267: How to Navigate Life’s Transitions and Master Change at Any Age with Bruce Feiler
Today, I'm talking to Bruce Feiler. Bruce is a bestselling author of 5 books, including The Council of Dads, which was the subject of a TED Talk and the inspiration for the NBC drama series of the same name.
He's also the author of the column titled, This Life in the Sunday New York Times and has presented two PBS miniseries, Walking the Bible and Sacred Journeys.
Bruce's newest book is called Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, and it is packed with great insights and perspectives that I know our listeners will enjoy. As time goes on, I feel like I'm always going through some form of life transition, and I've definitely noticed that most of the families we work with are usually in the thick of a lifequake of their own.
Needless to say, I'm thrilled that Bruce was able to spend some time on the podcast to share what he learned as he crisscrossed the country and collected hundreds of stories from Americans far and wide.
In our conversation, Bruce and I dig into what a life transition really is, what he learned from asking hundreds of Americans to tell him the stories of their lives, and how the periods of upheaval and unrest we face can lead us to growth and renewal.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- The challenges in Bruce’s own life that inspired him to create The Life Story Project.
- Why people under the age of 40 are so much more comfortable with living what some might call “life out of order.”
- The five categories of disruptive events that can lead to life transitions or lifequakes.
- The three phases of life transitions, why they never occur in order, and why the challenges in navigating our way through them.
- Bruce’s seven-step process to help reshape lives.
- "Always aim for the happy ending. You're not going to always get it because the only way to get the happy ending is to go through the woods. The only way to go through the woods is to get over, around, or through some wolves along the way. And you can do it and we can do it together." - Bruce Feiler
- "We have to remember that change is the norm. The more we accept this and embrace it, the more we get from it. We don’t squander it just trying to get through to the other side." - Bruce Feiler
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- Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age by Bruce Feiler
- The Life Story Project
- Dad’s Retreat
- The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me by Bruce Feiler
- Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy
- The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
- Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
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Casey Weade: Bruce, welcome to the podcast.
Bruce Feiler: My pleasure, Casey. Thank you for inviting me.
Casey Weade: Well, Bruce, I’m excited to have you here because, boy, have you not only written a bunch of New York Times bestselling books, but you have a ton of experience in the one area of life that I consistently find myself in. I feel like I’m always going through some type of major life transition myself, and most of the families we work with are right in the thick of going through a major life transition. And I want to focus in on your book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, and I just want to dive right in because this is a very robust book, has a lot to offer, and we have about an hour to talk about it. And I want to make sure we get through as much as we possibly can. And I think before we even get into the book, why you wrote the book, what the source of the energy around the book really was for you, I wanted to have you define life transition for us because I do find that we have a different concept of what transition or life transition means to each and every one of us.
Bruce Feiler: I think that’s a great question, and I will kind of begin the conversation by saying this, I undertook this massive project, which we will get into, which is basically now spending half a decade crisscrossing the country, collecting what has become hundreds and hundreds of life stories of Americans of all ages, all walks of life, all backgrounds. And I didn’t go into this looking for life transitions, but what happened is just the sheer act of looking all these people in the eye and saying, “Tell me the story of your life.” What quickly became very clear is that we face much more change, we face much more kind of an oscillating nonlinear life than I ever expected. And the heart of that is a life transition.
And to kind of a little bit, we will step back in a second and tell you how I got here, but to kind of get right to the point of where you began. We go through three to five of these massive changes in the course of our lives, and they take four, five, six years apiece, and if you do the math, three, four, five of these lifequakes, as I call them, four, five, six years, that’s 25 years, that’s half of our adult lives we spend in transition. And so, what the transition is, is actually the process of getting through the tumultuous upheaval change lifequake in our lives. So, the way to think about it, to kind of frame our conversation is that the lifequake puts us on our heels and the life transition puts us back on our toes. It’s actually the act, the process of going through one of these periods.
And now, kind of the reason I started there is because I’m at my home today in Brooklyn, and I spent five years wandering around my home saying, “Why are we not talking about life transitions? Why has there not been a major book on this in 40 years?” And I just was shaking people, saying, “We have to talk about this.” And then, lo and behold, this book has arrived in the middle of a global pandemic when the entire planet is going through a life transition at the same time. So, I think the essence is what is a life transition? It’s what we’re going through right now. It is the process of navigating change, of going through it, so that we turn it from a period of upheaval and unrest into one of growth and renewal.
Casey Weade: You said over the last five years, this is better. Why isn’t anybody else doing this? Why hasn’t anybody written this book? Why are you so passionate about this?
Bruce Feiler: Well, I think that’s a great question, and it’s a personal question, too. So, I’ll answer it as honestly as I can. So, I grew up in Georgia where you are sitting right now, and I left the south and I went to the north. And then I went to Japan in the mid-1980s and I started writing letters home on crinkly airmail paper. That’s how old I am. Your generation doesn’t even know what that is. But when I got back to Georgia, everyone said, “I loved your letters,” and I was like, “Great, have we met?”
And it turned out that my grandmother had xeroxed them and passed them around, and they went viral in the sort of old-fashioned sense of the word. And that kind of launched me into this life of going places and writing about that. And then so, I sold my first book 32 years ago this month. And I’ve never held a job since. So, in my 20s, I wrote books about Japan and England. I spent a year as a circus clown. In my 30s, I went back and forth to the Middle East, writing books and making television about the Bible. And then in the context of the conversation we’re about to have, I think of this now as a linear life. Like, I figured out what I wanted to do. I did it for no money. I had some success. I got married and had children.
But then in my 40s, I was just walloped by life. First, I got cancer, as you know, at 43, as a new dad of three-year-old identical twin daughters. Then I had financial problems in the last recession, and then my dad, who had Parkinson’s at the time, got very depressed and tried to take his own life six times in 12 weeks. And so, suddenly, I was in this crisis, and it was this moment when kind of life seemed to be coming at me from all directions and for a long time, even though I’m a storyteller, I didn’t know how to tell this story and I didn’t want to tell this story either. But when I did, what I found was that everybody has a story about how their life gets upended in one way or another, that kind of the life they’re living is not the life they wanted to live, that they’re living life out of order in some way.
