We have all found ourselves lost at times. Something ends, like a job, with nothing else beginning. Or maybe it’s even less tangible than that: like our interest in a particular course of study; pre-med students suffer a very real threat of burnout after years of pursuing something that becomes terrible, distasteful and unwanted. We could find ourselves lost in any number of ways whenever something ends and we have nothing else to turn to. Relationships, self-improvement efforts, hobbies, you name it. If the latest articles on the workplace culture at Facebook are any indication, they’re a bit lost at this point, too.
On the individual level, that feeling of being lost is occasionally referred to as depression. On the group level, that feeling is generally referred to as chaos. “A Nation Divided” and that sort of thing.
We have also found ourselves stuck. Stuck between the things we don’t want and the things we do. It can be as simple as the time we spend driving an old car while wanting a new one. Or work one job, as a waitress, while seeking another as an actress. In the workplace, it’s that period of time where a startup grows into a real company. Or it tries to course-correct after years of decline and bureaucratic lethargy.
What should we do in those moments?
Yesterday’s article introduced the central framework from this week’s book, Transitions. It is a fantastic concept with three stages to illustrate how transformation really occurs. Particularly because of the middle stage, called the Neutral Zone.
The Action Happens Between The Panels
I once heard someone say that the real power of a graphic novel isn’t in the drawings on the panel but in the empty space between them. The inferred transitions between one scene and the next are what give the art a sense of action and movement, making it come alive. In learning more about these empty spaces, I’ve come to appreciate the choices that each artist must make. It’s akin to cinematography. This fabulous essay explains it better than I ever could. And it’s becoming clear to me that this is, indeed, where the graphic novel or comic book becomes so powerful. It’s all about the transitions. End of one scene, neutral zone a’la white space between panels, start of next scene.
It’s a very effective means of presentation. And all the action happens between those panels as you can see below:
We often think that life must work this way, too. We face a problem, we respond to it, the problem goes away. Nice, neat, and clean. Just like those three panels. There’s no attention given to the white space in-between, the effort and struggle and pain and fear and uncertainty that was packed into those interstitial periods. This gets to the problem with bad podcasts and really bad biographies.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Success
As a gross generalization, here’s what tend to think of when we think about Steve Jobs:
There once was a man named Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs invented the Macintosh.
He was successful.
But then he was fired.
He later invented the iPod.
He was successful again.
I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts over the years. Hundreds of interviews over hundreds of hours in which successful people talk about what they did to become what they are. In many instances, these fine folks only have a few minutes to give their story. So they deliver the highlights. I thought there was an opportunity to do this. I did it. It was successful. The end.
Really horrible biographies do the same thing. I’ve read a number of them and you can always tell its bad because the author spends their time talking about everything a person did as if it was predestined to work and had been fully solved from the start.
For example, Sam Walton founded a company named Wal-Mart with the deliberate intent, from Day One, to expand it into every underserved semi-rural area. Not because they were a retail operation. No, he knew all along that they were more like a regional distribution network that just so happened to warehouse goods that people could buy. Which is why they pioneered supply chain logistics for decades and could defeat local vendors in price wars.
There is a lot of action missing in these absurd, truncated stories. If these were depicted as graphic novels, the negative space between each highlighted scene would be a mile wide. That negative space is the neutral zone. It’s the wilderness where we process life’s changes. It’s the time we spend either lost or stuck between endpoints.
Consider the following brilliant and funny summary of Hamlet. Compare it to the three stages of transition introduced by our authors:
We have a crude way of thinking about the changes that happen to us and others. Our sample comic (more at this fabulous website) shows a broader arc of three acts.
In Act One, Hamlet experiences a terrible loss. This is the start of the transition.
In Act Two, he deals with the anguish and pivots to resolution. This is the neutral zone.
In Act Three, he resolves the situation and embarks on the new beginning with justice served.
But on closer examination, Hamlet isn’t a three-act play. It is a five-act play with twenty scenes and the text comprises over one hundred pages.
That second panel of our delightful summary comic? That is the bulk of the five acts. All the drama, all the angst, all the mistakes and pain and feelings of being lost and stuck and uncertain are all packed into that second panel. Completely glossed over but still present.
When we see other people’s highlight reels or hear the truncated version of their success, we can be fooled in thinking there was no second panel. We can think that the pain and frustration and searching that occurs in the Neutral Zone never occurred at all.
It isn’t until someone can take the time to study the story in a long-form interview or a 500-page biography or an 18-hour documentary that we see that everyone has experienced the struggle just as we have. The key, of course, was the persistence to continue. To sit with the neutral zone and take the time and action to get through it.
A Dance With Uncertainty
In closing, the most important lesson of this week’s book is that the feeling of being lost or being stuck is a pivotal, critical, and unavoidable part of seeking a genuine change. It is the action that makes the story move. It is the drama that makes Hamlet a classic.
We can become very impatient and insecure in that period between one thing and the next. Like Hamlet, we can rush to judgement and make terrible mistakes (mistakes that we tend to edit out in future retellings). Some mistakes are necessary. Some haste is probably wise. This is the part of the transition that Scott Belsky calls The Messy Middle. His book is an excellent resource on the topic. And this week’s book, Transitions, is a resource for understanding how to navigate this stage a little better. We’ll study that further tomorrow.