Bridges, William

William Bridges, Ph.D., is the nation's leading consultant on organizational and individual transitions. He travels widely to speak, lead workshops, and consult with corporations. He is the author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, and Creating You & Co. Bridges lives in the San Francisco area. asks William Bridges?

You were an English professor for a dozen years. At some point you said to yourself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ How did that happen?

WB: Well, I think there was no big deal, just a growing disenchantment with teaching undergraduates. There was also a sense that the way I knew how to teach (which is part of my own limitations) was not leading to very significant change in people. My wife was a psychotherapist and I saw how much people changed in the work she did and I started trying to think of another role, another line of work that I could be following to have more impact on people and to help them get what they needed in their lives. So it was a combination of getting tired of working with undergraduates and looking for a role/vehicle/identity that had more impact on people.

How long did it take from the time you decided you wanted to change until you actually left teaching?

WB: A couple of years before I left teaching I was looking for a way out of teaching. This was in 1970 … and nobody was talking about brand you … this was a world in which people stayed in their careers. People who didn’t were stigmatized as not being very reliable. I think I went at it much more slowly than I would have today. But it took me a couple of years to work up my courage to leave teaching. And then it took me two or three years of experimenting after I had done so to find a path that was a real replacement. It was a five-year process.

I’ve spoken with other people about changing, and experimenting always comes up. What was one of your initial experiments?

WB: My experiments started when I was still teaching. I pushed literature courses farther and farther away from literature and toward self-exploration. I, for example, taught a course in autobiography. Which really was a pure and simple excuse for having people search their own lives to find a path for themselves, where they were going. That was one exploration. But I was scared to leave teaching, so I pushed the boundaries of what I was doing as far as I dared. I got a certain amount of criticism from other teachers for doing it, because I left traditional literature entirely and found a quasi-literary topic that would let me do this. In other cases I was still teaching poetry or the rise of the novel, but I was letting students write papers that were extremely personal, that were a departure from any critical papers that I had ever written.

While you were doing this, did you know in your heart that you wouldn’t be teaching much longer?

WB: I certainly suspected that very strongly. As I’ll say in a minute, the actual crossover point came rather serendipitously. That is, I got involved with a group of people who were starting a counseling center in Palo Alto and I got in the training program for lay therapists. There was an experiment in the early ’70s to have non-professionals actually trained as therapists and to do therapy under the direction of a therapist. I was doing this in my after-hours life. It was very exciting. There were six families in which one or the other partner was in the training program. We started meeting together after these training sessions; we really liked each other. And we talked about living closer together and so on and the upshot of it was that in 1972 we decided to form an ‘intentional community.’ Not a commune, in one house, but a community. We started looking for property and finally found 80 acres near the Russian River in California. This thing which had nothing to do with my original purposes for leaving teaching was the precipitating event that finally got me to quit. Mills College, where I’d been teaching, was too far away. I couldn’t keep teaching. I didn’t really want to anyway, but I used that as an excuse. One of the things that I’ve found in talking to and working with people since is that they very often find the excuse to make the break.

We in effect have to play tricks with our minds in this situation. You’re uncomfortable with the current situation and you want to move on … but is there something about permission, giving ourselves permission to say this isn’t good enough for me? I can do better?

WB: It’s a need to quiet the voices in our heads. I came from a long line of teachers and the idea of leaving not only a tenured position that I had, an endowed professorship, was scary. I was the Aurelia Henry Rinehart Professor of American Literature. These voices in my head, which were largely, I think, family voices, said, ‘This is insane, this is crazy. What is it you’re going to do?’ Of course I didn’t have an answer yet. And the voices were saying, ‘You want to help people grow? Oh, come on, what are you talking about? College is where people grow.’ This dialogue was going on in my head and I think finding this community group really helped me. But in other peoples’ cases a complete blowup with the boss, or a serendipitous job offer are often the catalyzing events.

But on this point, I know people who are in corporate jobs or not even corporate, but jobs that they dislike and downright hate. I know they want to change, they know they want to change, yet, how would you counsel someone to get over that initial hurdle. There’s a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety, moving from a stable situation. People don’t easily think, ‘I want to make my life unstable.’ How do you help someone do that?