And I call my wife one night after hearing so many stories, actually at a college reunion, and I said, “No one knows how to tell their story anymore.” And I’ve got to figure out how I can help. And what I did was create this thing that I now call The Life Story Project, which involves going out, seeking these stories. And the stories are just amazing. I mean, people who lost limbs and lost homes and changed careers and changed religions and got sober and got out of bad marriages. And I had all these stories, and then I spent a year coding these stories, looking for patterns and takeaways that could help all of us when we get into one of these moments in ourselves.
Casey Weade: Bruce, this might be a slight divergence here from the conversation, but what you said reminded me of a conversation that I had recently at a Dad’s Retreat. We were discussing dads and the things that have been passed down to us from our fathers and some of the frustrations we might have had with our parents or fathers or mothers, and coming to the realization that had we shared the same life experiences that they had, we would have probably done the same thing, but we don’t often recognize that. We just judge people through our own life experiences.
Bruce Feiler: Well, this is a topic that’s a deep passion of mine. I wrote a book, as you know, after I got cancer, called Council of Dads that became a TV series on NBC this year. And I think that what you’re talking about gets at a real core essence and I think what so many of us are struggling with today, which is the way we were raised in the 20th century, for those of us who go back that far, is fundamentally different than how we’re living now. And nothing exemplifies that more than the family. Okay, so if you look at the role of dads, okay, dads in their 50s more involved than dads in their 60s, in their 40s more involved than dads in their 50s, 30s more than 40s.
And so, you now have three-quarters of women, for example, working outside the home. And that’s something that we talk a lot about, but we don’t talk a lot about is the percentage of dads who are much more involved in the day-to-day lives of their children, who are much more involved in the parenting space. And the pandemic, like so many other things, has kind of disrupted this even more because now, everybody has spent a lot of time working at home, and the whole juggling of kind of work-life and these kinds of questions has come under new stress. So, that is yet another example of we were raised with one sort of linear expectation, right? The dad goes to work, the mom stays home. All of that is up in the air.
First of all, the moms are working much more. The dads are parenting much more. Marriage is actually plummeting. Okay, so we’re talking, in this conversation, largely to people who are 50 plus, which is the demographic that I met. And one of the fascinating things that emerged in these conversations that comes up in life is in the transitions, as you know, is that there’s what I call a transition gap, okay. So, the core idea that life is going to go on a sort of set path from adolescence to assisted living like that’s gone. But those of us 50 plus, we were raised with that expectation, so we’re still haunted by the ghost of linearity. So, a lot of people, 50 plus, are looking at their children who are maybe teens or in their 20s or even early 30s at this point and saying, well, wait a minute, you’re having a baby before you get married, or like you’re quitting your job and you don’t know the next job, or you’re moving to a new town and you don’t even know what you’re going to do when you get there. The people 40 minus are much more comfortable with the nonlinearity that’s new reality than their parents often are.
Casey Weade: And this is what you mean by life out of order.
Bruce Feiler: Yes. Well, let me then actually take a half a step back because we’re kind of getting into this in a way that’s thrilling, but I just want to make sure that we’ve set the stage properly. So, I did all these interviews and I did all this analysis. What did I learn? Three big things. Number one, the linear life is dead. So, what do I mean by the linear life? What I mean by the linear life is the expectation that you’re going to have one job, one relationship, one spirituality, one source of happiness from when you’re a teenager to when you’re in your 80s, like that is dead. But it’s hard to remember that that was a real thing, okay. Anybody 50 plus will know about the idea of a midlife crisis, right? This came from a book in the 70s by Gail Sheehy called Passages, which said everyone does the same thing in their 20s, same thing in their 30s, and then has a midlife crisis between 39 and 44 and a half. Like that is truth to a lot of people, and it’s total bunk. It’s just simply not true. The data in no way support it. Just look at the pandemic, if you were between 39 and 44 and a half in the last year and a half, you’ve been having a midlife crisis. But if you’re 15, you’re having a crisis. And if you’re 65, you have a crisis too.
So, number one is that the linear life is dead. Number two, the nonlinear life involves many, many more life transitions. Okay, so my data show that we go through one disruptor every 12 to 18 months. That’s three dozen in the course of our lives. This could be small like twisting your ankle or a fender bender, or enormous like losing your job or having a natural disaster. Most of these we get through relatively easily, but one in ten, three to five in your lifetime, as we discussed earlier, becomes this lifequake, this massive burst of change, okay. And that leads to the third big idea. So, it’s the linear life is dead, the nonlinear life involves many more life transitions.
And the third idea is that life transitions are a skill that we can and must master. So, if we’re going to spend half our lives in transitions, this is like a lifetime sport that nobody is teaching us how to play. And so, kind of my passion has become, for anybody who’s in one of these periods, let’s talk about what it’s like to go through them, let’s give you some tools to manage it more effectively and a language to use so you and everyone around you can understand what you’re going through.
Casey Weade: Well, I want to dig into this a little bit more because I did have this written down in my notes, you had said half our lives, we spent in an unsettled state, and it sounds like we’re just constantly going through some type of major life change. We go through so many throughout our lives. Why is it such a struggle? Should we be used to this by now?
Bruce Feiler: Well, yes, but that’s not what we’re told. We’re still haunted by the ghost of linearity. We still have this language and this idea, right? If you look at all the buzzwords, okay, not all of us, but many of the buzzwords in the last few years, you have to have grit. You have to have resilience. Let’s just talk about this word resilience because everybody listening to us or watching us has heard it a gazillion times. Resilience is actually a term that comes from physics. It’s a spring. The resilience is that you pull on the spring and how much resilience it has is then how quickly or how robustly or buoyantly it bounces back. That suggests that when you’re under tension, you’re going to bounce back. That’s not what happens.
