In everyone’s life there are times when we need to transition from one place or phase to another. Whether change comes to us or we make change happen, there is a section of ‘between’ time that we go through to get to the next point on the map of our personal journey or career path.
This ‘between’ period is compared to the transitional areas in buildings that are called ‘liminal spaces’. We must pass through a liminal space to get from one room to another. Some liminal spaces are short – an archway or a threshold – whilst others can be larger spaces like foyers, long corridors or stairwells. In the context of your life’s journey, the liminal space is the crossing over space. It’s a time when you are on the verge of something new – when you are between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be’.
In the current climate brought about by COVID-19 there are many people who, for one reason or another, are in that undefined liminal space between jobs, roles and identities. It can be challenging to find yourself in that in-between where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It is even harder when you don’t know how long you will be there or even what your next something else will be.
Understanding and making sense of the liminal space in the fluctuating and precarious career landscape is helpful for navigating to find new career pathways.
What’s the liminal space like?
It is a space full of contradictory emotions. It can be an uncomfortable time of confusion, impatience, wishing for the next stage to arrive, of being frustrated, anxious and wondering what, if anything, will come next beyond the threshold. It is also full of possibility, potential and renewal as you await what is to come, a time when reorientation and redefinition take place. Much as you might like to move on, it’s important to realise that something is going on inside, and you can’t hurry the process. It will take as long as it takes.
In his book, Transitions, William Bridges writes; “We need not feel defensive about this apparently unproductive time-out at turning points in our lives … In the apparently aimless activity of our time alone, we are doing important inner business.”
Bridges describes 3 stages in the transition process. The beginning and the end, with the neutral zone in between. The neutral zone is the liminal period, it’s a transition space where you land while searching for something new.
Unemployment – a transition stage
The appearance of COVID-19 was an unexpected shock, quickly disrupting our habits and routines, threatening the safety and security of our comfort zones, and radically disrupting working lives. For many it was a time to pause and pivot career-wise, while for others it brought about an abrupt ending to their career trajectory with resulting unemployment.
It is helpful to look at unemployment not as a destination or a place where you land and settle, but rather as career transition. Like other transitions, it’s a process of moving in, moving through and then moving on out. It includes letting go of the past and searching for new career pathways and new identities.
The liminal playground
There are both pros and cons of liminality. While it offers new beginnings, you may also feel a sense of loss for what has passed. It may also bring mixed emotions of excitement and fear. The liminal place can seem like a wasted time of meaningless waiting, confusion and overthinking, but it is also a time of exploratory thinking and renewal.
It has been likened to winter when the spring’s new growth is taking shape under the earth. You can’t see much evidence of things happening, but there is work being done.
Some suggest that it’s a fertile emptiness to be embraced. Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru talk about it as a playground, a playful space where you can linger, dream and scheme and discover something useful.
In Ibarra and Obodaru’s liminal playground, you are entering a relationship, time or space legitimately dedicated to transition and exploration.
By making this a playful space, it enhances the likelihood of discovering something useful. It’s also a creative space, a time for suspending old identities, doing some serious dreaming and scheming and imagining multiple selves. It’s a time for blue skies thinking, brainstorming with no limits and opening minds to all creative ideas, regardless of practicalities.
Strategies for navigating your own liminal space
There will be many more career transitions and pauses in these uncertain times, but having strategies to conceptualise the betwixts and betweens in a positive light will be helpful.
Develop many possible selves
The idea that career change follows an orderly, linear predetermined route is a myth. In reality, it’s a messy process, often a circuitous journey, so it pays to keep all your options open, and to dream and scheme wildly about who you may become. Don’t succumb to a crisis of imagination but rather entertain random and wild ideas about what you might like to do, or the person you’d like to become.
Enjoy the pause
Take time out to enjoy the pause in the liminal playground. It’s a time to step back to go forwards with a fresh perspective. Norm Amundson talks about the backswing as a metaphor for moving forward with your career and life. Whether it’s tennis, golf or using a hammer, you’re using a backswing to ultimately move things forward. Likewise with the liminal period. It takes time to process lots of information, and being kind to yourself means you choose to enjoy the pause and do the ‘inner business’ before moving forward. It’s in this pause that the magic can happen!
Get going on projects
Lockdown gave people an opportunity to try new things, learn new skills or pick up activities that they used to love doing in days gone by. The liminal playground is ideal for picking up new or past activities with different people and building what Meg Jay has termed ‘identity capital’.
Weak ties or dormant ties
In the hidden job market, people often find jobs through their weak ties i.e. people you know who know other people. While it may be a challenge to do so authentically, it’s a time to reconnect with your dormant ties, people who you were once close to, but with whom you haven’t been in contact for a couple of years.
Get the thinking out of your head
Reflective practice and self-reflection are best done in the company of others, or if that’s not possible then writing ideas down can also help with looking objectively at options. Getting ideas out of your head stops them going round and round… and round, and limits introspection and negative self-talk. Talking about your dreams and schemes helps clarify your thinking and contributes positively to building your new narrative.
Find people to ‘play’ with
It’s important to choose the right kind of people to accompany you as you move through the liminal playground. Knowing that you have a support system makes you stronger and more confident to play with new ideas, try different things, and step outside your traditional routines and boundaries.
Whilst there are chapters in every person’s story, liminal spaces are not chapters in themselves. Rather they are a natural break in your story where you can pause before plunging back in, and perhaps rewriting what comes next. Entering the liminal playground may not have been a destination on your intended career pathway, but it is the time before a new chapter in your life story begins. Embrace it if you can!
Sue Graham is a Career Advisor and consultant for transitioning careers and career journey mapping. The concept of the Liminal Space when transitioning between roles or changing career direction inspired Sue to explore liminality in a post-Covid landscape and how people are coping with uncertainty around work.