Transition is a central experience of all of our lives. It is also one of the most misunderstood.

We know that we proceed through our lives as a succession of days, weeks, months and years. For many of us, we see this only as a process of aging. We grow older. Our bodies change. Our relationships change. Our connection to the world changes. Things we once could do well are now beyond our ability. These are the transitions that we most easily see and lament.

Transition is not always about decline. It can be seen as a forward advance, a progressive movement through opportunities that a week or so ago we could not see. We go to school. We take courses to gain new skills. We practice to take on new endeavors. We travel to discover new cultures. All are forms of transition.

Still, to say that we are in transition causes us to wonder what does this mean. To fully understand these varied transitions in life I have found it helpful to turn to the rhetorical device of metaphor. describes a metaphor as “a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.”

I have identified eight metaphors that I use in my conversations with people. Three of them I described in my presentation, Leadership for a World in Transition.

Metaphors help people connect what they are feeling emotionally with an image that helps them visualize what they are experiencing. Each metaphor represents a specific type of transition. In this post, we’ll look at each of these transition, and see how their metaphor helps us understand the transitions that we might be in.


Metaphors of Transition

The Stage – The Transition of Performance

If you have ever stood on a stage, either with an audience before you or not, you understand that much of our lives is lived as a kind of performance. The proposal that is presented to a potential client is a performance. Each time we make our pitch to a potential customer, we learn how to do it better.

During my year-long book promotion tour, every person I met was an audience to whom I performed my pitch for buying my book. Not only did my performance improve, but I gained greater depth of understanding about my book.

When we perform in whatever arena of life it is, we learn and grow. This is an important transition that we can embrace as persons of impact


The River – The Transition swimming upstream against the conventional expectations

If you imagine yourself floating in a river, you can imagine having decided whether to go with the flow by floating downstream, or, swim against the current, by going upstream. Both bring about a transition in our lives. The point is not to go with the flow or swim against it, but where is it you want to go?

To go with the flow provides us a resistance-free ride down the river. We may encounter obstacles along the way. The metaphor points us towards going in the conventional direction that others have gone. The go upstream requires us to challenge the conventions of life and work.

The metaphor of the river presents us the difference between accepting the conditions that life brings us and challenging those situations. The transition is one of self-understanding. Do I simply accept the situations which are presented to me or do I challenge them in order to discover the real opportunities that I have for impact.


The Room – The Transition of Distinct Situational Changes in Life

The transition of the room is seeing how our lives move through different contexts. And not just move through them, but leave them behind in order to embrace a new one.

I came to this perspective watching the Pixar film, Monsters, Inc. In the film Mike and Sully are in a race against time and a bad monster to return the child Boo to her bedroom. They race along a conveyor belt holding doors. Each door led them into a different world or culture. It is quite comical.

The lesson for us is that we also move between different worlds. A door opens. We look through it. We decide to cross the threshold into a new room. As we do so, we pull the door closed behind us. Our transition often mean that there is no going back to where we were before. We simply must move forward to discover what this new room has for us as persons of impact.


The Journey – The Transition of Constant Adaptation to New Experiences

If you have ever taken a long trip by car or train, you know that you pass through many crossroads, towns, geographic points of interest with encounters with a wide variety of people. We may have a destination. But the value of the journey is the exposure to experiences which we would not have and could not have sitting at home in front of a computer monitor.

The transition that we experience in life is one of a journey. We remember that person we met at the coffee shop who told us a story that changed our perception. And we never saw that person again. Yet, we were changed by the encounter.

If we look at the transitions in life as a journey, we can embrace the experiences as opportunities for learning and for making a difference that matters. It is true that no only are we individually on a journey, but all those people whom we met are too. Our shared experience can become a beneficial one for us all.


The Wave – The Transition of the Speed and Frequency of Change

If you have been to the beach, you will notice have the waves that break upon the shoreline change. A storm at sea may cause them to come in faster, stronger, larger in size. The experiences of life are like this. There is nothing uniform about waves on the ocean. Each is unique. So are the experiences of life.

If you are a surfer, you learn how to observe the patterns of the waves. You learn how to take advantage of the waves, to know how to approach it, enter it, get up on top of it, and ride into the shore. This is much like how transition through life. We approach situations with attention and purpose. We get on top of situations because we don’t want to be crushed by them. We want to master the waves of change that come at us.

The transitions in life come at us just like the speed and frequency of the waves at the beach. We learn how to live in the midst of the pace and intensity of the changes that we face.


The Book – The Transition of Life Defined by Distinct Chapters of Life

Every book is filled with images and ideas that transition us through a story. If we can see our lives as a story, we can understand that our life story will have specific chapters in it.

I came to see this metaphor of transition in reflecting upon my own life. I realized that with the publication of my book and the completion of the promotion tour that I had come to the end of a long chapter in my life’s story. It had become thirty-five years ago when I first became interested in the subject of leadership. The intervening years brought me to a point where I now have something to offer the world. So, I enter a new chapter, not focused on my questions related to leadership, but rather focused on developing the practice of leadership impact.

As you look at the transitions in your life, how can they be described in terms of a story whose chapters are unfolding right now.


The Wait – The Transition of Being Patient in the midst of suffering and striving for fulfillment and resolution.

Transitions have their own timing. We may see our goal in front of us. But circumstances are just not right for us to act. So, we wait. We wait patiently. We may even have to wait patiently through some kind of suffering. Yet, we wait none-the-less, because the path through this transition leads to a goal.

Most every endeavor of worth requires time to reach fulfillment. The steps along the path require focus, diligence, resilience and patience. To wait doesn’t mean to delay. It means to be prepared to act at the right moment for the right reasons. Patience and waiting in the midst of our transitions in life is not about some discipline we must learn. It is, instead, how we reach fulfilment and resolutions of those goals which produce the impact that we desire.


The Jump – The Transition of a Leap of Faith

The transitions of our lives are filled with moment of decision and initiative. The reluctance to take action often is equal to the degree of importance of the situation requiring our action. Often this reluctance is not about whether we know the right thing to do or not. Frequently, it is about our own confidence to act effectively.

A leap of faith is one where we may not have all the facts. We may feel we are not fully prepared. Yet, the moment is upon us. We either take the initiative or lose the opportunity. Every action creates change. If we were mistaken, then we take another action to adjust the decision that did not work. This is how we learn to have the confidence that we can take leaps of faith knowing that we have the capacity to turn things around when needed.


We Are All In Transition. All of Us. All the Time.

We all live in time. Many people view time as a problem. They want to stop it. To make change and transitions go away.

Time is not our problem. Instead, our problem begins within us as a kind of emotional uncertainty about being about to deal with the transitional nature of time.

These metaphors help us to step outside ourselves for a moment to see what is happening to us. Once we can see it. Then we can do something about it.


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