Some people might bounce back, but far more people are going to bounce sideways or forwards or in a different direction entirely. So, what we have kind of normalized, and I would almost even say fetishized is this idea that stability is the norm and change is the abnorm. That’s the problem. So, what we need to do is to reset our expectations so that the norm is change, and the settled period is just a period in between us. Like back to parenting because we have this shared interest as a friend of mine at one point had four kids under six said to me, and I wrote three books about parenting, and so, my favorite line, it’s not even my own, with children, everything is a phase, even the good parts, like that’s what we have to remember in our lives that everything is a period of time, but change is the norm. And the more that we accept this and embrace it, the more when we get into these periods of change. We don’t squander them, just trying to get through them to the other side.
Casey Weade: As we think about this, I want to ask, I think, and frame this in the way of what are some of major life transitions we go to? Are there a typical four or five? How do you view the life cycle and life transitions? Let me hear the answer to that, and then I want to take that somewhere else.
Bruce Feiler: Okay, so I’m putting on my glasses so I can actually open up my book, which just happens to be sitting here in front of me and say, I sat to answer this question, okay? And so, what I did was I categorized every possible change that we could go through. I mean, I just glanced at my list like a book just came up, retirement, domestic violence, adult education, homelessness, weight issues, changing the living situation, having a new pet, becoming an empty nester. So, I had all of these things. The number was 52. I do not make this up, okay? So, I’m like 52, like that’s the universe speaking to me. So, I created this thing that I call the deck of disruptors. I’m holding it up for those watching the visual here, even though the podcast doesn’t have it.
And so, I divided them into five categories. The number one category was love, that’s relationships. So, that includes divorce of parents, the illness of a child, caring for an aging parent, getting married, etc. The second biggest category was identity. That refers to changing your living situation, major change in your finances, changing your political views. Number three was beliefs. That has to do with school or spirituality, etc. The fourth is actually work, which was smaller on my list. That means changing careers, losing a job, quitting a job, retiring. And the last is body. So, that’s a physical illness, a mental illness, a chronic illness. So, you have these kind of five categories, but that’s 52 different. The last time a list like this was made in the late 60s, there were only 30 something. And that’s because not only is change quickening, but the breadth of change in which we experienced is quickening as well and broadening.
Casey Weade: Well, this is great. I don’t think we usually categorize it like this. And I might even tie in the work to identity because we often tie our identity to the work and we’re making this transition into retirement. And as we make this transition in retirement, we talk about making a retirement transition. We’re making this major life transition called retirement, but it’s really something broader than that, it’s a bigger category. We’re isolating it as retirement, but it’s really identity or work and that...
Bruce Feiler: Body, hello, it’s retirement. So, yes, your body’s going to be, yep.
Casey Weade: And we should be going back throughout our lives, I think. And maybe this is part of what your exercises help us with, but going back in our lives and saying, have I ever had a major identity shift in my life and making that type of parallel rather than pretending this is a whole new transition we’ve never been through before?
Bruce Feiler: Well, first of all, this is so good. Okay, this is real, and I’m so glad we have the time actually to dig into this because I think you’re really, really onto something. And the main thing you’re onto is what I’ve been saying and what we’re talking about here, which is the power of language and the power of how we frame these conversations really affects us in a deep and kind of almost invisible way. So, let me then just begin by saying this. I was wrong about a central part of this process, which is that when I went into this, I thought that the toolkit for navigating a health transition, let’s just say cancer or losing your legs or be getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s or high blood pressure that I help, the transition toolkit would be different from a financial one, right? Losing a job, retiring would be different from a spiritual transition or a divorce, a relationship one. I was just flat wrong.
It turns out that the phases are similar, the tools are identical, and that, I hope gives everybody confidence because even if you feel like you’re facing a transition now that you’ve never faced before, you’ve just lost a loved one, you’re becoming an empty nester and you want to downsize. You want to relocate somebody else. You’re trying to shift from a financial situation where you had a weekly or biweekly salary to one in which you’re retired and maybe you’re running an Airbnb and maybe you’re selling blueberry muffins at the farmers market. Like, the truth is, you’ve been through a lot of these in your lives, but we don’t talk about this as a skill set back to my thing about we’re not talking about transitions.
So, if you happen to be 50 plus and listening to us, you have already been through probably two dozen disruptors in your lives and absolutely guaranteed one, two, three, maybe even four of major life transitions in your lives you’re already good at. What I’m going to help you do, I hope, and certainly what this book is trying to do and the fact that it’s touching people, I think, gives us a clue is give you a language, a structure, and then a toolkit that you can deploy.
Casey Weade: Well, it’s so valuable here. Any time we do anything in life to know we’ve been here before, we’ve done this before.
Bruce Feiler: Correct.
Casey Weade: Public speaking, great example, you step in front of a crowd. Oh my gosh, I’ve never been here before. You do it 10 times. Now, it’s not nearly as terrifying as it once was. Are there any exercises we can use to actually make these parallels? Because I can see getting there, no, I’ve never been through this before. I can see there being a lot of difficulty in actually finding those parallels and leveraging them.
Bruce Feiler: Well, first of all, let’s just start with what you said and let’s just begin this. I mean, I am 57 right now and I have two 16-and-a-half-year-olds. And I feel like when I knew I was going to become the parent of identical twin daughters, people said, you’re in trouble. And sometimes, I think this is the age they were talking about when they said, just this morning, actually, in this very house, a few steps from where I’m sitting right now, I had a teenager who just felt overwhelmed by what it means to be a teenager today. The combination of schoolwork and social life and all these kinds of things, it’s challenging.
And one of the things that I said to her is there are three million 16-year-olds. Every single one of them is dealing with the same mix of challenges that you are. And it was specifically designed, this comment of mine to say, you’re not alone. Not only have you been through it before, but everybody your age and older has gotten through it. By the way, hats off to any woman who got through being a teenage girl. It’s like, I admire you. I salute you for doing it. So, yes, there are three million people your age in America right now. So, they’re all going through this right now. So, that is the first thing as you, I think, brilliantly pointed out.
