Every single one of us has the opportunity to decide who we wish to become.
This has always been true. While in many cases, our lives feel like a progression from day to day, and as a consequence they can have a feeling of inevitability around them, that does not have to be our reality. Self design is possible. Change can occur. We can reframe who we are, how we show up, and how others experience us.
Doing so takes some work, deliberation and intent. It requires follow through and persistence. We need to be willing to step away from who-we-have-been and reinvent ourselves as who-we-wish-to-become. In doing so, we need to be willing to spend time in a world of unknown, of exploration and of uncertainty.
What this describes is the liminal journey. Liminality is a process of transformation, of finding and developing new identity. It is very often associated with more formal transitions, and attached to ceremony (graduation, confirmation, marriage and funerals are all rituals that have been designed to support and structure transition of identity and status, and to have that transition supported by a broader community).
Normally, liminal transition is something that we prepare for. Preparation is, in fact, very often part of the liminal journey. There is a recognition and readying to let go of who you have been and an anticipation of the transition that you will be engaged in as you move through the liminal stage. This is all something that is theoretically signalled, planned for and above all guided; formal liminal transitions are typically supported by others who have wisdom and experience to usher and guide. Traditionally, it is one of the reasons we have clergy.
Our current collective liminal existence as framed by the Covid-19 pandemic had little warning, no preparation and precious little guidance. We all got plunged over the edge, leaving our previous normal behind and setting us adrift through an extended period of uncertainty, complexity and risk. We have all wrestled with the resulting disorientation, struggling to adapt and cope as best we can. Whether that has been the isolation of quarantine and working from home or the unsettled risk of still showing up and working on the front lines, we have each had to deal with a far different reality from the one that we are used to.
As vaccines roll out and economies open up, we are starting to see a glimmer on the horizon of a future that might look closer to normal than what we have experienced thus far. That is not to say that we are returning to normal, for all that you may wish otherwise. We aren’t going back to where we were before. Whatever comes next will feel similar in some ways, and yet be very different in others. We won’t be the same people coming out of the pandemic that we were going in, and our lives will have different features and follow different patterns.
It is in that one kernel of truth that opportunity lies. In many respects we have all been on pause for the last sixteen months or more. Each of us has been in a suspended state between what used to be and whatever comes next. Whatever your experience during the pandemic, you have choice about what that next looks like, how you emerge and the new normal you create for yourself. Whether you feel the pandemic was an opportunity to productively engage in interests and learn new skills, or you have been merely struggling to survive and keep your head above water, you have agency in where you go next.
Regardless of your reactions during the pandemic, you still have the opportunity to design how you emerge on the other side and to act with deliberation. You get to choose what you want your experience of the future to be, who you want to be in that future and how you will work and live going forward. That’s not to say that realizing those things will be easy. It will in many instance require sacrifice, work and effort to make happen. But it is possible and attainable, should you choose to do the work and make a change.
What this work involves is embracing the liminal structure and mining it for meaning. Liminality has three stages: The first is the pre-liminal stage, before you make a change (this would have been whatever your previous normal was before we all got to here). The liminal change is the process of transition (and arguably what we have been more or less involuntarily working through since early 2020). The post-liminal stage is the assumption of your new identity, embracing who you will become next and letting go of who you have been in the past. Each of these stages has something to tell us. We need to explore each one in turn.
While you can’t go back to your former self entirely, there may be aspects that you valued. There are also probably realities that you didn’t value, that you resented and chafed under. For where you are now, on the outer edges of an extended pandemic, think about what you miss about what you used to have. What were the events and experiences that you enjoyed? What were the roles that you valued, and the relationships that allowed you to thrive? What did you enjoy about your life, and what did you value about your work? What would you want back, if it were possible?
Also consider those things that you resented, that frustrated you and that you didn’t value. What were the experiences that you struggled with? What were the relationships that caused you tension, grief and stress? What roles felt more like obligations than sources of satisfaction or joy? What did you resent about your life at the time? What did you struggle with personally? What aspects of work did you not enjoy or did you feel frustrated, constrained or resentful of? What are the aspects you would want to change, to let go of or to approach differently going forward?
For all that you might view the actual pandemic with animosity and resentment, it has some lessons to offer you as well. For starters, what are the things that you have learned during the pandemic: about yourself, about others, about the world? What have you discovered that you can accomplish that you didn’t previously know about? What are the experiences that were enjoyable, and what do those tell you about yourself? What are the aspects of living and working that have led to positive changes, that you would like to hang on to?
As well, what are the insights about living through the pandemic that you have struggled with? How have you coped with feeling adrift, with managing risk, with dealing with uncertainty and open-endedness? What has frustrated you, and what have you resented? What are the aspects of living and surviving that you found difficult to navigate? What about your work did you struggle with? What was missing, what was too much and what was too painful? What do all those experiences tell you about yourself, what you do well and where you ?
