Friday Book Club | Life is in the Transitions
Chip: One benefit of being at the sweet nexus of writing, leadership, and psychology is that I get to meet the most interesting people including Bruce Feiler who’s crafted six consecutive New York Times bestsellers including “Walking the Bible” and “The Council of Dads.” His new book came out this week called “Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”
It’s gotten coverage this week in the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, The Today Show, MSNBC and NPR. And, now, Wisdom Well! :) We’re honored to have you join us, Bruce.
At the core of your new book is the idea of being a Lifestorian. What is that and how do you become one?
Bruce: First, thank you for inviting me. I’ve admired what you’ve done and what you’ve been doing.
For years I’ve described myself with two made-up words: I’m an experientialist, meaning I go out into the world and enter various cultures--Japan; the circus; the Bible; and I’m an explainaholic, meaning I emerged from these worlds and write about them. Now I’ve added lifestorian.
What that means is that I’ve become a devotee of the art and craft of collecting life stories and mining them for themes and takeaways that allow all of us to live better. This was inspired by a storytelling initiative I did with my dad after he tried to kill himself a few years ago while suffering from Parkinson’s. I sent him a question every Monday morning for years until he backed in to writing an autobiography. Everyone I know turned out to have a similar story of finding it difficult to tell their own life stories after a major disruption.
With this inspiration, I crisscrossed the country for five years, collecting hundreds of life stories of Americans of all ages, all walks of life, and all 50 states. People who’d lost limbs, lost homes, changed careers, changed sexual orientations, got sober, got out of bad marriages. Life Is In the Transitions shares many of those stories, along with the lessons I learned from them about how to survive and thrive in times of change.
Chip: I appreciated early in the book that you wrote, “The linear life is dead. The non-linear life involves more transitions. Life transitions are a skill one can, and must, master.” What does it mean to master transitions and what’s some advice you can offer?
Bruce: This overall statement is the real theme of my book. It includes three elements:
1) The linear life is dead. Americans have been told for decades that our lives will follow predictable, linear paths interrupted by periodic “crises” on birthdays that end in zero. The backbone of this paradigm was a series of carefully calibrated progressions—from dating to marriage to children to empty nest; from low-level job to mid-level job to senior-level job to retirement. Today that idea is preposterously outdated. We no longer expect to have just one job, one relationship, one spirituality, one sexuality, one source of happiness from adolescence to assisted living.
2) This linear life has been replaced by a new paradigm—the nonlinear life—in which each of us experiences our life as a complex swirl of celebrations, setbacks, triumphs, and rebirths across the full span of our years.
3) The nonlinear life comes with a greater number of life transitions--three to five spread across our adult lives.
At its simplest, a life transition is the way humans cope with these periods of change. When we get hit by a major life disruption, we often freeze with indecision and fear. The life transition is how we get out unfrozen and move into a period of reinvention and renewal. My book offers the first new toolkit for navigating life transitions in 50 years.
Chip: What are some of the 52 life “disruptors” you discovered in interviewing people and which of these might not have been on your list before you started your interviews? Why do we have more disruptions now than in the past?
Bruce: A disruptor is an event, positive or negative, that interrupts the flow of everyday life. I chose this word because it’s neutral. Many disruptors, like adopting a child, say, or starting a new job, would not traditionally be defined as negative, yet they’re still disruptive. Even the most customarily negative life events, like losing a spouse or being fired, sometimes become catalysts for reinvention. Disruptors are simply deviations from daily life.
I tallied up every disruptor I heard and found fifty-two. I named this list life’s deck of disruptors. As to why this number is increasing, I devote an entire chapter to this in Life Is In the Transitions, as you know. The headline: Life is moving--and changing—faster. Data show we will have more jobs in our lives and more moves; half of us will change faiths; sexual fluidity is rising; we’re facing an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
My data show we will experience one disruptor every one to two years. One in ten will be so big that the person will undergo a major life change. Considering nine in ten of us live with other people, that means virtually every household in the United States has at least one person who’s undergoing a significant life reorientation. It’s time to see us for what we are: a people perpetually in flux.
Chip: What is a “lifequake” and how does one navigate it? In other words, what’s your toolkit?
Bruce: We absorb most of these disruptors with minimal upset to our lives. We adjust, draw on our support networks, move on. But every now and then, one—or more commonly a pileup of two, three, or four—of these disruptors rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events lifequakes, because their higher on the Richter Scale of consequence, the damage they cause can be devastating, and their aftershocks can last for years.
The average person goes through three to five of these destabilizing events in their adult lives, and these lifequakes lead to life transitions. The average length of those transitions: five years. Chances are that you or someone you love is going through one now. What’s unique about this particular moment in history is that for the first time in 75 years, the entire country is going through a life transition together.
So what’s the best way to get through a lifequake?
The most challenging step may be the first. Lifequakes can be voluntary or involuntary, but the transitions that grow out of them must be voluntary. You must choose to enter this state of change. Once you do, there are surprising patterns that can increase the odds that you’ll make the most of these periods. That’s where the toolkit comes in. I’ve identified seven tools that can help us during these times. The second half of my book explores them in depth.
The second half of Bruce Feiler’s interview will be posted tomorrow. I bet you’ll be reading a lot about this book in the next few weeks.