WB: I think there are two sides to it. And this speaks to the work that I did after changing. One I call the change side, which has to do with getting a vision of the alternative. Obviously that’s very important. The other I call the transition side. I distinguish between change and transition. This is the work I ended up doing. In my thinking change is situational. Change for me was finding a new career, finding a new living situation. The transition has to do with the psychological reorientation, psychological transit from one to the other. Whereas change involved finding the new, doing the new thing, transition involved letting go of the old. There are all kinds of people who handle the change all right, that is, they get the new thing, but it’s the emotional side of things that hangs them up. And counseling them to visualize the new thing they’re gong to do, to plan the new is not enough. I’ve spent a whole career since 1974 working first with individuals and then with organizations helping them see the transition component of their change. Corporate mergers, for instance, are planned as change events and they’re loaded with transitions but nobody plans those. All kinds of strategic shifts have tremendous transition implications—emotional implications—but people instead plan the shift logically. I’d say that how you help people touches on both the change and the transition. Obviously they have to have a change that makes sense to them. Most career development deals with that. They also have to have a way of dealing with transition and very little career development deals with that.

In other words, I talk about three phases of transition. You really have to get through all three to make this work. The first is letting go of the old or making an ending. The second is dealing with the in-between space, when you’re not the old—and this is not necessarily the literal in-between space when you don’t have a job. It’s the psychological in-between space when you don’t have an identity, when you don’t have the ground under your feet.

Like when you go to a cocktail party and somebody asks, ‘What do you do?’

WB: And you answer, ‘I used to be a literature professor.’ And that’s a crummy answer, you know. I mean it’s crummy in terms of your own self-comfort. The second phase is this neutral zone, this in-between phase, and the third phase is making the new beginning. The trouble that most people run into is that they try to start with the third phase, they try to start with making the new beginning. And then they say, ‘Why does this change take so long? I’m just floundering around.’ That was true in my case. I tried to dive into the new beginning and I was … immobilized, tired all the time, and full of self-doubt. But what was happening was that I was dragging my teacher mind along with me, my teacher identity. I hadn’t let go of it.

One of the things that was both significant and probably helpful in the long run is that I had always been proud that I’d made it into Who’s Who by age 35. Who’s Who dropped me because I was no longer a professor. That was a terrible shock. I didn’t know anybody in the world who went backwards like that. It really helped me let go, I think. I thought, ‘That is in the past now. That isn’t what I’m doing.’ And when I say let go I don’t just mean, no longer say that I’m a teacher, I mean get over the teacher attitudes, the teacher habits, the teacher values. I had a really hard time launching this independent human development career because I kept looking at the thing as a classroom. I knew all about classrooms and had been a good teacher and so the thing that made me good in the last phase of my life was a debit in the new phase. And I hadn’t fully let go of it. I would have told you at the time that I no longer thought of myself as a teacher. But in fact I had lots of habits that belonged to that world. Letting go is a fairly complex process in anybody’s significant career shift.

When you ask, ‘What helps a person,’ I don’t want to minimize how important it is to get a new image in your mind, think of yourself as a brand, all of those things. But the other thing I find that people need to do is have some way of letting go of the old habits and the old attitudes and the old values.

I would see a case for working with a professional to help this letting go, but is there something you can do on your own to help with that letting go? In your case the changing of your physical space helped with the transition, with the letting go of the old mindset …

WB: That was the vehicle for a lot of things, but there is also this inner work that you need to do. The first thing that people need to do is to decide what in their life and work is over and what isn’t. People err in both directions. They err in the direction of saying, ‘Everything is over. I’m done. I’m finished, I have nothing.’ Of course that isn’t true. There are a lot of things you carry with you from the old into the new. But then there are people who err in the other direction of saying, ‘Well, this isn’t anything psychological, I’ve just got a new role. I’m going to go into it and on day one I’ll hit the ground running.’ There needs to be some sorting. You must think about what you have to replace completely, what parts of your attitude and skills could be redefined, what you’ve got to completely reinvent and maybe some of the stuff you just have to kiss goodbye. That’s the first stage.

Secondly there are people who are scared to death of the fact that emotionally they go through a kind of mourning process and they leave an identity that’s been important to them. You’ve got to expect that and not be scared of it. Many people who go though that kind of thing and find themselves depressed and grieving decide that that means they made a wrong choice, that the change isn’t right for them. That’s not what it means at all. It simply means that like any big change in your life, letting go of what you’ve been doing is something that cuts pretty deep into your identity. You’re going to go through a time of mourning. Expect that. Don’t be thrown off by it.

Another thing on the other side of the equation is to identify the continuities in your life and do things to strengthen them. Not continuities that bind you to the old identity, though. When I left teaching to go into this as yet undefined work, I was also changing my whole lifestyle. It was critical for me to have activities and things like jogging that I still did. Relationships became terribly important at that time. Continuities that don’t hold you back but really give you a sense of continuity.