Finally, what surprised you about living through the pandemic? What did you not expect or anticipate, that gave you insights about yourself, about your work, about your family and about your relationships? What have you discovered about how you navigate uncertainty? What realizations have you made about how you make choices and deal with questions that remain unanswered for an extended period? What appreciation have you gained about moving through a liminal space, and being able to guide yourself or support and be supported by others as you navigate complexity and change?
Taking the time to reflect on these questions, you should hopefully arrive at some important truths about yourself: you skills, your abilities, your values and your choices. You’ve landed in a liminal reality not of your own choosing, but at least you’ve made it to here. What does that tell you about who you are? What are the changes you still would have liked to have made? What else would you have liked to explore?
Most importantly, where do you want to go from here? Thinking about your future self, who do you want to continue to work towards becoming? What are the relationships that you value and that you want to keep going forward, and how do those change from where you are now? What do you want for yourself in life? What do you aspire towards in your work and career, and how is that different from the journey you have been on to date? What do you want to learn? How do you continue to grow from here? This is where you truly get to make choices. There are few constraints on where you might go, and in this particularly moment there is absolute license and opportunity to do different and to become different.
You don’t have to get this right the first time. Nor do you need to make the transition instantly, showing up day one as a newly transformed you. You simply need to start with conscious intention to move forward, and keep doing so in a way that best serves you. Move into the next normal with a picture of who you want to become, and make the commitment to yourself to realize it. Set expectations of where you are now and what you need, expect and aspire towards. Figure out what it means to get there, and start taking steps in that direction. Weigh opportunities and evaluate whether they move you in a positive and desirable direction, and resist those that hold you back or simply represent a distraction.
You didn’t ask to be plunged into the liminal reality that the pandemic has created. You do get to choose when you come out of it. You opportunity is to recognize right now that your are still in a state of liminal transition—as involuntary as it may have been at the outset—and you can choose to stay here while it serves your purposes. While you may have started this transition as victim—and to be clear, we all did—you have the chance to take ownership and bend it to serve your interests now and in the future.
Resist reverting back to “normal”—whatever that might be—too quickly. You power rests in making the transition you want, not the transition that might be sought or desired by others. There is still a reset button to be pushed, and you are the one that gets decide whether to push it, when to do so and when to let go.
Michael Hilbert says
I have been pondering the questions you raised since your post came out earlier this week. An interesting process of self-reflection to say the least. What I have learned is a realization of the lack of control we really have over our environment. Be it a virus from another land, our employer migrating to a new way to work at the drop of hat, a family member taking ill, or the government telling me what I need to wear, where I can go or when I can go there. The reality is that life can change in the blink of an eye. What surprised me most was the responses to the crisis that I witnessed at both a personal and professional level. Each person I came across (family, friends, coworkers) seemed to have a different perspective and response to what was happening and were responding, in their own way, to their situation. (As you put it, we were not all in the same boat, but we were in the same storm). From a professional level, seeing the response from our customers, vendors and industry was quite a challenge. Being in a mission critical business, we needed to continue to meet expectations and commitments, a difficult task to say the least. Some customers understood and worked with us on projects, service and other scheduled work, others cancelled work and pushed projects off, others just wanted it done with no excuses. We needed to be flexible enough to still meet the demands of the customer, yet keep our staff safe in the process (a lesson in Risk evaluation).
I believe what I have learned during all of this was empathy and perspective. Empathy for others who where not a fortunate as I was during the crisis. The particular boat that I was in was well captained. I was blessed to have remained employed and productive the entire time. Perspective, for what really matters. When my wife was hospitalized with Covid, it was quite a reality check for us. Project deadlines, task lists, meeting milestones, no longer seemed to matter. Getting her well and back home was the new project and the new priority.
What I have discovered is a flexibility to adapt, grow, overcome and change, that I did not know (or even think) I had. Rigid schedules, projections and milestones are great, however the ability to adapt, adjust and change on the fly is a key element and skill to have for project work and for life in general! Nothing ever goes according to the best thought-out plan. I praise the Lord and am thankful for my family, my employer, and those who helped us navigate the last 18 months. I include you in that list Mark, as your insights, thoughts and perspective have allowed me to better process and react to the changes that have taken place during this time.
Thank you again for another thought provoking post and for all you do for the PM community and those of us who follow your writings.
Stay Well, Be Safe…
Mark Mullaly says
I sincerely appreciate the level of thought and reflection that went into this. Thank you. You have certainly had your own challenges and found your own adaptive approaches. Finding those insights and realizations—whatever the prompt—is awesome.
Your observations regarding control are bang-on. We only have control over so much, but we are influenced by so much more. All of that can change so quickly as well, as we have all observed.
Thank you so much for sharing the results of your reflection process. I’m so glad that you found it valuable!