But let’s now talk about what it means because I’ve been teasing this, this whole time. People have one or two reactions when they get into a lifequake. Number one, the first instinct is to say I’m going to make a 212-item to-do list and I’m going to get through this weekend and I’m going to get a blue ribbon and I’m going to be the best ever at it and send me a prize, give me transition employee of the month. The other population of people is, I’m going to lie in a fetal position under the covers with my cat and say, woe is me, I’m never going to get through it, and no one’s ever had it as bad as I have. Both of these are wrong. With love and tenderness, because if you look at enough of them, certain patterns become clear.
So, life transitions involve three phases. I call them the long goodbye, where you acknowledge that you’re in a life transition, that it’s emotional and challenging, and you put that past you. That’s the long goodbye. The second is the messy middle where you shed certain habits and experiment or create new ones. And the third one is the new beginning where you unveil your new self. But here’s the thing that’s important to remember, and it gets us closer to your question, these are not linear. You’re not going to do them in order. A hundred years of thinking about life transition said you have to do them in order.
The person who invented life transitions, this idea, was a guy named Arnold van Gennep, who was a German anthropologist in the early 1900s. And he said a transition is like leaving one room and walking down a hallway and then walking into another room. It’s incredibly vivid. It’s dead wrong. Anybody, for example, who’s been divorced or maybe knows someone who’s divorced, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you’re in one relationship, and maybe you started a new relationship and you’re already in the new room. Or maybe you go into the hallway and like, I’m not ready to date, you go back into the old room. Or maybe you leave it, you then start dating, you’re in a new relationship, but maybe you have children in the old relationship, so you’re going back and forth between the new. These things are nonlinear.
So, how do we know what order we do them? Everybody is good at one and bad at another. Okay, I’m just looking at you, Casey, I’m trying to– let me just ask you again. But before we give this experiment to anybody listening or watching us, which of those is your superpower? And which is your kryptonite? Which are you best at, the long goodbye, the messy middle, or the new beginning? And which are you worse at?
Casey Weade: Probably the new beginning.
Bruce Feiler: Which one? You’re worst at that or best?
Casey Weade: That’s probably my best.
Bruce Feiler: Yeah, right. So, you like to start something new, even if there’s some unfinished business behind. Perfect. That’s great. And which one are you worst at?
Casey Weade: Messy middle.
Bruce Feiler: Messy middle, perfect. Okay, this is extremely helpful. Some people are bad at the long goodbye, right? They are people pleasers. They stick around in the situation too long, like they romanticize the past. Like they get stuck there. Some people thrive at that. I turn the page really quickly, I move on. Some people are bad at the messy middle like you are because it’s slow, it’s lagging, it’s messy. That’s why it’s called the messy middle.
Casey Weade: I want it to be done. I’m ready to move on. Let’s go.
Bruce Feiler: Exactly, right. But other people, they’re like making lists and they’re very good and they’re organized. And they like sampling lots of different things. They’re good at it. New beginning, you would think– by the way, half the people, the messy middle is the hardest. The next biggest category is the long goodbye. That’s about three in ten. But there actually are people who were bad at the new beginning. Believe it or not, like you would think it’s great.
I talked to a woman who was a powerful ad salesperson on the internet, 25-year career, extremely successful. She had a crisis, didn’t like working around her colleagues, quit her job, the next day, saw someone being a life coach, and then she set down on this path because she’d had three migraines a week since she was three years old. And now, she’s one of the country’s top hypnotist therapists, helping people get through difficult situations. She told me she was paralyzed. She could not update her LinkedIn profile because she was worried about what her old colleagues would think of her new life, like she hated the new beginning.
So, the point is, everybody has your own idiosyncratic kind of fingerprint if you will of what you’re good at and what you’re not. So, you want an exercise? Ask yourself, which of these are you best at? Which of these are you worst at? Focus at the beginning, I would say. And what’s your best at? Build confidence. Like, start your new thing, right? Launch your new self. Change your LinkedIn profile. Okay, move, but don’t delude yourself that you can get through it without going back and going to the parts that you’re difficult, acknowledging that it’s emotion, shedding certain things from your old life. You can’t just start a new life and have your own life. It’s not going to work. You actually have to make room, like think of anybody who’s ever downsized. You’ve got to throw out some stuff before you can downsize and begin to acquire new stuff. So, there’s a simple exercise, which is your superpower, which is your kryptonite.
Casey Weade: And it’s what do we do with this? I see with my wife, she’s really good at the middle part, and it’s just frustrating, right?
Bruce Feiler: Frustrating for whom?
Casey Weade: I don’t want to mess around with the middle part. Can we just move on? I think for both of us, as we look back in our past, that comes out of childhood experiences, right? And we kind of had a culture of, hey, it’s over. Move on. Don’t deal with it. Brush right under the rug. You’ll deal with it when you’re 35, right?
Bruce Feiler: And if you haven’t dealt with it when you’re 35, then you’ve got the demographic that we’re talking to. I mean, my reaction to that as someone who has a lot of kind of different instincts from my wife, and while it’s frustrating, whether it’s your love language, my love language is I like having meaningful conversations, and the five love languages kind of template from Gary Chapman, and I wrote a piece about Gary Chapman in the New York Times, the first person to give him national publicity. So, I’m very...
Casey Weade: That’s great. We were just talking about our love languages this morning.
Bruce Feiler: Right. Okay, so mine is quality time, and my wife’s, hers is words of praise. So, she thinks like, I got the short end of the stick. Like, all you got to do is give me a compliment. And for you, I got to sit and talk to you thinking through, like how come mine requires five minutes of action and yours requires 45 minutes of action? So, she thinks she got that, but actually, Gary thinks in The 5 Love Languages, and I think in Life Is in the Transitions and other things that whether it’s how you approach your money, it’s a perfect example because the research on money is quite interesting since everybody listening to us probably has had within a moment of rethinking money, the truth is, people come into through relationships with slightly different kind of phenotypes of money, whether you’re spenders or savers or givers away or donators or whatever it might be.
