It feels strange to think about the future from here. We’ve been collectively enduring an imposed and unenjoyable present for a considerable period of time now. It’s been a year that has felt both interminable and yet blindingly fast at the same time. Time seems to take forever to pass, but we’re not wholly certain where it has all gone. While it will be a delight to move beyond the bounds of the pandemic, doing so feels a little surreal after such a lengthy period of living in-between.
Liminality is a place of transition. What that transition looks like, the shape it takes and the impacts that endure largely depend upon how that transition is approached by those working through it. As I wrote about earlier in the pandemic and updated last week, the outbreak of Covid-19 has involuntarily launched us all off the liminal cliff without a safety net. That we have been plunged into a period of transition that is not of our own choosing is a reality. The question that does remain to be answered is how we respond.
As we contemplate re-emergence into the world after a protracted period of liminality, there are opportunities to be explored about what that future looks like and how we would like it to unfold. In particular, each of us has the chance to consider and identify how we would like to show up in that future. There are choices here, perhaps many more than appear at first glance. Pondering those choices, working through their implications and designing our optimal future is an opportunity that lies before us. Sorting out that opportunity, and how to approach, think about and take advantage of it, is what I’d like to discuss today.
You might be looking at all of this and sincerely questioning my sanity, and the degree to which there is any opportunity to be realized in our current voyage through the between and betwixt. I certainly get that. There is a great deal about the last year that was about things being done to us (and not necessarily pleasant ones). Part of that was the product of circumstance, and the balance can be attributed to the results of questionable choices in response to circumstance. Regardless, it is easy to look at the last year through the lens of victimhood and feel entirely justified in that stance.
While I get that you didn’t have a choice in getting on this rollercoaster of a pandemic, there is more choice and opportunity about how you treat the ride, and in particular your approach to disembarkation. The pandemic has in many respects served as a giant reset button, and its uses in that regard are not yet complete. There are a few different creative ways in which it can still be employed. Within that truth lie a number of possibilities for those prepared to take advantage of that, although the window won’t stay open forever.
First, some hard reality (and it’s an important thing to understand in any liminal transition). We aren’t going back to the way it was. For those hoping for a return to normal, that ship has sailed. In actual fact, there never really was a good ship normal. But for anyone that is calling dibs on returning to where you were at the outset of 2020 before all this madness took hold, I’m afraid that isn’t actually one of the options available to you.
Some kind of transformation and transition is inevitable. Things will be different. There are going to be adjustments and adaptations in the best of all possible circumstances. There is also, however, the possibility for more. But that first requires accepting that transition will occur, and that you are moving on from the past. What undermines the ability for liminality to perform its role is clinging to the past. Adhering to the familiar is understandable; it’s what we know, after all. Transition and renewal only become possible, though, once we acknowledge to ourselves that it is a journey we are going to take, and we push away from the shore and into the mists of uncertainty that shroud whatever comes next.
Even if you resist the fact that things will be different, they will still be different. The challenge is that you’ll be fighting that reality each step of the way. Despite this, reality is still going to win.
The next step is taking stock of the liminal situation in which you currently find yourself. This is an interesting piece of reflection to engage in. None of us chose to be where we are right now, to the extent that matters. An interesting by-product that I have observed in a number of clients is a resistance to embracing anything that looks like a new normal through this transition. Routines have been upset, and rather than finding new routines to replace them, in many instances they have been allowed to stay upset. It is an interesting form of denial that is both acceptance and resistance, all at the same time.
What is needed now is to take stock of what you have been experiencing over the last year, the good, the bad and the ugly. There is opportunity to be found in the positive, but there is also insight to be found in the negative. What you need right now is to find the clarity about what is working for you and what isn’t, on a number of different levels. From there, you can start to evaluate and make choices about what you want to pursue and what you want to avoid going forward.
The questions you want to explore are from a variety of perspectives. Unpack the different dimensions of your experience, in terms of work, home, family, friends and in particular you yourself. Think of the situations that have brought you joy—there have to have been at least a few, even if they occurred at the most surprising of moments. Consider what brought you frustration, resentment and anger. There will have been times where nerves were far too close to the surface; what was going on, and what were the triggers that drove you over the edge? There will also have been times where you found at least some amount of equanimity; what was going on then?
For each of those dimensions, dive in and explore the details. In terms of work, for example you might have found some type of autonomy, trust and independence that had previously eluded you (or at least was prevented by your boss). Or perhaps the opposite was true, and the remote reality for many turned into an excessively intrusive exercise in micromanagement. There may be aspects of working remotely that have appealed, and others that have chafed. You may have found new collaborative strategies that worked, just as you may be missing previous traditions and conventions that previously governed how your team operated.
The same is true about family, friends, community and yourself. You may through this experience have found new inner understanding about who you are as a person. That might be about your strengths and abilities to adapt, and that may also have revealed to you fundamental needs that you can now acknowledge aren’t being met. Whatever your experience has been, it is your experience. Give yourself permission to examine and understand it, and try to honestly assess what has been challenging and what has been inspiring and engaging.
