Seeing past the bumps in the road
How's your outlook? Are things going well for you right now? I hope so.
How would you finish this sentence: "Life is like..."?
There are many creative ways to finish the phrase.
Life is like a mirror. Smile, and it smiles back at you.
I like that one.
We can waste a lot of time looking at these quotes. But here's just two more:
- Life is like a highway.
- Life is like a roller coaster.
Which would you prefer? Some of us love riding roller coasters, but probably not all day, every day. Many would prefer a smooth ride with the top down and music playing.
Life's reality lies somewhere between the two. It is a long drive on hills that dip and climb for most of us. It would be nice to be able to see farther down the road, but we can only see the top of the next hill.
What lies beyond the hill?
We are all, unfortunately, like distracted drivers. In spite of knowing we can't see over the next hill, we still tend to cruise right over it.
The hill is always there, and the other side always dips. At times, it's a gentle slope, but at other times it feels like our stomachs have just fallen out.
Why this matters
We tend to perceive life as a mostly stable progression. We would like to attend a good school, find a suitable job, find a partner we can enjoy life with, gather some material resources, and enjoy a comfortable life. Some people achieve all these things. Even so, this view overlooks the fact that we all experience stressful and painful events.
In this article, we'll examine just a few, hopefully enough to shake you out of this dream without depressing you. As I live in the United States, I will provide statistics regarding my home country. Here, life expectancy is 79 years, but we can also expect to spend 11 of those years, on average, suffering from diseases.Calculated from Mokdad, A. H., Ballestros, K., Echko, M., Glenn, S., Olsen, H. E., Mullany, E., Lee, A., Khan, A. R., Ahmadi, A., Ferrari, A. J., Kasaeian, A., Werdecker, A., Carter, A., Zipkin, B., Sartorius, B., Serdar, B., Sykes, B. L., Troeger, C., … Murray, C. J. L. (2018). The State of US Health, 1990-2016. JAMA, 319(14), 1444. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0158 One in five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Approximately one in two will battle cancer.Lung cancer is the deadliest. Colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer kill approximately the same number of people each year. But put together, they still don't claim as many lives as lung cancer. Protect your lungs and get regular screenings, especially if your doctor recommends them.
These are major concerns. Yet they are only the tip of the iceberg. One source lists 90 life events that test our capacity to cope. It may be worth checking that list. There are probably some you are experiencing or have experienced already.
It is not just negative life events that cause stress. Stress is caused by any major change. Some of the positive changes may throw us off more because we might not understand our own reactions.
Not only do we rarely predict these sorts of events, but we also greatly underestimate their frequency. Bruce Feiler, author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, published in 2020, writes that big changes happen to everyone approximately every 12 to 18 months, with each of us experiencing major, life-altering changes three to five times in our lifetimes.
What to do
Besides being like driving on a steep highway, life is like driving in the fog. In most cases, we don't realize how steep the grade is until we're speeding down. What is the best course of action?
As a driver, you can do two things:
- Slow down. Be ready for sudden changes.
- Be prepared to take quick action when the grade drops.
On the road of life, how can we apply this? While striving for a better life makes sense, we should not forget that things will not always go smoothly. Bring some realism to your hopes and dreams. Rather than fighting change, be prepared to accept it.
Knowing that life will throw lemons at us in the future, let's consider:
- Preventive actions we can take now to reduce or avert disasters.
- Training that will get us ready for the next life change.
Let's return to health issues. Despite the fact that we can't prevent all health problems, there is a lot we can do. According to the JAMA paper I referenced, 44.9% of the 11 years of disability the average American suffers are due to "risk factors." Nearly half of these risk factors were behavioral and nearly a quarter were metabolic.The next largest was environmental and occupational risks, at 3.7% We have a measure of control over these factors.
The biggest risk factors, by far, were tobacco use, high body mass index, dietary risks, alcohol and drug use, high fasting plasma glucose, and high systolic blood pressure. Changing our eating habits and substituting dependency on chemicals with healthy behaviors can prevent some catastrophic consequences.
Learning how to live a healthy life can take a lot of time. Also, maintaining good relationships and improving the quality of life are competing priorities.
The key? Slow down. Our eagerness to enjoy everything life has to offer often prevents us from taking the time to stop and think about where we are going. We forget to stop and smell the roses. If we do this long enough we are sure to end up with end-of-life regrets. Let's not view life as a race to claim the most rewards, but rather as a trail ride.
Prepare by training
Man was made for conflict, not for rest. In action is his power; not in his goals but in his transitions man is great. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are limits to how much we can prevent. A majority of the challenges we will face in the future will be caused by events outside our control. How can we be ready to swing at life's curveballs?
I found it interesting to compare Feiler's book, mentioned above, with a 2009 book by William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Feiler's book is written for individuals and Bridges wrote for managers, but there is enough overlap in the methods they espouse that it is worth considering them together.