And in the course of a relationship, in the course of a life together, if your relationship lasts that long, people tend to basically retreat and move in separate directions. Okay, so here what we have is a situation where, okay, you’re good at the new beginning, and your partner is good at the messy middle. When you’re going through life transitions, whether it’s getting married, having children, dealing with the college admission, death march as I call it, as someone who’s dealing with it now, or retirement, or where do you want to live? Who’s going to do what? It actually will be a strength that you’re bringing kind of different analytical powers to the table.
Casey Weade: That’s great, and all these things are great, and you have these little strategies and techniques and exercises, there are seven steps that I want to get to here. In a little bit, I want to touch on that as well. We have these plans, and it’s best if we can go through these things before we actually hit the actual transition, but I’m curious as you conducted these interviews, these transitions are just surprises. And if the majority are surprises, as I assume many are, the majority of people do not retire when they plan to retire, it’s probably a surprise. If it’s a surprise, how do we prepare for that ahead of time? Is there something we can do to detect the onset of a major life transition? And sometimes, there probably isn’t, but is there something we can do to best prepare ourselves before we get there in case of a surprise?
Bruce Feiler: Well, this is a great question, and it’s so relevant to what we’re going through right now. So, the answer is– what is the one-word answer to that? The answer is yes, I don’t think that you can do to prepare, but I definitely think the mindset of accepting that you have gone through transitions in the past, and we’ll go through them in the future and are going through them now, that alone is a big way to prepare is to say, I’m in a lifequake, or I’m going to pilot to use that language when more than one of these converges, or I’m in a life transition, that’s the best way to prepare. So, that’s the short answer.
Now, let me pull back and give you the longer answer. So, I have all this data. I’ve done a thousand hours of interviews at the time. Now, I’ve done another 500 for a book about work that I’m going to start writing tomorrow, actually. And so, now, I’ve done 1,500 hours of interviews. I have 10,000 pages of transcripts all the way up to here. And I’ve done this analysis on that for many years now. And the number one, I divided all of lifequakes into basically a kind of graph on two different polls. One poll was what you just said, voluntary versus involuntary.
So, a voluntary lifequake is retiring, getting married, maybe even having children. It’s joyful, but it’s still a lifequake, it’s still a life transition. Involuntary is getting a diagnosis, having a natural disaster, getting fired. The answer to your question is 57% of the biggest lifequakes that we go through are involuntary, but 43% are voluntary. Now, how do we look at that? As I said, I’m technically a baby boomer. I was born in 1964. I looked at this and I thought, wow, 43% of lifequakes are voluntary, like we are embracing the opportunities of the nonlinear life. Like, good for us, we’re getting it. I had a bunch of millennials on my team, and they looked at this and like, whoa, like 57% are involuntary, like we cannot plan our lives. Like now, I’m really scared. So, even right there, like how you look at it. So, that’s one, voluntary/involuntary.
The other poll I looked at was personal versus collective. So, a personal lifequake is something that happens to you and your family. A collective lifequake is something that happens to everybody, like a natural disaster often happens to a large group of people like a recession. The other one is what I say, 57/43, kind of 50/50. This was the opposite. It was like 90% are personal and 10% are collective. And the smallest category was collective involuntary. So, what’s a collective involuntary lifequake? A war, a recession, 9/11. I looked at this and I thought, well, interesting. If I had done these conversations 100 years ago, two World Wars, the Great Depression, civil rights, women’s rights, like we would have many more of these collective lifequakes. And I was like, I’ve wasted a metric, like I’ve done a calculation that has told me nothing. Cut to COVID 19, the first collective involuntary lifequake that the entire planet has gone through at the same time in over a century.
And so, suddenly, we have this experience that we were unprepared for in 100 different ways, but we were unprepared for the collective involuntary nature of it. But it’s deceptive, Casey, because I want to say, even though we were all going through this lifequake together in the last year and a half, it affected each of us in a different way. So, how it affects you versus how it affects her versus how it affects him and me is different. So, we have to understand, even when we’re going through this together, it will manifest itself in a different set of changes that each of us will face, choose to go through, and then be forced to go through.
Casey Weade: So, I have a sense, Bruce, that those that embrace the new beginning really enjoy a good surprise. Those that are not...
Bruce Feiler: Listen to you, you’re like a lifer now. You’re like a birther. Like, I’m going to defend the new beginning people. Okay, say this again.
Casey Weade: I feel like with my wife and I, I like a good surprise transition. Give it to me fast, let’s move through it. And she wants to know what’s coming and be prepared for it, and feeling that that is because she is that messy middle embracer, and I am the new beginning embracer.
Bruce Feiler: Well, I don’t have data on this, but I find it very, very interesting. I think that I just want to caution you, I’m delighted that all involuntary lifequakes are great opportunities as somebody...
Casey Weade: Let’s not get too far ahead, Bruce.
Bruce Feiler: Exactly, right. If somebody was diagnosed, who got a cancer at age 43, that only 100 Americans a year get, and I couldn’t walk, I was two years on crutches, I don’t mind a new transition that was painful to go through. So, with that caveat, I still think that that’s a valuable thing. And I guess maybe the way I would hear it and then repeat it back to you, and kind of language of active listening would be, I think, an opportunity. What you both have actually is you’re attracted to something other than the long goodbye, right? So, I think that the people who don’t like the long goodbye or have a particular difficulty and I think the way I can illustrate that is to talk about the pandemic because I think when it first hit, we had what I would call a crisis of the long goodbye.
So, what is the long goodbye? The long goodbye is denial. Okay, I’m not going through this. I don’t like it. I want to go back, okay. And that’s where the country was for months, right? I’m going to stay inside, I’m going to mitigate, I’m going to wear a mask, or I’m going to quarantine, and then we’re going to go back to the previous life. It’s now clear a year and a half into this that we’re not going back, that we’re going to someplace different, and that still is very, very hard for people to accept. And so, I think that the good news is, is that both new beginning embracers and messy middle embracers, whether they like it or not, when it happens, you are kind of probably moving more efficiently into how do we solve the problem as opposed to just denying that there is a problem or an opportunity.
