Exactly one year ago, my friend Greg Epstein told me about an intriguing mental strategy. Greg is the Humanist Chaplain at MIT and Harvard; he helps students figure out how they’ll define a meaningful life. Not a small task in the best of times, but especially hard to do when the world is suddenly put on hold by a pandemic. Last summer, Greg’s students weren’t the only ones struggling. After we went into lockdown, Greg started questioning his purpose too, wondering what big changes he should make to better live up to the ideals he spent his days talking about. Greg’s no stranger to existential dilemmas, so he returned to the writings of William Bridges, an academic known for his research on how the most resilient people and corporations managed major transitions.
Bridges studied how businesses should guide their employees through upheavals like a merger, product debut, or introduction of a new CEO. His research found that the best leaders, the ones who kept drama to a minimum, gave themselves and their staff time to process the period that was ending before rushing into the next phase. Bridges called this the neutral zone and wrote that it’s crucial to keep a change from turning into a crisis:
People go through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. It is when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place. It is the very core of the transition process. This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what their new roles will be. They are in flux and may feel confusion and distress. The neutral zone is the seedbed for new beginnings.
Maybe you’re on the cusp of a full on hot vax summer. Or, like 4 million other people, you recently quit your job. Along with humidity and mosquitoes, change is in the air for a lot of people. I recently surveyed 4,000 of my podcast listeners and 60% said they’ve been thinking about making a big change to their life and work at least once a day. Many were exhilarated by Bridge’s idea of giving themselves permission to enjoy this contemplative phase…