Continuities that are outside of your current identity for your current work but that will support you, for instance, your family, sports activities, hobbies.

WB: Anybody you want to pick who is pro change has areas of life that don’t change. And anybody who doesn’t have such areas really is either courting serious trouble or simply is so superficial that there isn’t much there. Another thing to do is to look for ways to symbolize what you’re doing. In my case, when I moved from the Bay area to Sonoma county and got ready for the physical move I went through all my books and I discarded a lot of academic books. I’m a book person. Sorting my books was like a ritual. A symbolic thing.

If those books weren’t going to help you in your new life, dragging them along would just be prolonging your connection to the old life?

WB: It turns out that I actually had to sort my books the next year and the next year to really make a clean break. I carried an awful lot with me. But that’s another story. Another thing that is useful: Give some thought when you’re making an ending to past endings in your life. One of the things that often happens is that incomplete past endings—and that’s a common thing, not to really quite separate ourselves completely from the past—loom up every time a new ending comes along. The term we hear for that is ‘unfinished business.’ You have unfinished business with the past. These in one sense are cliché and I know a lot of people shy away from this kind of language. (‘Don’t tell me about closure and all this sort of thing.’) In fact they do represent real situations and people need to be sensitive to where they’re still holding on to something. Looking at past endings, see if you’ve got old baggage that you’re carrying along with you. In some cases, big career changes really activate a lot of stuff about childhood. If someone, for instance, went into a career because of parental influence, then to leave that career means some stuff about parent-child relationships. There’s quite a lot of old stuff that’s likely to come up when you’re dealing with an ending.

You consult to corporations … is there some question that you hear most?

WB: One question I hear a lot is, ‘Can’t we speed up this process? We don’t have time to do all these things you’re talking about.’ The answer there is that you can indeed speed up the change if you have it well planned, if you have the new direction set, if you have a good communication plan. All these things speed up the change and cut down on the confusion. But they really don’t touch these deeper issues. Letting go of the past takes time. What happens is that if you simply speed up the change, the change will take place but the people will lag behind. And that’s okay. That’s inevitable. But if the leader doesn’t understand what’s going on with the people and why they aren’t just out there firing away, then in time the leader gets so far ahead of the people that the organization suffers.

You’re speaking about organizations there. Is there an equivalent for individuals. Don’t individuals also say, ‘Can’t I make this happen faster?’

WB: Speaking of the individual, yes, you can make your career change happen or your new work situation happen faster. I don’t know that there are any limits to how fast that can happen. What you can’t speed up is bringing your heart along. I’ve got to say—and this is where I differ from Tom Peters—a lot of the people who are moving fastest in this new economy have left their hearts miles behind. These are people who are operating out of their heads and their nervous systems but who have really lost depth. They just don’t see life in its richness. Is that a bad thing? I’m not trying to judge them. They can accomplish some pretty amazing things. I think that inevitably those people will have a day of reckoning. When it comes, I don’t know. Mid life is a kind of traditional time for it to come. One of the interesting things is going to be Gen X hitting mid life. I think it’s going to be one of the great train wrecks in history.

There is a time when people say, ‘Is this all there is?’ Or they say, ‘You mean I’ve given up everything for this?’ They say, ‘I’m alone in the world. Oh, I mean I have all these friends, man do I have friends, but I’m alone in the world.’ I think on the individual level you can speed things up but I prefer to work in a way for myself that’s more contemplative and choose to work with people who want to bring themselves along in that same way. That’s just an individual choice; that’s my values.

Favorite books?

WB: I find myself having favorite writers more than favorite books. One of my favorite writers is Peter Drucker and that’s simply because he has such a powerful historical perspective about what’s going on. One of our weaknesses is we think because so much is new that we’ve invented social change. And we haven’t. Drucker is a wonderful antidote to that.

Second author that I am always drawn to is Charles Handy. The reason there I think is that although in his early work he showed a real appreciation for the changes that are going on in the world of work, he has such a strong humanistic root that he remains concerned about human issues in a way that an awful lot of writers on the new economy don’t.

What are you currently working on?

WB: There’s a new book that I’ll be publishing in February of 2001, called The Way of Transition. It’s based on the idea that way means two things in English. One is how to do something, like ‘the best way to make hollandaise sauce.’ The other is a path, as in ‘the shortest way home.’ We’re a society that has abandoned the latter. And believes that the former—’The 10 Best Ways to Start a New Career’—will see you through. Society isn’t interested in life ‘paths’ or the kind of deep experience you have when you are on your path. Americans think that you just need some techniques. I think that is a misleading point of view. And that’s what I’ll be addressing in The Way of Transition.