The problem is, if I could use that, the caveat, I would say is that the problem or the handicap that people who like the messy middle or new beginning have is you’re often kind of shutting the door very quickly on the idea that this is an emotional experience. And it is an emotional experience and it is challenging and often verbalizing that. You’re going to be acting on the emotions in one way or another. So, the more that you can articulate it, the better that in the long run, you’re going to be. So, I think, fine, as I said, start with whatever you’re good at, but don’t overlook the fact that you still have to identify those emotions and put them someplace, mourn them, bury them, ritualize them, mark them, or something. It’s incredibly important.
On a personal note, I just buried my dad two weeks ago, after eight years. After he first had that experience where he tried to take his own life, using storytelling and sending him email every Monday morning, he managed to kind of find a new energy in his life and lived for eight years longer, and he finally died of natural causes in the last few weeks. And I’m now in this grief period, and a lot of people that I love are in this grief period, and it’s undeniable that everybody deals with it in different ways. Some people want to cry a lot or talk a lot about it or take long walks or look at photos or whatever it might be. Other people want to turn the page really quickly. Both have emotions, it’s just different ways of dealing with the emotion. It’s important not to judge, but it’s important to recognize that going through a life transition does involve deep feelings and fear, and at some point, it’s going to go healthier if you manage to articulate that and deal with it in some way.
Casey Weade: Well, I had no idea, Bruce, that I would be experiencing such a great therapy session today. I truly appreciate it. I don’t want it to go down that path too fast, but I...
Bruce Feiler: I told you at the outset, wherever you go, I’ll follow.
Casey Weade: But I want to emphasize that these are the transitions that make us who we are. I think life transitions as we look back, these are the points in life that created meaning, that created purpose, that shaped who we are today. And that being the case, these life transitions really shape who we are, that we create meaning out of these. How can we best leverage those life experiences at the time to create even more meaning, even more purpose in our life?
Bruce Feiler: Well, okay, since we went from through how we go from therapy to spirituality, we’re going to have all the sensitive topics because I just want to say, again, riffing off of what you just mentioned, look at the great stories of Western civilization, look at the great stories of religion, whether it’s in the Bible, Abraham leaving his father’s house, the Israelites going into the desert, Jesus going for 40 years, Paul on the road to Damascus, the Buddha going out into the forest, the Prophet Muhammad going on the journeys between Mecca and Medina, they all are about going into the wilderness, going into the unknown, and having some sort of a transformation. Look at the great literary stories, whether it’s Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts or Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, these are all stories of going on these journeys into the unknown.
So, yes, you’re right, we all go through these. There’s a reason these stories have been told for thousands of years. They reach into something that’s essential to who we are, which is leaving what’s comfortable, going to what’s uncomfortable, finding some strength or wisdom, and then coming back or going forward or sideways into a new world. So, yes, it is important to understand that this is essential to who we are, I mean, and to kind of just talk about storytelling for one beat here before we get back to some of the practical, I just want to say, I’m going to tell you a story now. Our brains are wired for stories. I’m telling you a story, the first thing your brain is going to do is going to try to finish the story for me.
So, let’s just say it’s a snowy day here. Where are you? Okay, it snowed overnight for hours and hours. In the morning, I’m going to go downstairs, I’m going to put off my coat, I’m going to open the door. What am I going to see? As I’m telling this story, you’re painting a picture of what you think I’m going to see, okay? I’m not going to tell you to tell me what it is, but now I’m going to tell you the story. It snowed last night, all overnight. It’s super cold. I go downstairs. I get my jacket. I open the door. And what do I see? A giant pile of doughnuts. Okay, I’m guessing, I can’t read your mind, but you weren’t thinking that I was going to see a giant pile of doughnuts, that you think I’m going to see white snow or whatever, a blizzard, whatever it might be.
But now, what I’ve got is a giant pile of doughnuts. What is that? That is something unexpected in the story. That is a plot point. That is a disruption. That is a lifequake. That is what happens in storytime. Nobody wants to hear a story that’s predictable, okay? You’re just going to tune out. The way to think about retirement, financial challenges, losing a loved one, getting a diagnosis, moving, having a child with an anxiety disorder, family confronting an addiction, whatever it is that anybody listening to us is going through is a giant pile of doughnuts in your life story.
And what we’re talking about here at its essence is giving you the skills to write a new story when you have to write a new chapter in your life story. What am I going to do? Am I going to take off my coat and go back inside? Am I going to push aside that pile of doughnuts? Am I going to call the local school and donate them? Am I going to start eating them? What are you going to do? That’s what I want to know now that I’ve got this disruption. So, whatever you’re going through is fundamentally a storytelling challenge. And the fundamental thing to learn is the tools to how to write a new chapter about this moment in your life, how you got through this particular moment, how you managed to perhaps suffer and have some pain but also find some growth and opportunity, and how you can turn that pile of doughnuts into a much more compelling life story.
Casey Weade: Well, it seems like a big key here is looking at it as a pile of doughnuts, not a pile of something else.
Bruce Feiler: Oh, that’s good. That’s good. That’s good.
Casey Weade: Yeah, but I think in your seven-step reshaping your life process, you laid out in the book, that’s the last one. Tell it. Tell the story and compose a fresh story and even rehearse that story, right? And as I think about that, as we go through these transitions, that’s where the real impact comes from, that’s where the purpose and meaning is derived from as being able to put that into writing and share not just the experience but the impact in your life. That elevates the meaning and the purpose of the experience.
Bruce Feiler: What is meaning versus happiness, okay? Because I think this is really what we’re talking about. Okay, we’re told life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that is the great American idea. Well, happiness, we know a lot about this. Positive psychology began now almost 25 years ago, and we’ve learned a lot about happiness. The problem with happiness is that it’s a fleeting emotion in this landmark study. And seven years ago, a group of academics that I quite like, Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs and Jennifer Aaker and others talked about how the dogs have happiness. You can be happy in an instant.
