At first glance, it’s not obvious why stories of transition should present any problems at all. Almost by definition, they contain the stuff of good narrative. The protagonist is you, of course, and what’s at stake is your career. Only love, life, and death could be more important. And transition is always about a world that’s changed. You’ve been let go, or you’ve somehow decided your life doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps you’ve reached an event or insight that represents a point of no return — one that marks the end of the second act, a period of frustration and struggle. In the end, if all goes well, you resolve the tension and uncertainty and embark on a new chapter in your life or career.
Not only do transition stories have all the elements of a classic tale, but they have the most important ones in spades. Notice what moves a story along. It’s change, conflict, tension, discontinuity. What hooks us in a movie or novel is the turning point, the break with the past, the fact that the world has changed in some intriguing and fascinating way that will force the protagonist to discover and reveal who he truly is. If those elements are missing, the story will be flat. It will lack what novelist John Gardner called profluence of development — the sense of moving forward, of going somewhere. Transition stories don’t have this problem.
Think, for example, of the biblical story of Saint Paul’s conversion. In his zeal for Jewish law, Saul had become a violent persecutor of Christians. On the road to Damascus, as the story is told in the New Testament, he was surrounded by light and struck to the ground. A voice from heaven addressed him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He was unable to see; after he changed his mind about Christians, he saw the light, literally. And thus, Saul became Paul, one of the principal architects of Christianity.
What could be more dramatic? Like the Saul-to-Paul saga, most after-the-fact accounts of career change include striking jolts and triggers: palpable moments when things click into place and a desirable option materializes. The scales fall from our eyes, and the right course becomes obvious — or taking the leap suddenly looks easy.
Here’s how that turning point took shape for one manager, a 46-year-old information technologist named Lucy Hartman (names in the examples throughout this article have been changed). Lucy was seemingly on a course toward executive management, either at her current company or at a start-up. Being coached, however, revealed to her an attractive alternative. She began to wonder about a future as an organizational-development consultant, but she wasn’t quite ready to make that change. She did move to a smaller company, where she felt she could apply everything she had learned in coaching. “By this time, it was clear that I wanted to move on to something different,” she said. “But I needed to build more confidence before taking a bigger chance on reinventing myself. So I decided to stay in the high-tech environment, which I knew well, but also to go back to school. I started a master’s program in organizational development, thinking it would at least make me a better leader and hoping it would be the impetus for a real makeover.” Still, Lucy agonized for months over whether to focus exclusively on school, convinced that it wasn’t sane to quit a job without having another one lined up.
Three incidents in quick succession made up her mind. First, she attended a conference on organizational change where she heard industry gurus speak and met other people working in the field. She decided this was clearly the community she wanted to be a part of. Second, her firm went through an acquisition, and the restructuring meant a new position for her, one fraught with political jockeying. Third, as she tells it, “One day my husband just asked me, ‘Are you happy?’ He said, ‘If you are, that’s great. But you don’t look happy. When I ask how you are, all you ever say is that you’re tired.’” His question prompted her to quit her job and work full-time on her master’s.
Lucy’s story illustrates the importance of turning points. We need them to convince ourselves that our story makes sense, and listeners like them because they spin stories off in exciting new directions. They make listeners lean forward and ask the one question every effective story must elicit: ‘What happened next?’.