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On "Life is in the Transitions" and Stories

Disclaimer: I'm the fractional Learner-in-Chief for the Financial Transitionist Institute, which teaches financial advisors how to work skillfully with clients anticipating or experiencing transitions.

I've written elsewhere about stories, and a large chunk of my doctorate had story-as-meaning-making at its center. This was the 1990s, so postmodernism, poststructuralism, and relativism of all stripes ruled the day. Stories were having a moment. And they are again! I understand--I see, daily--the human need to make sense of life, and story is the most accessible strategy for meaning-making that humans appear to possess/have developed. That we are Narrativists by individual nature and not by nature as homo sapiens sapiens is a fascinating topic for those of us who don't experience their lives as story. Our species might know, and know that we know, but metacognition does not equal the storying of life. Bruce Feiler has no such discussion with himself. He is clearly in the life-as-story camp, which is fine, as there is utility, convenience, and simplicity in it. I'd wager almost everyone recognizes storying and is capable of it given the right nudging and structure.

Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age is chock full of what-1970s-song-best-describes-you/which-breed-of-dog-are-you/which-Hogwart's-House-would-you-be-in opportunities to deconstruct your self. Here, it's more like: what's the shape of your life (which is fun to do, and mine isn't really in there, but it's close enough); which element of the well-balanced life drives you most (although it does change); and what's your dominant emotion. It should be said that Feiler is a man of god and religion, and both are everywhere in this book. It's mildly distracting for someone who is of neither god nor religion, as that lens is fairly thick. Even so, it's a delightful mix of story, theory, and statistic(ish) that is easy to read and I'd imagine quite helpful for someone feeling the need to make sense of their own transitions.

Major Life Transitions as "Lifequakes"

Feiler has a knack for naming. Lifequake:

"A forceful burst of change in one's life that leads to a period of

upheaval, transition, and renewal" (78).

He also uses pileup as a way to describe when a few happen at once. You do know that there's no guarantee that only one lifequake will occur at a time, right?

As for life disruptors, they are less intense than lifequakes, by his definition. He has a 52-item "Deck of Disruptors" (get it? 52? deck?), with a handful of categories (e.g., love, body, work). Some disruptors are planned, some are not, and the list includes everything from having a child to losing a job to weight loss. According to his research, adults will experience 30-40 disruptors, and each transition lasts an average of 4-5 years. There will be one disruptor every 12-18 months. You can quibble about those stats and his sample, but this is a qualitative study, so why bother. I don't think anyone can argue that we basically spend most of our adult lives in transition.

The Field of Transitions Literature--Similarities and Differences

Transitions have been written about for hundreds of years, in fields as varying as counseling, nursing, leadership, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. And of course, literature, where stories of journeys, transitions, rituals, and coming of age have been staples since the dawn of the written word.

When it comes to scholarship, there are many similarities across the fields. For instance, most theorists early on claimed there are at least 3 stages to life transitions (although one of my favorites on the topic, Nancy Schlossberg, doesn't find stages useful and has a different model). Regardless, they are about shedding something or leaving something and coming into something new or creating something new, and a bunch of messy stuff happening in between. The order of the stages was critical for the early theorists, and as time has gone on, like one of the most famous stage theorists, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross did in her later life, they qualify their stages with: "not necessarily in this order, not everyone does all of them, and you can experience them more than once." (For more on that, go here.) Life isn't linear, we now agree, for the most part. Feiler emphasizes this, writing about Life Out of Order and saying the idea of linear stages is "wrong" and "dangerous" (146). He has his own three stages: Long Goodbye, Messy Middle, and New Beginning, and they happen when they happen (or not).

Story as Strategy

Feiler says he can "say with confidence that 90% of the patterns [he] uncovered have never been written about before" (13). His sample is a total of 225 Life Story Interviews of about 15 minutes, representing people from all 50 of the United States. I'm not sure what he means by his claim, as from the discussion of identity to emotions to purpose to the nonlinearity of life, I don't think I read much that I felt was completely new. Maybe it's a new way of storying people's stats and responses, or an insistence upon storying them, but the actual narratives and patterns didn't surprise me. They were definitely well-organized and presented and made use of word clouds and other visuals that were supportive, which was helpful.

Fifty years ago, there was still a bunch of talk of ages and stages and cycles and passages, but we have since seen or been shown that those weren't just convenient, grave oversimplifications. They were, in fact, inaccurate. If you want to know how Feiler feels about Gail Sheehy's famous book, Passages, the heading of the section that talks about it is called: "Gail Sheehy and the Delusion of Predictability" (41).

Perhaps the reason for the 90% as he sees it comes back to god and religion. For me, the hand of meaning and meaning-making was almost too heavy. Again, not everyone is a Narrativist, and narrative is the very foundation of his program. If you identify yourself as spiritual and/or you believe in karma or fate or that things make sense and don't happen by accident, you will love this book. The No Stupid Questions/Freakonomics episode "Why are stories stickier than statistics?" gets into some of this if you're interested.

It was William James, the father of modern psychology, who said "Life is in the transitions," and because of that, Feiler wants to teach us how to master transitions, with his tool kit (he prefers that to road map or blueprint). We can all learn how to "do" them better. "Better make the most of these times before they make the least of you," (157) he says. He has determined the "secrets of successful transitions" (325).

Feiler's Toolkit for Mastering Life Transitions

His 7 tools are:

  1. Accept it: Identify your emotions

  2. Mark it: Ritualize the change

  3. Shed it: Give up old mind-sets

  4. Create it: Try new things

  5. Share it: Seek wisdom from others

  6. Launch it: Unveil your new self

  7. Tell it: Compose a fresh story

I'm all for using stories if they're helpful to you and for rituals if that's your thing and in launching your new self in whatever way makes your heart sing. All of it. I don't disagree with any of what Feiler says and I appreciate it! I'm just not feeling the actual newness. And I think we could use the same sample of people and use a different lens and come up with a different list, because they would tell a different story. The story that emerges depends on the questions you ask. The prompts shape the story.

My lens: Once you embrace the reality that life is change and it's not linear, and that it has large swaths of randomness and luck, and that DNA is way more important than we like to think, and you examine your relationship with Time, you can focus on the work of getting to know yourself and even revising yourself. In reality, no matter what happens with your transitions, if you're into using narrative, you can story and re-story yourself. Our memories aren't as good as we think they are, after all, and we are frequently creating and re-creating our selves without even intending to. I suppose the question is: Can we trust our own narratives and should we base theories on them?


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