The problem is, is what happens when something unhappy happens to you? And the answer to that is that’s what meaning comes in. Because meaning is not a moment in time, it stitches together past, present, and future. And that is ultimately a story because in order to have a story, you got to have two points in total. Okay, back to my snow morning, a snowball is not a story. A bloody face is not a story. A snowball and a bloody face, that’s a story. Like what happened between the two of them?
So, what we’re talking about fundamentally, meaning is about the story that you tell about what happens to you. Okay, now, let’s just go back in time. Let’s just say it’s 1900, 120 years ago, most of the sources of meaning in our lives at that time were given to us. You, largely speaking, had to live where your parents wanted you to live, do what your parents wanted you to do, believe what your parents wanted you to believe, love who your parents wanted you to love, and on down the line. Today, and what is in the span of history, a blink of an eye, a little bit more than 100 years, that’s basically a lifetime and a half, we could live where we want to live, we can do what we want to do, we can believe what we want to believe, we can love who we want to love. Like that’s amazing, but it’s also paralysis because it’s a lot of choices.
Anybody who’s in fact going through retirement, anybody who is in fact thinking about any of these issues, that’s a lot you have to think on. How are you going to pay the bills? Where do you want to live? What do you want to do? What is your family anymore that might have been built around caring for aging relatives or raising children? As my dad used to love to say, it’s much easier to bring up children than to bring down parents. Trust me on that. So, that’s a lot. So, how do we do it? We have three kind of building blocks of identity. I call them the ABCs of meaning. So, let’s look at this. The A is agency, that’s what we do or make or create things that we can control. The B is belonging, our relationships, our loved ones, our coworkers, our coreligionists, people in our bowling club, or our spiritual community.
So, the A is agency. The B is belonging. And the C is cause, that’s a calling that something higher than ourselves. In narrative terms, I think of this as your me story, your we story, and your the story, okay. So, what happens to us in transitions is that we rebalance that. So, maybe, and this is exactly what everybody listening to us is going, like maybe you’ve been working so hard and you want to spend more time with your family. Or maybe you’ve been a caretaker, so maybe you’ve been caring for children or caring for aging relatives, and now, you want to give back. Or maybe you’ve been giving back and you’re burned out and you want to do something for yourself, like, say, my dad did, which was in writing a memoir, one question at a time that I sent him. So, that is what I call shapeshifting is that think of this as sort of Lady Liberty, instead of two dishes, she has three dishes. Maybe we have some pebbles or coins or whatever it is, and one of the dishes is a little imbalanced. Like what we do when we go through a transition is that we rebalance that. So, essentially, the way to look at this is that a lifequake is like a meaning vacuum that sucks out the normal way we’ve waited our lives, and then you have to then remake it.
And that’s by the way, exactly what the pandemic was, it was this forced pause that everybody went through. And as we said at the beginning, everybody was frozen for three months or six months or a year at the outset. But now, the things are kind of opening up, however tentative they may be opening up. What’s happening? You’re seeing the impact. In April 2021, four million people quit, voluntary, quit their jobs, the largest number in history. In September, it was 4.3 million. So, people are saying, and I just saw an article this week that says people 50 plus who have the workplace are not coming back, and that’s a problem for the economy because people are saying they were forced to rethink. I don’t have to be doing the same thing. I don’t have to be on the rat race. I don’t have to be on the should train anymore, I should do this or I should do that. I can rethink everything. That’s awesome. It’s scary, but it’s awesome because you’re more likely to get to the balance of your A, B, and C than just doing what you were always doing or what your parents wanted you to do or your children wanted you to do or your spouse wanted you to do.
Casey Weade: Something that I see out of this as quite often the biggest mistake being made happens within this process of rebalancing those different plates. In your seven steps in the spirit of doing things out of order, you talk about shed it as step number 3. You talk about launch it as step number 6. And that really involved reinvention and launch it. You talk about reinvention. You talk about shedding the past, giving up old mindsets. However, I think we have to be cautious with this. I see people shedding the wrong things or completely reinventing themselves when there are pieces they should have brought with them. How do we go about reinvention and do it the right way, not get rid of the wrong pieces of ourselves? Is there a process to make sure we’re shedding the right piece and bringing those other really positive pieces forward?
Bruce Feiler: You’re good. I like this question, actually. And what the process is? Nonlinearity, right? I mean, I suppose, which is if you shed something that you regret, go back and unshed it. I mean, I think obviously, it’s hard if you shed a house and you can’t go back, or you shed a spouse, but obviously, we all know people who’ve done that. But here’s the thing, nothing is linear anymore. So, if you change your mind, okay, the odds are that you can find something else that will change. I mean, maybe the best example is a job. As I said earlier, I’ve been working on this book about work where I talk to people about their work lives and why they do what they do.
And I haven’t written this book, and it’s not out there. And so, I’m not totally ready to talk about a lot of the ideas that I’m still analyzing. But I will tell you, I’ll give you kind of a sneak peek, and then we could do this again in a year and a half when that book comes out if you’re interested. But let’s just talk about work, for example, which is retirement, the whole concept, kind of the backbone of this conversation implies that people have a job that they are then going to leave and then they’re either then going to have a different job or they’re not going to have a job at all. That is problematic because it’s not actually what goes on.
If you actually look at the people today, they have multiple jobs. Two-thirds of people have more than one source of income. My data is showing, and what they in fact have is a mix of job, I call it Work 360, where you’ve got a main job, a side job. A hope job is something that you hope becomes something else, maybe even a care job. And so, the way to think about this, even if you give up or shed to use, you’re invoking of my term, even if you shed a main job, first of all, you can go get another main job, but more likely, what you’re going to do is take aspects of that job and find it in this new mix of multiple jobs that you’re going to have.
