What Shape Captures Your Life?

By Donald Officer

…the goggles through which you viewed life in April may no longer be helpful to you in May….

~ Brian Little


Summary: For May 2021, Donald Officer provides an excellent review of Bruce Feller’s “Life is in the Transitions” (circa 2020), which explores the theme of our difficulty in making changes. Behavioral changes are described as “non-linear”, meaning that it’s not an easy straight line. However, recognizing that change is “more of an art than a science” allows the leader to improve their behavior and relationships. In the art of Grateful Leadership, this is why we have the 5 “C”s to outline ways that improve our appreciation and affirmation of others. Over time, grateful leadership will become a more natural process as we lead and work with others. 

Over 40 years ago William Bridges, a non-scientist, published Transitions, a book about how human beings change and adjust to what they experience as life. After both that book and its revised 2017 edition, little has been released to explore, question or build on his model by members of the social science community. In some ways that is not surprising. Bridges offered the serviceable insight which recognizes that every change really starts with an ending and that the transition of the person ends with a new beginning after an ambivalent but forward-moving changeover period he called the neutral zone. This may be a serviceable model for less turbulent times. Unfortunately, we do not live in such times – maybe we never did if we look closely.

It, therefore, strikes a responsive chord in many readers when they first hear about a new theory of transition, one more suited to our world and to the lives so many of us are now living. Bruce Feller’s 2020 work, Life is in the Transitions describes just such a theory illustrating it with dozens of widely varied individual examples. Feller, like Bridges, is a non-scientist. Maybe, as several other recent writers have noticed, it can take an outsider to see what is in plain sight. Feller’s theory resembles Bridges’ in recognizing that transformative change does have stages (three in both) and the result is a distinctively different person in one or more important respects either from the individual’s perspective or from both the outside and the inside together.

Feller’s book is theory richly supported by story. He believes everybody’s transitions are distinctively their own and the combination of factors leading to change is doubtless unique. To back this position up, he provides innumerable stories about the well-known, lesser-known, and some surprisingly fascinating just plain folks. There’s a commonality in all personal change. Bridges got that right. But especially in scale and timing, huge gaps appear among all individual narratives as the author of Life is in the Transitions further differentiates multiple types, trajectories and scale of changes. His version of personal transition offers a whole new picture.

What has this to do with gratitude? You may be suspecting that some life stories are filled with happenings few would consider the stuff of gratitude. For sure, and Feller does not attempt to cover up the roles that loss and tragedy play in well, every life in the long run. After all, as a freelance graphic artist once reminded me, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Feller does remind us though, that the processes of change – and even the best can sting – often bring huge returns.


This author’s own big time transition disruptions began just as his calling as a storyteller started producing promising results. Around the start of the great recession, he was hit with a rare bone cancer that usually strikes young people. During the two years he spent on crutches and the following year when he struggled with the use of a cane, his inherited business nearly went bankrupt while his writing career suffered from a collapsing publishing industry. On the home front his father, now suffering from Parkinson’s disease, attempted suicide repeatedly. Feller’s parent nearly succeeded as his father before him did when afflicted with the same disease.

Bruce Feller, because of what he saw as familiar patterns, turned his gift for narrative inwards towards his own family putting together a new approach to life stories. He observed that most transition stories came in one of three basic patterns: upward trajectories (rags to riches), downward paths (tragedies or dark dramas) and oscillating (up, down, up etc.)

Of the three, the last was the hardest to accept and the most common pattern by far. Neither rewarded nor punished consistently, what are we to make of the way life treats us? Meaning, Feller suspected, becomes increasingly important as our storylines play out. Like Viktor Frankl he also sensed that suffering and death somehow played a part in making life matter.

Always curious and feeling adventurous once he was fully mobile again, Bruce Feller decided to put his thoughts to the test. He went forth and interviewed 225 people whose stories make up the big part of this book. He found as he sorted and reviewed what he’d documented that Bridges’ tidy partitions were hardly so typical. A transition takes roughly five years for the individual to cycle through, and “roughly” is indeed an appropriate descriptor.

Sequences in real life often emerged out of predicted order. Beginning and endpoints are discernible in most transitions but often with overlaps. That is, sequence A may be followed by or overtaken by sequence B before sequence A concludes. In your adult life you may face a dozen or more transitions which could be world-class disruptors as Feller describes them. Remember, the average person begins a transition every 12 to 18 months! As for Bridges’ “neutral zone”? Not according to Feller – he calls that part the “messy middle.” You will soon enough recognize that overdue messy middles will make later ones even messier.

Some of Feller’s narratives challenge standard findings of multiple tests and statistical mapping. We tend to think of success as goal-driven, but time and again it is some deflection from a target in keeping with strengths and preferences once held dear, which is the determinant of the next chapter in a life story that curves and jumps in shocking directions. Personality and character are not necessarily the givens we tend to believe they are.


Current theories and field studies that point towards the power of intrinsic, self-determined goals seem to flip in an instant when a major disruptor comes charging into your life. Goals in turbulent times are often shaped by complex forces. What drives them is not necessarily a stable belief system of values or traditional customs and mores. Moreover, not only are single objectives more convoluted but we must also be prepared for a confluence of several disruptive factors, both positive and threatening to come into play together. Think: Civil strife in a traditional homeland combined with a stream of refugees meet labour issues in nearby countries.

At the individual level, this kind of complex situation may create what Feller calls a “lifequake“. In a globalized world like ours lifequakes crop up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

For want of a better term, Feller also describes his description of contemporary transitioning as non-linear. I see what he’s driving at. Throughout the messy middle people in transition may appear to move backwards or sideways, change their minds or reverse themselves on earlier decisions. Hardly a neutral zone they may appear to be dodging rockets as they zig zag through no man’s land, neutral only in the sense that it is effectively lawless. Yet people still move relentlessly forwards along the timeline of their lives which is, regardless of its unpredictable curves and detours on the ground, inevitably linear by the clock.

You may not immediately recognize the full extent of a given transition or be able to understand its transformative implications. Feller suggests adopting seven tools he has identified to navigate the shoals that lurk between major turning points and our new safe harbor. They are acceptance, ritual marking, shedding old mindsets, sharing and exchanging new wisdom with others, launching your new self then composing and telling your new story. He offers a detailed chart of identifying markers and wayfinding using each of the tools to best effect. One invaluable method which identifies your own source of new meaning in your transition is to identify it with one of five major themes: Struggle, Self-Actualization, Service, Gratitude, and Love. Five big markers you won’t be able to ignore!

I’d recommend this book as an invaluable gratitude reference work. It demonstrates in so many fascinating ways that human beings are unbelievably resilient. Over and over again Feller’s interview subjects tell eye-opening stories of life-changing transformation. Often what spurs the injured athlete, the bereft parent, the lost soul who discovers meaning in an accidental or providential way was an unsurmountable challenge only days before an extraordinary turning point. Whether that pivot is chosen or forced, positive or seemingly negative everything can change utterly in the twinkling of an eye or steadily during a long dark night of the soul.

In many transitions, Bruce Feller concludes that what emerges at the end is often either miraculous or unexpectedly out of character. From a leadership perspective, we often find undiscovered potential in those who previously showed little promise. When you read this book, you’ll understand what I mean. The evidence of change potential among so many diverse individuals is something to appreciate with unreserved gratitude. In this review, I haven’t room to repeat the range of fascinating to fantastic stories Feller shares. I leave those for you to explore and enjoy. You’ll be grateful you discovered them for yourself.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.