Bob Dylan let us know the times they are a-changin’ and when we look around it is easy to see that Dylan was indeed right. It’s easy to see on a global scale: war, pandemic related issues, supply chain complexities, political unrest, environmental issues, social unease (to say the least), amongst a variety of other topics exist. While I don’t want to dismiss the importance or significance of these issues, for the average person reading this blog and myself these likely aren’t daily factors dramatically shaping the day to day living we experience. Yet most of us are still probably have some form of change in our lives whether we consciously think about it or not.
Throughout life there are various built in transitions that we all go through. For example, we go from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, and further from young adults into middle age and if we’re lucky into elderly or old age. Along the journey we potentially experience graduations, jobs, relationships, moves, births, deaths, setbacks, triumphs, and emotions. We gather stories and experiences of all shapes, sizes, and lengths.
These phases where we are experiencing a bit stability can be referred to as a state of being. The points between them where we’re not necessarily settled into a new state and aren’t really in the older state that we are leaving is the transition. Some of these transitions are nice and apparent, sometimes even expected such as the transition from single to engaged to married. Who you are as a married individual can look very similar or very different than your life as a single individual, but your status is forever changed during this transition.
There are also transitions that are less clearly defined and sometimes we’re in states of transition without feeling a sense of direction or control. When we start to add change into the equation life becomes infinitely more complex. For some people this can be frightening which can lead to push back or clinging to hold onto what is known. For some people the unknown is a form of motivation, as seen with adventurers and dare devils striving to do something never before experienced or seen. How can we explain the difference between these approaches?
Dynamic Systems Theory
One of my favorite things to have studied while in grad school was Dynamic Systems Theory. One of my favorite studies was looking at the A-Not-B-Error studied specifically by Esther Thelen. This study shows the idea of object permanence or lack there of in babies. As adults we know that if an object such as a ping pong ball is placed in a cup repeatedly and then moved to a second cup that it would be in the second cup. But for babies that have yet to learn object permanence they make what is known as the preservation error meaning they still look in the 1st cup even if they saw the ball placed in the second cup. Obviously a baby who does not have object permanence and one that does create two different, clear states. The transition between those two states is fascinating to me. Obviously every child is different and so are their behaviors, from some able to find the ball correctly some of the time to some who know where the ball is but still reflexively reach for the wrong cup out of habit.
But what does any of this have to do with life transitions or personal development? When we are in periods of transition in our life sometimes it is blatantly obvious. We know we are moving or we know we are graduating. It is easy to see what the “next” state we are going to is. When we get to that new house or job or whatever it is there is a bit of an early adjustment period but we knew it was coming so typically these are smoother transitions than when we are wholly unprepared or unaware that we are going through a transition point. But when we find ourselves in unanticipated or unexpected states of transition is where we can actually use a couple key lessons of Dynamic Systems Theory or some applications of it.
Lesson 1: Transitions can be messy and inefficient but can lead to greater efficiency and capacity.
When we are first going from a point where we know what we are doing or have done previously into something we haven’t done before we will typically find it hard to do something new or will spend a lot of energy for potentially less output.
A great example of this is when we look at the oxygen efficiency compared to the rate of speed when looking at walking vs jogging vs sprinting. This might sound complicated but think of a time you were walking, typically it probably wasn’t very hard for you to breathe but you also probably weren’t moving very quickly. If you then were to increase the rate of speed suddenly you’ll start breathing a little harder. Now if you start to look at the awkward transition from walking to jogging, usually a slow jog is actually less efficient than a fast walk, but eventually you hit a point where you aren’t really able to walk faster. However, as you start to jog a bit faster your body becomes more efficient in that state.
When we learn a new task at work or get trained on some new technology, at first it will probably be slow and clunky but over time it will hopefully be a better use of time and increase our work capacity. When we start to build up some of these skills that help us learn new things faster or transfer learning to new tasks then we have the ability to decrease our time in these learning transitions.
Lesson 2: Some people going through the same transition do things differently.
You see this all the time with children, some kids learn to walk faster than others or others learn to talk faster. As adults a lot of us are going through multiple transitions simultaneously. For example some of us are getting older, which also means potentially our kids, siblings, friends, parents, and/or grandparents are also getting older. As people age their priorities, availabilities, and capabilities change. While it might seem easy to want to spend every waking moment with your spouse or significant other, when you add a kid or an aging parent, grandparent, or significant relative it obviously shifts. Where growing up you were part of your of one immediate family, if you’re married you now potentially have your own family plus potentially you and your spouses’ family. This creates a variety of dynamic and complex relationships.
How you deal with these new dynamics may be very different than some of your friends. It might also be remarkably similar to others as well. Most individuals are unique but typically their situations are not entirely unique. Knowing this we can look to some in our own peer groups or just as a general generational trend to see what people are or aren’t experiencing. We can also look at generations before us to see what has happened before and consider how we want to shape the lives of the generations to come after us. While we only have control in our lives and limited impact on the lives with which we interact, the fact that we’re going through this life with others makes this dynamic experience that much more fulfilled.
Lesson 3: Just because you can change doesn’t mean you will or that you need to.
Most scientific models are predictive (they guess what should happen given specific criteria) or explanative (they tell you what already happened), but most aren’t entirely causal (if this happens then this will always happen). Every person is unique and the point in time that they are experiencing in their life is unique. Throughout my life I have experienced things that shape and change how I interact with my environment and my experiences. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean that those conditions placed in your life will automatically change your life in the same way it might 5 years from now.
While there are some general principles such as exercise, eat healthy, get lots of sleep that are fairly universally accepted, there are some instances where these same things can cause issues for individuals going through specific circumstances. For example, individuals who are going through various eating or body disorders being told to eat healthy might find the stress of determining what that means at that specific time much more demanding than what they currently have capacity for. This isn’t to say that abusive or diagnosable behaviors should just be ignored, but rather that sometimes change simply for the sake of change is not always better.
One of the risks that a lot of life coaches and other personal development coaches can experience and can also find commonly in people they work with is burnout. Burnout can mean a lot of different things to different people, but for me one of the best definitions I’ve found for burnout is the lack of motivation paired with a lacking physical and/or mental capacity to do tasks with which you feel a high sense of self worth and obligation to complete.
One of the most common reasons for this is that a lot of people don’t have a clear sense of “enough” or balance. It’s easy to always find things that can be better and improved. We’re imperfect humans after all. But it’s easy to get caught up in changing things that we don’t like about ourselves that sometimes we lose who we are in the process. Or we make all these changes but we don’t always remember why we were making the changes in the first place.
Water has the ability to freeze and the ability to boil in addition to being in its normal liquid form. Just because it can change states doesn’t mean that we always want it too. Similarly if you’re in a state in your life that you don’t have to change things in one area, then it is okay to find the stability and balance of being in that area. If you’re happy in one area but not in another, it may not always be worth changing the second area if it means disrupting the first. Sometimes transition is about removing things that no longer suit you rather than adding as well. Sometimes it means letting go of friends or relationships that no longer meet up with your new life state. That doesn’t necessarily mean those things are bad or that they have to end negatively, but rather they served their purpose and have helped you become the person you are or are striving to become.
What’s an area that you currently find yourself in transition? What have you found helpful for that transition? What have you learned from the past that has hurt your transition? Leave a comment below and maybe we can all help each other transition through this stage of life together.