I’ll give you one example. I have a beloved doctor in my life who helped me through a very difficult time in my life, I want to respect his anonymity here, who told me in an annual doctor’s appointment last week that he was going to retire. So, he’s going to give up the big name job at the distinguished hospital, where he is the chairman of the department. What he then told me was, I’m going to keep doing research, I’m still going to keep some of my patients who are keepers, I’m still kind of wondering if I’m a keeper or not. I’m going to volunteer. I have someone who does surgeries at Native American reservations, I’m going to go help him. So, he’s shedding the job, the status, the reputation, the income, but he’s going to replace it, not with golf and travel but with a mix of things. That’s a more accurate way to look at what it actually looks like.
So, if you shed something, and there are certain aspects of that new life, go find something else that will give you those aspects without going back and recreating the things that led you to walk away from it to begin with. And let’s just talk about money, for example, I mean, by the way, obviously, a lot of people, anybody going through this is going to think about money. Well, there’s enormous, I mentioned Airbnb earlier, you can consult. We are now in this phase that a lot of people call workless work. You can go drive an Uber. Amazon’s advertising every night, you can go work in an Amazon warehouse if that appeals to you. Don’t read the book Nomadland because you’re not going to want to do it after reading Nomadland, but my point is even income can be generated in alternative ways in a fashion that’s much easier than when our parents made these decisions.
Casey Weade: Oh, boy, this has just been fantastic, Bruce. I’ve really enjoyed our time together. And as much as I would love to continue going down this deep, deep rabbit hole, I want to ask you a couple general questions as we wrap up the conversation. And one is one I just love hearing the answer to, and it’s something that’s probably just unique to me because I just love these strange little things that we do in our lives and I want to ask you this, so what is your strangest daily ritual, the strangest thing you do almost every day, if not every day?
Bruce Feiler: What is my strangest daily ritual? That is a super interesting question. Ask me the next one, and then I’ll see which answer comes to me first.
Casey Weade: What does retire with purpose mean to you?
Bruce Feiler: I would say that my strangest daily ritual is marginalia.
Casey Weade: Marginalia?
Bruce Feiler: Marginalia. So, marginalia is a kind of beloved and important historical act of reading what people write in the margins of books. Okay, so if you go back, I once spent a year researching a book that I never wrote, and therefore, I never get to talk about, which was in the history of the King James Bible. And all of that is when people were translating the Bible, they would write things in the margins that were sort of important to what was in the margins. And that’s essentially what the history of law is, which is what was someone’s intent or what was their purpose or how did happiness become something different? And it was pursuit of happiness and whatever version Thomas Jefferson did.
I read old-fashioned books in paper and I write in the margins. And I write in the margins and I do this every day because I try to read every day. Someone told me as a young writer, never apologize for reading. And so, I read a lot and I write in the margins like whatever comes to mind. So, sometimes, if I’m trying to recreate as I’m now getting ready to write a book, for example, I will go and pull these books off the shelf and then read this marginalia that I have and try to understand what I was thinking at any given moment. And I can tell...
Casey Weade: It seems so powerful.
Bruce Feiler: My answer that no one has told you this before, so I feel like I want to– I got a cupcake here.
Casey Weade: You did fantastic. No, now, I’m thinking about all the books that I’ve written in over the years and how much gold is probably in the margins of those books that I need to go back and revisit. That’s fantastic.
Bruce Feiler: Retire with purpose. At the risk of being a bad guest on a Retire with Purpose podcast, I want to say that I don’t believe in a fundamental way that retirement is a massively different life experience than anything parenting, then going to college, then looking for a job, then getting sick. And in fact, anybody retiring, maybe doing all of those at one time. So, I actually would like to say that anybody can benefit from thinking about the questions that you’re asking because even if you’re thinking about them, all listeners, because you think you’re in retirement or about to be, actually even 20 years from now when you were long since retired, the same set of questions will be relevant to your lives. So, I think the with purpose is what’s really vital here. And the essence of what the with purpose means is understanding that it is fundamentally a narrative event.
The Italians have this wonderful expression, lupus in fabula. The fabula is your life when everything is great. It means fairy tale. It’s when everything is going perfectly. The lupus is the wolf, and it’s when something unexpected shows up. So, lupus in fabula means the wolf in the fairy tale. And just when life is going perfect, along comes a wolf, and that could be a diagnosis or a downsizing or a tornado or a pandemic. And our instinct in our lives is to just say, I’m going to suffer through it. This is awful. I want to banish the wolf from my life, but you can’t banish the wolf because if there’s one thing I learned is that you need to be the hero of your own story.
So, to retire with purpose is like doing anything else with purpose is to understand it intentionally, that’s a storytelling event. And always aim for the happy ending. You’re not going to always get it because the only way to get the happy ending is to go through the woods. The only way to go through the woods is to get over, around, or through some wolves along the way. And you can do it, and we can do it together.
Casey Weade: Not a bad guest, a fantastic guest, and one of my favorite answers of all time. Thank you so much for that. And in close, I would like to have a thank you for Bruce. And one of the ways that we want to thank Bruce for coming and giving his time and energy to all of you is by providing his book to you for free as well. We are going to buy a bunch of Bruce’s books, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. We’re going to be giving them away until they’re all gone. All you have to do if you’d like to get your free copy of Bruce’s book is to write an honest rating and review for the podcast over on iTunes and then shoot us an email with your iTunes username at email@example.com. We will send you the book at no cost. Bruce, thank you so much for this time. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And I look forward to discussing your next book together.
Bruce Feiler: Thank you very much. And in the meantime, I’m on all the social media is that Bruce Feiler. And I actually now started a newsletter on this on bulletin. So, if you go over to my Facebook page, BruceFeilerAuthor, you can follow me. And you guys are doing great work. This was a fantastic conversation. Thank you for inviting me.
Casey Weade: And if you’d like to revisit that, you don’t have to jot them down or rewind right now, just visit our page, RetirewithPurpose.com, go to the podcast tab, and all of those links will be found in the show notes. Thank you, Bruce. Until next time.
Bruce Feiler: See you down the road.