Leap 1. Get Discontented
or The Disorienting Event
Suppose you returned to work after a vacation and found that the project to which you had been assigned for over a year no longer existed. Nor did your team. And on the table where, just weeks before, there were project files there were now severance packages. This happened to Brian B., Phd, a physicist for 25 years at an international tech firm that downsized dramatically in 2009. In the questionnaire participants completed as part of an Improv Yourself: Navigating Transitions seminar at Lifestage, he described the disorientation and anxiety of having to re-invent himself at this point in his life. “At 57 years old and with 2 kids in college, I am now a free-lancer,” he said, “and not by choice.”
Marion Rich – Executive Search consultant, improviser, actress and trainer – allowed her discontent to take her down some untried paths.“Its so easy to stay in a job that you know, even if you are unhappy, which I was," she shares, "I am a developmentalist, so reinventing myself was ultimately the only choice I could make." After 15 years at a firm that she helped develop and despite the challenges of starting over in her fifties, she officially became a free-lancer on June 30. Extensive experience in improvisation and theater – she performs with The Proverbial Loons improv troupe regularly, is co-founder of the Castillo Theatre/Youth Onstage and a long-time builder of the All Stars Project, which offers a free theatre conservatory for teens from the poorest communities in New York City – give her a psychological foundation for saying “yes” to and building on new offers, on stage and in life. “I was able to play with my fear, play with my age, play with the concept of having a bigger life, a more joyous life,” she reports.
Leap 2. Complete the past
“The end is where we start from,” wrotes T.S. Eliot, and it is true that working through the circumstances of an ending is perhaps the most powerful determining influence on a new beginning. Research bears this out. A Health and Retirement Study published in 2009 exploring the forces that shape changes in happiness found that what matters is not the type of transition (gradual retirement or cold turkey) but whether people perceive the transition as chosen or forced.
Marian’s leave-taking was the completion of a role fulfilled by actually training her own replacement. “It took 6 months for my boss to find the right person and I was involved with every step of the process,” she reports. “It was an unusual and at times emotionally demanding assignment after such a long tenure. But I wanted to give back, as in many ways my boss mentored me, taught me the business and helped me develop as a business woman.”
As difficult as it is to participate fully and consciously in tying off the threads of a role, doing so frees up much-needed creative energy. Brian’s transition was extremely fraught because there was no opportunity to complete the story with the company or people involved. “For most of the 25 years I was at the company there were parties and a big send-off when someone retired or left,” he reports. “But I left after my entire department had been dismantled in a 60-day period and I had been leap-frogging from project to project trying to stay with the company. No one noticed when it was my last day, because things were so disconnected. The actual ending was a nonevent, but it took me more than a year to come to terms with what happened. I’ve learned from this how to create my own support system that doesn’t rely on contracts or organizational structures to be sustained.”
Leap 3. Feel Afraid
At various points along the way the momentum of a great beginning will trigger waves of resistance as long-established ways of thinking, roles and scripts rise up to take a look at what just rocked our world. Surrender of the old is scary. Similar to the artist who faces a blank page or empty canvas, the change process requires that we endure the sometimes nail-biting tension of “not-knowing,” let go of the need for reassurance that things will turn out all right and just commit to the work in front of us.
“Some days the fear would develop into a paralyzing panic, and social support in those times is critical” says Marian. “A friend told me that he wakes up with massive anxiety every morning and has learned to embrace that as part of his life, to ask for help, and to keep going.”
Brian – who is developing a customized tutoring service that integrates his education and experience with a long—standing desire to teach – felt like he was “performing a violin recital while learning to play the violin” for over a year after he left the company. “I worked in a large, highly-structured system with fairly rigid rules,” he explains, “and the loss of status turned out to be more frightening than the loss of security. I've had to think on my feet and redefine what it means to be secure while scrambling to support my family. But with lots of self-examination and support I am surprised to find myself enjoying the freedom of trying creative ways to network and get new business. Whatever happens with this new venture I have more ‘muscle’ for managing the unknown than I did before this happened.”
Leap 4. Expand Into the Change
To get a “bigger” life we exchange comfort and security for adventure and experience, surrender the templates of an existing identity for the opportunity to carve something original out of our life space. Brian shared that the improvisation experiences in our Improv Yourself workshops, taught him to “say ‘yes’ to things as they came up and stop worrying about feeling inadequate all the time. I would never have stepped out of the structured business world by choice, and now I can see that means I would have written a smaller part for myself in my life. I am developoing a new frame and a new template that really works for the life of a free-lancer, which I have learned could be anyone these days.”
Marian emphasizes the importance of projecting the ‘big’ version of ourselves in order to take risks and stay strong. “We cannot be small in how we see ourselves and expect people to respond to us in a job interview. The greatest gift I discovered was that I have a big life, I have a rich network of people who are right there with me and didn't have to be "small" in how I went about this.”
As the economy tightens and uncertainty becomes the new "set point" for normal in our social world, we can contract into fear and long for how things used to be. Or we can channel the fear into the natural-occurring tensions of creative expansion, invest in our own potential, and learn to swim in deeper waters. And that puts the "free" in free-lancer.
About CrAzYToWn: How do you know that nice, helpful guy in the next cubicle is a psychopath? You don’t. In Crazytown, real-life therapist/performer Jude Treder-Wolff takes you down the rabbit hole of belief that led to her being blind-sided by reality. It’s a comic take on an over-eager therapist getting over herself (when nothing else seemed to be working). And these days, when our phones are smarter than we are, and we can meet, fall in love, shop for a ring and get some counseling with someone and never meet them in person – it’s a cautionary tale about how authentic a completely fake person can be.