The Key to Changing Yourself: Embracing Limbo

Mosquitoes were feasting on us. Dusk was flirting. We were sweaty, hungry and ready to call it quits. When we started the hike early that afternoon it was all laughter and TV theme songs. But spirits had since declined to murderous looks and mumbled obscenities.

Sophomore year in college I did an Outward Bound course in the Everglades. And halfway through the 22-day program of canoeing through alligators and bumping into manatees, our teachers left us to navigate eight treacherous backpacking miles from a pristine beach to a remote, decommissioned airstrip – the only flat, dry place on the island to camp – using plastic compasses and bandanas on sticks. Not an easy task. Kind of like hitting a three-pointer from the stands.

It was clear we were lost. Our newly-minted orienteering skills weren’t up to snuff. I wanted to go back to the beach and eat gorp.

Going through life transitions feels like that: a long, uncertain slog that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Going back to the safety of the known is tempting.

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I’m in that transition stage again. And it’s as hard as I remember.

I know I need a change. But getting to the “new you” means navigating through a dark forest full of fear, doubt, identity issues, practical and financial considerations, and the gravitational pull of your old life. And there’s not even a plastic compass.

In short, limbo sucks.

Life Transitions

Big life changes come slowly (midlife, kids growing up) or hit you like a gut-punch (getting fired, losing a loved one). Or you could just be cleaning your gutters when some inner-voice tells you your life isn’t working.

There’s a great book called Transitions by William Bridges that describes the process of life changes. I’m over-simplifying, but the basic model is:

  1. Death of the old self: Often after an incident (good or bad), we are forced through the emotional train ride of letting go of the old life/self/ideas.
  2. Neutral Zone (the creative stage): The limbo state where we lick our wounds and ask what the hell just happened while slowly understanding our new potential.
  3. Rebirth of the new self: Sometimes without even noticing, our new life takes shape with new energy and focus.

The big challenge for most people is getting stuck in this middle stage. We get scared and want to go back to the known – our pretty little beach with snacks. Limbo means loss of identity, and that’s frightening. If we’re not that person anymore, who are we? Just a ghost in a void. (And if you’re like me, an annoyingly chatty ghost who talks about the struggle with anyone who will listen.)

So we retreat to our old selves in an effort to belong and be on familiar ground again. “This identity worked for me before, so I’m sure it will again.”

It’s why our country loves plastic surgery and trophy spouses – we can’t seem to stop trying to be 27. But that identity no longer serves the same purpose and mostly leads to more pain, and 45-year old men dressing like extras from Jersey Shore.

My Misstep

Doing this last startup was “grasping for the old me” – it was the comfortable enterprise-software-CEO identity, and the team was even in Portland. I got halfway into the Neutral Zone, got scared, and jumped back under the warm blankets of old Dave.

Problem was, that identity isn’t me anymore. I’m still entrepreneurial, but where I get my energy from has changed dramatically, and being in a different location from the team was terrible. Plus, I no longer own khakis.

I don’t regret it though. I had to do something. And I felt what it was to go back to the old. The important thing was to keep moving. Stasis was much more painful. It’s why I now have a (for some reason 80’s-styled) plaque in my office that says, “Keep Making Decisions.”

keep making decisions

It was also important to be open. It’s like that joke about the guy who is looking for his lost keys under a random streetlight he’s never been to because there’s more light there. I was looking for clues in the wrong spot. When I removed those limited assumptions, it became more of a scenic hike with panoramic views and no tourists with selfie sticks.

Speaking of hiking, back to my 19-year old self….

After another hour of drudgery, it was my turn up front with a bandana on a stick to mark the sight line. At that point, I was looking longingly at tree branches as potential beds.

I finally got about 75 yards ahead of the group and stopped to mark the line. In order to get my placement though, I had to move out of the way of a man-made sign that read (I kid you not), “Please Stay Off the Runway”.

I was so tired and convinced we were lost, I wrote off the sign as random human detritus in the forest. I was literally standing on the runway but couldn’t accept it. I read what the sign said to the group because I thought it was funny and they exploded with high fives and hugs. I was confused for a good 90 seconds until it finally dawned on me that we might actually have made it.

Going through a transition again, it’s clear that life is a lot more tasty when I embrace the process fully – to get past the fear and love limbo, to go from bashing myself in the head to enjoying my own company, being open to whatever and to just keep going.

Not only is the destination worth it, but it turns out the hike is pretty sweet if you can keep singing. And you can leave the khakis at home.

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8 thoughts on “The Key to Changing Yourself: Embracing Limbo

  1. In anthropology, that neutral phase is often referred to (within the theory of ritual) as the period of liminality:

    “The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” Wikipedia

    It’s tough to become fluid and malleable, but to your point? every bit a journey to try to enjoy as well 🙂 Timely reminder for me, reading your blog. Thank you again for sharing the journey with us!

  2. Good for you to be out there searching and discovering. Most folks definitely want the known, or even more so, want someone else to direct or lead. What am exciting time. Good luck!

  3. Well written Dave, and I can relate. This time in our lives is full of transition. With the kids getting older, my career is moving into a different phase. Very scary to make the big leap into more responsibility, more unknown obstacles, and more pressure! I wish you luck in all of your new endeavors.

  4. Thanks for the very thoughtful & insightful post, Dave. Much relatable, especially the chatty ghost…I know that dude, & he rarely shuts up. At the risk of disclosing I missed a major component here, can you clarify the “keep making decisions” part? Where did you stop making decisions during the misstep, as it seems you kept making them. Care to expand a bit? Thanks.

    p.s. I recall you making a decision to have the #8 tattooed on your ankle back in the dark days of December ’08…regret that one?

    1. Hah! Thanks, bud. The decisions I wasn’t making were around committing to something full time. I held too many filters for finding the perfect thing (had to have social value, be scalable, have great people, allow me balance in life, blah, blah) and it kept me from committing.

      Still have the tattoo. It’s one only an MBA would love.

  5. Brilliant, even on the second reading, Dave! When I used to tell my students about your experience I always added on the follow-up of your working with the migrant laborers. Maybe write about that sometime. I’d like to know what REALLY had an impact on your life, since I probably added some “Hersh Decorating” to what actually happened…a family tradition.

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