Managing transitions: taking a leaf out of nature’s book

Managing transitions: taking a leaf out of nature’s book

This summer, one of my dearest friends (let’s call her Jennifer) fulfilled her dream of moving from Paris to Annecy, where she can ski to her heart’s content for almost half the year. Ex-pats get used to having friends come and go – it is part of the job description. I have many overseas friends with whom I am just as close now as when they were in Paris. With others, contact is patchier but pleasing, and with some, we have mutually accepted that our friendship was specific to a certain time. Jennifer is in another category altogether, though. She’s one of those friends who makes you feel like you’re truly travelling through life together. She calls so I can sympathise the first time her optometrist suggests bifocals. I ring her to share something hilarious my four-year-old said at supper. She’s spent Christmases with my family. My kids call her Auntie. Yes, she’s that friend. So, while I still have other great friends here and I know we’ll still speak frequently, her departure is a real loss.

Shortly after Jennifer left, I went on holiday with my family, so it’s actually only now that I’m really feeling her absence. We’ll be moving into the autumn soon and, as I anticipate the leaves falling from the trees, I can’t help but feel the last decade has been somewhat autumnal in tone in general. It has been a time when several ex-pat friends have returned to their native lands, native pals have married and moved to other bits of France, and still others have had babies and retreated into a little family bubble for the cocooning years. That this exodus coincided with me leaving a salaried job to set up my own business, moving to the suburbs, and having two children myself only exacerbated my “end of an era” feeling. Hence why I have been heard to compare my situation with that of a tree in autumn, losing its trusty, long-loved blanket of foliage to reveal slightly sad and wintry boughs.

It sounds slightly morose, I know, but in truth I rather love the autumn, and I also love the metaphor it offers for perpetual change and the hope of renewal. Because the reason trees lose their leaves is so that they can concentrate their stores of energy to survive the cold months and burst forth in springtime, greener and stronger than ever. Nature cannot create newness before first stripping back what was. And so it is with our human experience. When we go through major change, between the life we used to lead and the building of a new life, there must be a void. Just as between autumn and spring, there must be winter.  When one chapter of life ends, there must be a time of emptiness before we can write a new chapter, allowing new connections, hobbies, traditions, friends, projects and job opportunities to emerge.

Autumnal rituals

And they will emerge. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. I – indeed, we all – know that deep down, but it’s slightly cold comfort when it’s the bleak midwinter and there’s not a snowdrop in sight. So what does help? Well, transition rituals are definitely a good idea. Taking the time to say goodbye is healthy. Despite the fact that Jennifer and I will still talk several times a week, I gave her a leaving gift and we had a “last” fun Parisian night out to mark the change. I think it also helps to realise that external and internal change don’t necessarily happen at the same time. In his 1980 book Transitions, William Bridges explains how the mental and emotional transitions we feel when we experience major external change – whether good or bad – can happen weeks, months or years after the fact. The knowledge that feelings of loss and bewilderment (for a job we left, a house we sold, a friend who moved away, a lifestyle that ended) can hit much later, when we think we’ve moved on, will not lessen the sadness but will make us better prepared to welcome our feelings and take care of ourselves.

In the workplace, acknowledging that even happy transitions can be challenging is crucial. That might mean providing better support for staff who are promoted or who change jobs. It is important to mark the transition (celebrate a promotion, properly announce a shift in job remit) and ensure there is a clear moment when they change role. So often, internal position changes come with an inevitable period during which the employee manages both old and new role at the same time. The more companies can create a clear demarcation, the easier it is for people to say goodbye, close a chapter, and embrace a new one.

What to do in winter?

I also think that simply accepting the void before the rebirth – making peace with that limbo land between the end of an era and the beginning of a new one – can save us pain an energy. This is counter-intuitive for me, as I’m someone who wants to roll up her sleeves and “fix” things, but it’s a waste of energy. Some feelings just have to be felt and waited out – like when your husband convinces you to try Space Mountain despite the fact that you hate rollercoasters and you realise after a few seconds that a) it’s just as horrific as you had imagined, and b) you cannot get off and this must be what people mean when they say, “the only way out is through”. Sometimes, you just have to ride the rollercoaster, all the while staying curious about your experience, emotions and processes.

If you are a manager, supporting your team during a rocky period at work, for example during a restructure, can feel disempowering. You may not have any power over seismic changes taking place in the company, but you can help your staff by acknowledging that times are tough and encouraging open discussion of both what’s going on and how they are feeling during team meetings. You might begin by admitting that you are not enjoying the rollercoaster much yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem but you can make sure your team feels seen and heard to help them feel less alone during a professional winter of discontent, perhaps.

Celebrating the spring

When you’re waiting for the spring – whether you’re prospecting for a new business and hoping for your first client, keeping an eye out for social opportunities after moving to a new town, or biding your time until a new normal emerges after the arrival of a baby – I have found the key is to find ease. Metaphors about not being a salmon swimming against the current, and Buddhism-inspired notions of non-attachment to specific outcomes immediately spring to mind.

When one chapter of your life ends, it is easy to start viewing it through rose-tinted glasses but, while memories are precious, it’s important not to forget that the new chapter about to be written will bring its own joy. I’m still talking to Jennifer (and many of my other far-flung friends) regularly, and I’m already planning a trip to see her the weekend of Annecy’s annual apple and honey festival (It’s straight out of Gilmore Girls, right? Talk about a silver lining to her move!). But I’m also staying open to the new connections I have begun making – through suburban life, the children’s school, my growing business. Because the old adage is right – change really is the only constant. And the more you can behave like that tree – allowing its leaves to fall, safe in the knowledge that it has enough inner resources to wait out the winter and sure that the spring will bring new life – the more gracefully, easefully, and happily you will face the ever-changing seasons of your life.