What major changes look like
All of us will go through at least three life-changing events in our lifetime, so we should be prepared to deal with them.
There are three phases to every transition. These are like dips in the road. The downhill part is the end of the last stage of life (or stage in a company's development). The low point is the transition. Bridges calls it "the neutral zone" and Feiler calls it "the messy middle." Finally, the start of the climb up the next hill is a new beginning.
Change also follows a pattern of threes. Three parties constitute this hierarchy. Feiler calls them the "ABCs of meaning." The A stands for personal Agency, the B stands for Belonging, that is, a person's relationships, and the C stands for Cause, something that is higher than oneself. With Bridges' model, the leader is a change agent who manages relationships with the organization's stakeholders, while the cause is a bigger purpose that the company sets for its future.
Stages of transition
Near-death studies pioneer Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed the now-popular theory of five stages of grief.This theory is not as popular with scientists. According to Wikipedia, "The model is considered to be outdated, inaccurate, and unhelpful in explaining the grieving process." I won't pass judgment on her theory here. I only mention it because it's relevant. It appears that both Bridges and Feiler based their suggestions partly on this theory.
Based on a synthesis of Bridges and Feiler, I describe nine stages of transition for you:
- Identify and accept
Let's break each of these down.
Identify and accept
Individuals going through change should begin by recognizing and acknowledging their own emotions. According to Feiler, fear, sadness, and shame are the most common. Recognize that these feelings are normal. Get them out in the open. Examine them. Feiler suggests that writing about stressful events can yield greater insights.
A leader needs to recognize how others are affected, both practically and emotionally. People will suffer some losses. Many of the "overreactions" of some are reactions to losing something important.
Leaders must acknowledge losses openly and sympathetically. Expect to see signs of grief, including anger, anxiety, bargaining, and denial. Be realistic about productivity during the "neutral zone" period. Don't expect top performance.
When going through a major transition, avoid unnecessary changes. Whenever possible, stick with the old ways in other areas. It's not the time to make sweeping improvements. Leaders should evaluate policies and procedures to make changes that will support the transition.
Acting as if the transition isn't happening is a bad idea. Not only is it important to acknowledge it, but it is also a good idea to mark the event somehow. Find a way to honor the past. Celebrate the good things that came from the old ways that are being left behind by holding a small ceremony.
Now that the good things from the past have been acknowledged and commemorated, it's time to move on. Some doors will be closed. Let the old dreams, routines, and mindsets go. They served their purpose.
Leaders should look for ways to compensate those who have lost something. It may be possible to give them something else of value to make up for the loss. Those in positions of responsibility should be trained to follow these steps.
The next climb begins here. Leaving the past behind allows room for creativity. This is the time to develop new skills, attitudes, and means of expression. Focusing on creating will take the mind off the losses.
Keep goals short-term and celebrate every success, no matter how small. Leaders should demonstrate flexibility by being willing to consider organizational changes that may not have been part of the plan.
It is important to reward and encourage creativity. Don't rush the transition. Embracing experimentation and tolerating setbacks can do a lot of good.
Leaders and individuals must both focus on communication, but in different ways. People going through major changes should seek support from others. Spend your time now growing and nurturing your social network so you'll have people you can turn to for wisdom and support when you need them.
It is important that leaders are open and honest, and more importantly, that they communicate freely. Don't assume people know what's going on. Keep them well informed. Two-way communication is ideal. Also, don't be afraid to admit when you don't know something. Let them know you are doing your best to work toward a solution, just like they are.
Bridges also points out that leaders often have gone through the transition themselves before it is even announced. They are ready for a new beginning. They should not forget that the staff is just beginning the transition at this point.
It's time to update the story. What is over? What isn't? Make sure this is clear to everyone.
Feiler says, "If you want the transition to end, let's end the story by writing an ending that has an upbeat ending." Bridges also identifies this need. Today's success began with yesterday's ends, and tomorrow's changes will require the endings of today.
Each of our lives is a life story project of its own. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time. -- Bruce Feiler
According to professor Dan McAdams, creating stories from our transitions can improve our mental health, well-being, and maturity. This brings us to our third set of threes. A post-transition life story should include these elements, according to Feiler:
- Distance between the major life event and where the person is now. The story is in the past tense.
- Positive language. The story assumes a positive ending, even if it's still in the future.
- A useful lesson. Tell your story in such a way that others (and you!) can learn something from it. Once you have accomplished that, you will have put your transition behind you.
Be great, be beautiful
Sure, we'd love it if life just cruised along smoothly from reward to reward. But we'd miss out on the chance to be great, according to Emerson, quoted above.
We'd also miss out on a chance to be among the "most beautiful people," according to a now-popular quote from Kübler-Ross in the 1975 book she edited, titled Death: The Final Stage of Growth. I can't think of a better way to end this article than with her quote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.