As I See It: Transitions
April 18, 2022 Victor Rozek
Over the past two years, as many of us sequestered, masked-up in public, dodged strangers, and kept friends at arm’s length, our socially distanced conversations shared a common, oft-expressed yearning: “I just want my life back.”
Now that we’re in a lull between variant fronts, millions of us are anxious to reclaim our old, comfortable and predictable lives. They may not have been perfect, but they were at least manageable, set in a world we knew how to navigate.
Beyond familiarity, our old lives were even more central to our identity. As sociologist Anthony Giddens notes: “A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor – important as this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.” When narratives are challenged, people either evolve to create new ones, or stay tethered to a reality that no longer exists. (I can think of no better proof of that axiom than Vladimir Putin’s delusional and deadly need to continue the narrative of Russia as an empire.)
Likewise, companies that cling to old narratives fail to adapt and either miss out on new opportunities (IBM clinging to the mainframe narrative while the PC market exploded), or simply go out of business (Borders, which didn’t adjust to online book sales and e-books was crushed by Amazon).
For better or worse, the narrative has changed for all of us.
We have endured two years of pandemic, approximately 1 million Americans dead, businesses shuttered, supply lines interrupted, horrific climate events, and now a war that threatens global stability and reminds us of the fragility of democratic governance. All this in addition to whatever personal challenges or tragedies we endured. No more sleepwalking through life with breezy detachment. The old narrative no longer exists. We have to consciously create a new one. And the time it takes to do that will likely be uncomfortable and confusing. The question that lingers over us all is: Who am I without my story?
Years ago, as a young man attending his first business conference, I recall thinking that IBM managers conflated their identity with their job title and the prestige of the company. They would check into upscale hotels, eat in pricey restaurants, and act as if the preferential treatment accorded them was a tribute to who they were, not what they represented. A manager, who subsequently retired, confided in me that his identity evaporated along with his job. Suddenly, he didn’t know who he was; his reality no longer matched his narrative.
Consider that 4.4 million people quit or changed jobs in February of this year alone. What made their old narratives uncomfortable enough to warrant such a massive shift? Was it lack of passion for the work, or inadequate compensation? Were people working too hard for incremental satisfaction? Or were their dreams delayed to a point where quiet but persistent voices could no longer be ignored? Are these shifts simply opportunistic, or is this a mass awakening? And if so, what are we awakening to?
Apparently, a generous slice of the workforce awakens to self-medication. Quest Diagnostics reports that positive drug tests for employees were at their highest levels in over two decades – classic attempts to blunt the discomfort of threadbare narratives. The New York Times acknowledges: “As more workers return to their offices, many are bringing deep emotional and mental scars from the pandemic to their cubicles – and at a time when the world feels particularly unstable.”
There is an urgent near-universal need to get back to normal, but no one knows exactly what that even means, much less how to get there.
Meanwhile, employers reported 11.3 million openings last month. How will their narratives change in order to attract new employees? Will it include flexible hours, or the option to work from home? Will they offer better wages? Will they develop a compelling vision and actually live their values? What changes does this transitional time demand?
Answers to that question, whether for individuals or corporations, will not come without some degree of struggle. In his book The Way of Transition, William Bridges notes that life upheavals and traumatic shakeups often make the old ways untenable. A period of ambivalence follows when you can neither go back to the way things were, nor move forward because the path ahead is not yet clear. He calls that period The Neutral Zone, (a term familiar to Star Trek fans in a different context).
The Neutral Zone is time for deep personal work and introspection. A time for values clarification. Most of us have professed values we believe we embody; and a narrative that aligns us with these values. Professed values serve as a moral compass and indicators of what is most important in our lives. They may include such principles as love, respect, family, community, friendship, integrity, and peace, but will vary with each individual.
However, in practice, we live by a set of operational values – still important, yet frequently lesser values – often chosen for convenience or ease. Under certain conditions we sacrifice our professed values in favor of operational values. For example, I may sacrifice my professed value of respect when arguing with my wife because my operational value is being right. Others may sacrifice family in favor of work, or playing golf, or solitary time tinkering in the garage. While these tradeoffs are common, they create an internal dissonance. We end up living a short distance from our values, and self medicate when the gap becomes too great. Needs and commitments collide. Old narratives cloud new realities.
The two most common responses to creating a new narrative are: resistance, and/or a desire to rush through the process. Both come from a sense of certainty: certainty that the old reality can be maintained; or, certainty that little or no work is required to create a new one. But certainty and emotional health are not necessarily synonymous.
This is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the great not-knowing. To ask ourselves what we truly want, and how we truly want to show up in the world. To re-examine work, career, relationships. It’s a chance to create something better, something workable amidst our new collective reality; perhaps something more in keeping with professed values. It’s a chance to write the next chapter of our story. And although we can’t pre-select the ending, we can at least begin the work of creating a new narrative. The process may be unfamiliar, and we may not have immediate answers, but as the poet Rilke said, we can at least learn to live the questions.