Are you struggling with a tough transition? Do you want to make life changes but fear the unknown? You needn’t go through it alone. Working with an understanding, supportive and experienced coach can help you embrace change as you take one step at a time towards a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me to find out how we can work together.

To find your groove in Paris, get networking!

To find your groove in Paris, get networking!

Are you in a rut? Do you feel slightly stuck, or maybe a bit lost? Perhaps you’re actually doing fine, but you have that feeling that you could be doing better. Maybe there projects you want to start, but you’re finding it hard to gain momentum, or you just don’t know where to begin. Whatever your situation, there is one thing you can do that pretty much guarantees some kind of progress, especially here in Paris where, in my experience at least, la bouche à l’oreille is essential: le networking.

Networking is not a four-letter word

Many people feel shy about networking, feeling there’s something self-serving and shameful about it. And I must agree that the expressions “working the room” and “schmoozing” send shivers down my spine. Who wants to be that woman who leaps across the top table at her cousin’s wedding, spilling champagne on the bride, in order to press a crumpled business card into the unwilling palm of the best man as he’s half-way through his speech just because he happens to mention he works in HR? Not me. I’m guessing not you either.

Genuine, honest networking is about meeting new people and developing existing relationships. It’s about being sincerely interested in learning about another person’s projects and seeing if there’s any way in which the two of you can help each other out. It’s a two-way street. To be effective and avoid falling into schmoozing territory, it needs to be totally shameless in the positive sense of the word (yes, there is one). Consider the difference between:

“Wow, you’re studying shiatsu! I’ve always wanted to try it. Maybe I could come by for a session some time. I guess it’s really expensive, though? Yeah, money’s a little tight at the moment. So I reckon I’ll have to wait for a while before calling. Do you offer discounted rates for friends of friends? Haha, no just kidding…” Cue awkward silence.

and

“Hi, Jane told me you’re studying shiatsu. Listen, I’ve always fancied trying it, but I can’t afford it at the moment. No pressure, but I wonder if you’d be interested in discussing a service I could offer you in exchange for a session? I’m pretty good at setting up websites, for example, and have often babysat for friends. If either of those interests you, here’s my number, let me know. And of course, I’ll totally understand if you’re not into it.”

Which exchange would you prefer to have?

Effective networking should also always begin with the (unspoken) question “what can I do for you?” Go into it with the goal of meeting people and seeing if any of your knowledge or contacts can be useful to them. It takes the pressure of you and puts people at ease knowing that you’re there to offer as well as to accept a coup de main.

When done openly and in the right spirit, good networking can really make a difference – obviously, it can boost your career, but it can also help you achieve personal goals and up your chances of creating a fulfilling life for yourself, particularly if you’re new to Paris and still trying to find your groove. Here are four reasons to put yourself out there and attend a networking event near you!

You will widen your support network

Developing a wide circle of friends and acquaintances is crucial to feeling rooted and connected. Maybe you won’t meet your next employer at a networking event but you might make a new friend (already an excellent achievement) who, three months down the line, hears about a job opening and passes it on to you. That same friend might then share the name of her babysitter with you, giving you and your partner a much-needed night out. She might also become the person you call at 3am when you just need to talk. She might invite you to join her book group. The more people you know, the more people you know…

You will find new sources of information

Simply talking about your stalled project with someone new can give you ideas you may never have come to otherwise. You’re telling someone how you wish you could get back into rollerblading like you used to, and someone in the little group you’re with, someone you don’t even know, asks if you know about the big roller-outings organised on Sunday evenings in Paris. You haven’t asked for help, no flesh has been pressed, but you walk away knowing more than you did before.

You’ll open your horizons and gain new perspectives

When actively networking, you will talk to people you never would have approached, say, at a party. Perhaps people you wouldn’t be friends with. The beauty of talking to people from all walks of life is that it’s often the people who aren’t like you – people that have different values and beliefs and who move in different circles – who will say something that gives you that “light bulb” moment. Those are the people who will think outside of your box. And vice versa…

You’ll get the feel-good boost that comes from helping others

Putting aside all the things networking can do for you, isn’t it delightful to find yourself in a position to help someone else? Especially when you’re feeling below par yourself. It is so gratifying to be able to say “Really? You’re looking for a private English teacher? I actually know someone who might be able to help”, or “I actually have a friend leaving Paris soon and her apartment will be up for grabs – shall I put the two of you in touch?” Personally, I am known among my friends for my willingness to “matchmake” in this way. I love lending a hand like that. The bonus is that because of this, lots of my friends are now friends with each other (which incidentally made my wedding extra fun), plus friends are always willing to return the favour.

Because that’s the basis of all non-schmoozy (yep, I’m making up words now) networking. There’s a positive karma to it when done with the right intention. You help, advise or inform someone just because you can. Then they either help you back or they pay it forward. Whatever happens, you have added something good to the world and that will always do you good.

Originally published in Message Paris magazine.

Every time we say goodbye

Every time we say goodbye

Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.

Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.

Until…

Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.

My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.

All good things

Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.

Profit and loss

The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.

Making your mind up

So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.

Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!

Originally published on Running in Heels.