What you are looking for are the insights you have gained about what you want to keep, what you want to change and what you want to use. As a personal example, I’ve been working as a management consultant for decades. I long-held principle that has guided me through this career has been the assertion that my clients are people, not organizations. There are some important implications to parse there, for the entity that my contracts have been with is most assuredly an organization most of the time. They are who have accepted my proposals, engaged my services and to whom I have submitted my invoices.
At the same time, the work I have done has been for a particular sponsor who has engaged my services. They have an objective they are working towards and an outcome they want to deliver. Part of my perspective in viewing my services is that my job is to make them as successful as possible. That means engaging with them as an individual, understanding what they are trying to do, the strengths they bring to the table and also the gaps that need to be addressed or augmented. My job is to guide them through whatever process we are working through, emerging out the other side delivering the value that was promised and the outcomes that were hoped for—or at least as close to that result as is possible.
The challenge, as I’m sure you can imagine, is that not everything goes according to plan. Even when it does, the results don’t necessarily have the impact that they are intended to on a sustained basis. I can point you to any number of organizations where, after an executive transition, whatever has come before is discarded and new approaches and new team members are brought in, with different expectations and divergent marching orders.
Even where this has occurred, I’ve had some exceptional experiences as people I have worked with, trained or coached previously have approached me to let me know how a course, a meeting or an experience that I facilitated had tremendous value for them. Hearing years after the fact that they still use the learnings, remember the concepts and use the templates that I provided for them is beyond rewarding.
What that has led to is a shift in where my focus and attention lies. I continue to work as a management consultant, and support organizations in building strategic plans and creating project management capabilities. An emerging emphasis, though, is supporting individual clients as individuals. That’s a big part of where Strategy Making as a workshop has come from: creating a training program that enables emerging leaders to envision their future and build meaningful plans to accomplish their essential and most important goals. For me, the pandemic is very much the circumstance and situation that has made that possible. I have finally had the time, focus and drive to build something that I have been contemplating for literally years.
There is risk here, as well as opportunity. The workshop may thrive and experience widespread success and acceptance. I may struggle to get traction in a noisy marketplace. I have no idea what that outcome will be, but in a world where I see the possibility and value that can be derived from what I’m building, I’m hoping that it gets adopted and embraced. I am putting the effort in to help ensure that’s the result. We will see how that unfolds.
This is also the opportunity for you. You may be looking at your job with dread, fearing a re-entry that you don’t really want to occur. Alternatively, you may be filled with new inspiration and energy, filled with ideas and aspirations that you can’t wait to introduce once you are back within the work place. Whichever reality you find yourself in, there is a message for you. It is one that is guiding and prompting you to what your optimal future could look like.
As we re-enter the world, a lot is going to be different. People expect that a lot will be different. That creates possibly the most significant opportunity to reframe expectations and intentions that many of us will face in our lifetimes. If you look at your current reality and want different, there will be no greater time to obtain different than you have today. That will require stepping up, speaking up and asking for what you want. It will mean negotiating for outcomes and managing expectations of what you are prepared to do—and where you draw the line. The answer that you get might be, “no.” That’s okay also, in that what you might find is your optimal future isn’t here, it’s somewhere else.
The broad acceptance and experiencing of our current liminal state is that all bets about the future are truly and genuinely in play. Organizations may have expectations and intentions, but it will be perfectly plausible and predictable that their employees have different ones. This is where you get to step up. This is where you get to choose. This is where you get to make a difference in your life, now and going forward. The only question you need to answer for yourself is: will you take advantage of it?
Liminality does end for all of us. The period we are experiencing will transition into a new normal. You have the power, the agency and the ability to define what you want your new normal to be. You just need to create it.
At the time that I am reading this article, I was struck with the harsh relativity that our current situation is far from over. After a year of isolation, masks, sanitizer and the like, my wife has contracted Covid (through a school where she is a volunteer) and is currently in the hospital getting treatment. Yet another change to work through. While it is hard to focus on the future at this very moment, I know the future is going to be different from the past and even (now) the future that I was planning. As you mentioned, Liminality does not end for all of us. We need to learn to adjust, adapt and move forward, taking advantages of the opportunities we are given.
I have really enjoyed your series on this topic. It has given me pause to think and reflect, both backwards and forwards.
Mark Mullaly says
My sincere condolences, and best wishes to you and your wife. This continues to be an incredibly difficult time, and yet that seems to only register for some once they are confronted with the reality of the disease. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but hopefully I can provide a framework for some of the questions that need to be considered.
What we take from this will vary. But finding a collective sense of its implications and importance will be important, before we try to move past it and into a more preferable future. Adaptation is our challenge and what we need most.
Sending you best wishes,
Mark Krull says
Myself, I’ve really enjoyed working at home but the isolation completely changed my lifestyle. Before the pandemic I went to work did extracurricular activities and didn’t get home till 9:00 PM. Now I stay home most of the time unless I’m with my girlfriend and that has been a problem because we’ve been seeing each other too much and it’s affected that. I’m trying to make changes in that relationship not sure what will come up but there is opportunity for change for sure
Mark Mullaly says
The pandemic has changed. Many realities for many people. Finding what works, what is strained and what needs to be recalibrated is an interesting, challenging and necessary focus. Wishing you the best in making sense of where you are, and where you go from here.