approach it playfully and without judgment. During this time, there is space for creativity and decompression.
Many clients ask me how long this phase should be: after all, there’s only a finite amount of money in the bank and at some point they surely need to get on with their lives! That is a totally fair point. There is no set, optimal length. When I left the world of venture capital, I took three months off. At that time, I had no commitments, financial or otherwise, so I was in a privileged situation. Today, with a daughter, my situation is different and I would have had approach my time differently. So I tend to tell my clients, ‘take as much time as you can.’.
In addition to setting aside time, adding a ritual or ceremony on either end of the Doodle will help create a space that feels safe enough to not ‘know what’s next’ for now, safe enough so you can start to play. A ceremony could be as minor as logging yourself out of your social media accounts or sitting down with an inspiring journaling prompt–no matter the length of time you’re able to take.
These rituals also help resisting the urge to prematurely jump on the next opportunity out of discomfort of not knowing and in hopes of a new beginning. We do well to replicate these rituals in modern times, and many do: work and travel after school, a Zen meditation retreat after a break-up, or a volunteering project between two jobs.
4 - The Emergence
The New Beginning stage is the culmination of the change process, where we integrate our learning and experience from the previous stages and move forward with a fresh perspective. Bridges writes, "New beginnings are an opportunity to start fresh, to let go of old habits and ways of being, and to embrace new possibilities and ways of living." It is a time for experimentation, exploration, and creativity. It requires courage and a willingness to take risks, but also offers the chance for growth, self-discovery, and fulfillment.
There can also be experiments during this phase— to show what’s possible, not to understand or mitigate risk. You’ve left that pesky risk narrative behind, remember? Now that you’ve already jumped, it is time to dream.
I like to use simple goal-setting techniques in this phase to avoid losing orientation, not add pressure to perform or “get ahead”.
Transitions can be arduous, I am not going to argue with you. Remember to celebrate the new beginning and don't forget to bring snacks for the doodle…
Transformative Change: A Special Kind of Transition
Transformation is a special kind of transition. Where a transition feels iterative, gradual and we find both big and small transitions in our lives, a transformational change is monumental. It feels disorienting. It cannot be “managed”—as Peter Senge wrote in his book The Fifth Discipline, "problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."
That is what transformation is: a new mindset, the ability to grasp larger complexity. Transformation happens when you expand your consciousness to integrate two realities that you found previously conflicting. A move from either/or to both/and.
Transformative change is often triggered by dramatic and sudden life events or those whose impact we’ve underestimated. Think about the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or moving to a new country and culture.
Transition is an evolution of your values; transformation is a complete remaking of your value system.
Life transitions can be compared to the changing seasons—they are natural, expected, and cyclical. Transformative change, on the other hand, is like climate change—a profound, enduring shift in the fundamental conditions of our lives that alters the way we experience the world, one that affects all systems on earth.
We all experienced transformations every other week in our first years of life. Over time, the rate of transformative leaps decreases, but only proportionally to our lifetime, it seems. Even as adults grow old, we go through transformative times every now and then. Just that it is not every other week but every few years, or dozens of years once we’ve grown older.
The Four-Phase Transformation Journey
Transformative change also has its phases. They tend to come in irregular and non-linear patterns. While transitions are more predictable, transformative change stages can come in rapid succession and go back and forth, making it a chaotic experience.
1 - The Insight
This is the “oh shit” moment. A moment in which we suddenly see or break a pattern that will forever change our perspective on reality. This insight is a shift that cannot be undone. Initially, it feels like a revelation and euphoric since we’ve likely been stuck and unsatisfied before—but without the ability to put our finger on what’s exactly wrong.
…until the breakdown phase comes around.
2 - The Breakdown
This is when the value system disintegrates. Without established patterns, routines and beliefs, you descend into chaos and confusion. It is a time of profound identity loss.
Interestingly, between insight and breakdown there’s often a bit of time. The insight tends to be so profound that it creates a wave of excitement, propelling you forward until it ebbs away and you start to be caught in the currents.
3 - The Integration
At some point in the breakdown, we recognize that our values and beliefs have been blown apart. We are able to take a step back and describe what is happening. This is the first step to putting the pieces together again, a stage called integration. A new value system takes shape, with old and new values emerging in a new order. We experience a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
4 - The Actualization
Once again, we feel called to actualize our value system, that is to turn our values into principles and virtues. Propelled by the euphoria and motivation from the previous phase, we create alignment with our new beliefs and values.
Imagine we undergo a transformative journey and discover the importance of work-life balance and embracing a minimalist lifestyle. We realize that our previous value system of material success and constant career advancement has led to an unfulfilling life. In the actualization phase, we prioritize work-life balance by setting work boundaries or changing jobs. We also nurture personal relationships and self-care activities. To embrace minimalism, we declutter, consume mindfully, and avoid impulsive purchases.
