“So – what’s next?”

This must make the list of most-dreaded questions for anyone about to make a major change in career or life.

There’s a strong pressure to have foresight over the future at every given moment, including while embarking on a completely new direction. And sometimes exactly the right door opens at exactly the right time, and we can launch straight ahead with a clear sense of purpose and direction. 

But for most of us about to engage in a significant life transition, that’s not how it works. In reality, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have no clue about what’s coming next. The future is an unknown, a blank slate. 

That open-endedness is an alluring invitation to adventure and possibility, at the same time as it is terrifying. While we might intuitively feel that we need time and space to reflect before we move forwards, many of us rush into identifying our next steps before we feel ready. We try to force a certain, predictable future before it’s crystallised. 

And this leads to problems.

The problem with rushing

We might stay in the company, sector or area that is familiar to us or pays us well, even though we know we aren’t passionate about it anymore. We might take a scattergun approach and line up a diverse set of job interviews without being enamored about any of them, just to feel that we’re on the path to something. We might pick the most financially lucrative option and tell ourselves that once we have more of a financial base, then we will set aside time to decide what we want to do later. Or we might take a lengthy sabbatical, but fill it with so many different activities and engagements that we are constantly in motion.

Taking this path means that we never really make the transition that we set out to do; instead, we stay on the same path as before. 

The other way: embracing transitions

What we really need is an open-ended amount of time to allow the shift in ourselves and our lives to take place. We need to accept that transition is its own, unknown space. It’s neither ‘the next step’ nor is it the one prior. 

It’s like an invisible bridge, and stepping onto it means that we don’t have a foothold on solid ground. If we did, we would either be pre-transition or post-transition. Taking those first steps can be terrifying, which is why it is so tempting to try to skip this phase entirely.

And if that wasn’t frightening enough, transitions are excellent at bringing out our fears in full force, like guards at a tollbooth. 

The traps: money, identity and control

During a transition, one of the ways our fears can be expressed is through our relationship to three social constructs: money, identity and control.

Many of us are enslaved by money, trapped by a fear of not having enough. Even if we’ve built up sufficient levels of savings, or have a period of paid leave, we might still feel anxious about not having a steady earned income. Letting go of our attachment to money means thinking about what our essential needs are, and what it is that we truly desire beyond that. It also means cultivating a level of trust in our own abilities, skillsets and ingenuity to bring in the resources that we need. 

Another is around our relationship with our sense of self: who are we? Many of us have defined ourselves by our professional identity, whether it’s by the role we have performed or the community we’ve joined. We attach so much value to our professional labels that we might worry how we will introduce ourselves at social events. Letting go of the value assigned to us by our professional identity means that we need to start looking at who we are outside of our careers – which again, can be both fascinating and terrifying. 

And of course, a lot of the tension around transitions boils down to a fear of losing control. Letting go of this attachment requires a humbling acknowledgement that we never had control to begin with. 

The in-between space

Transitions are precious and don’t come around every day. So when given the gift of one – receive it. Embrace it. Utilise it.  

Transitions are opportunities to refamiliarize ourselves with who we are independent of societal expectations; to reconnect with our passions and sense of purpose; to move closer to a lifestyle that aligns with our values and gives us joy. They are to be cherished.  

So the next time someone asks, “What’s next?”, smile with the acknowledgement that being in transition means having absolutely no idea what the future will hold – and what is more exciting than that! 

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Baillie Aaron