By actualizing these new values in both our professional and personal lives, we not only experience a more harmonious and balanced existence but also foster deeper connections with others and cultivate a greater sense of inner peace and well-being.
How You Can Turn This Knowledge Into Action
How can I learn how to tell a transition from transformation, and why is it important? Here are some signs, complete with personal stories to show you the difference.
A life transition typically involves a change in a specific area of your life, such as your job, relationship, or living situation. This can mean a massive shift in your life circumstances—don't let “just a transition” fool you. But while transitions may cause stress and adjustment, they are generally manageable with familiar coping mechanisms.
I want to share a recent transition of mine and a transformation that I am currently experiencing, in hopes that it can help you see your own changes more clearly.
2022 was a year of transition for me. I realized that as a newly-minted father, I lacked the capacity to be a breakout founder of a technology company and an empathic coach and a good dad and partner all at the same time. I previously shared the story of my time in Greece, realizing that I was massively overcommitted and longing for a slower pace, a deeper rhythm to life. I noticed I was out of alignment with what rang true for my life. This led to a major shifting of priorities over the course of the year: I handed over the business in the capable hands of a new CEO, started working with a new coach and rebuilt my time commitments from the ground up: more time for family and creativity. This insight of overcommitment led to more than a year of slowing down.
Signs of a life transition:
Clear goals or outcomes, with a clear path or plan to achieve those goals.
When I decided to focus on my coaching business, I knew I needed to hand over the reigns of my company Journey within the next few months. It was clear that this meant a big hiring effort, getting in touch with dozens of potential candidates, interviews, case studies, negotiations… The coming months lay clearly ahead of me. It was a lot, but knowing it had an end point took some of the stress away.
Familiar coping mechanisms to deal with stress and change: You can handle it with the tools in your belt.
I would find a way to ignore, defer, reject and forget about doing the things that would ultimately help me come through with my transition. We even attempted to fundraise for the business in Spring of 2022! Procrastination is real.
A sense of control over the situation.
Handing over a business is no mean feat. Many of you know this from experience. But companies have changed leaders and owners before, and they will in the future. The steps are clear, we had advisors by our side and experienced entrepreneurs to mentor us in difficult situations. This was not uncharted territory.
Minor disruption to your daily routine. (This depends on the scope of your transition, truth be told!)
While handing over Journey certainly took a lot of time (it only quieted down in January) I did not need to fundamentally and permanently reprogram my life around it.
On the other hand, a more complex transformative period typically involves a more profound and wide-reaching change in your life, challenging your identity, beliefs, and values, and requiring significant personal growth and adaptation.
At the same time I was navigating a professional transition, another, perhaps even more significant, shift of perspective started to emerge. I have spent most of my life playing the status game: receiving a good education, landing a good job, marriage and children, and so on. Over the last months, I noticed “detaching” from this game. I became more aware of both geopolitical conflicts and climate change.
Signs of a complex transformative period:
Uncertainty or ambiguity around goals or outcomes without any clear path forward
This observation made me think, “What’s this game all about when humanity can't even agree what the real challenges are for humanity, and instead we are fighting against each other?
A need for new coping mechanisms to deal with stress and change
I am really struggling with this observation of, “Oh shit, what are we doing here?” I am both massively concerned and massively frustrated because the planetary scale issue is far outside of my control. And so I am questioning a lot of the “normal things” I am doing. And I notice I am still avoiding (a new coping strategy) a lot of the logical consequences in my life to align with this observation and value shift. The dissonance is pretty stark and I won’t be able to sit on it for much longer.
A sense of losing control or having to surrender control to external factors
I can tell this episode is deeply transforming me. I am not quite sure how but I am sure I cannot control it or manage it away. So far, the only transformation skill that works for me is curiosity: looking at my path with wonder as it is unfolding in front of me. That sounds easy, but it requires a huge mental shift. I have to become comfortable to lean into the discomfort of change. When I liken transformation to feeling like falling over backwards, then the turn of phrase “leaning into” this unsettling impotence becomes a new taste. I know, it sounds strange to ‘let go of the need for safety’ in order to feel safe… but it may be the only way we can process and integrate ambiguity.
A significant disruption to your daily routine or way of life.
Now, I think about this change in perspective every single day–like tk and tk. It is like wearing a new pair of glasses, I cannot ignore how things have changed for me.
In short, transition feels 😣 while transformation feels 🤯.
I hope I’ll be able to support many humans through transitions and transformations alike, through my coaching, my writing, and other projects. Personal change is deeply moving to all of us—after all, it describes how we move in life.
Many of you are reaching out to me, sharing your stories and questions from times of personal change. Alongside this essay, I have decided to build a transition program (read: an online curriculum) to help you navigate transitions. I am super excited to share more about it in the coming weeks. If you are in a transition and want to help me by being part of a focus group, please hit reply!