We humans

Feel like you’re lost or your life has gotten off track? How to begin again

Jan 25, 2022 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

I used to have a saying that phone calls don’t change your life — until one day I got one that did. It was from my mother: “Your father is trying to kill himself.”

My dad was a son of the American South. A Navy veteran, civic leader, he was never depressed a minute of his life. Until he got Parkinson’s. 

Six times in 12 weeks, he attempted to end his life. We tried every solution imaginable, and then one day I had a thought. Maybe what he needed was a spark to restart his life story.

One morning I sent him a question: “What were your favorite toys as a child?”

What happened next changed not only him but everyone around him and ultimately led me to rethink how we all achieve meaning, purpose and joy in our lives.

It happens to every one of us at one time or another: We get stuck in the woods and can’t get out.

Before we get to that, I want you to stop reading for a second, close your eyes, and listen to the story going on in your head. 

It’s the story you tell others when you first meet them; it’s the story you tell yourself every day.

It’s the story of who you are, where you came from, where you’re going.

It’s the story of your life.

What scientists have learned from a generation of brain research is: That story isn’t just part of you; it is you in a fundamental way.

But there are questions that research hasn’t really answered. 

What happens when we misplace the plot of that story, when we get sidetracked by a pitfall, a pothole, a pandemic? What happens when we feel burned out and want a fresh start? What happens when our fairy tales go awry and we get lost?

That’s what happened to my dad that year, to me around that same time, and to every one of us at one time or another: We get stuck in the woods and can’t get out.

This time, though, I wanted to learn how to get unstuck.

Like my dad, I was born in the South. I went to college, I started writing; I did it for no money for a while then 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 a new dad of identical twin daughters; then I almost went bankrupt; and then my dad had that suicide spree. 

For three years, I collected hundreds of life stories from all 50 states of the US — people who lost homes and limbs, changed careers and genders, got sober and got out of bad marriages. 

For a long time I felt shame and fear about these events. I didn’t know how to tell my story — and I didn’t want to. 

But when I did, I discovered that everybody feels their life has been upended in some way. That they’re somehow off schedule, off track, off kilter. That the life they’re living is not the life they expected. That they’re living life out of order.

I wanted to do something to help. For three years, I crisscrossed America and collected hundreds of life stories from people in all 50 states — people who lost homes and limbs, changed careers and genders, got sober and got out of bad marriages. 

In the end, I had 1,000 hours of interviews and 6,000 pages of transcripts. With a team of 12, I spent a year coding these stories, looking for patterns that could help all of us thrive in times of change.

Here are three things I learned:

Lesson #1: The linear life is dead 

The idea that we’re going to have one job, one relationship and one source of happiness from adolescence to assisted living is hopelessly outdated. But this idea has shaped how we see our lives. 

Since the birth of science 150 years ago, we adopted the idea that life proceeds in stages like a factory — whether it’s Freud’s psychosexual stages, Erikson’s eight stages of moral development or the Five Stages of Grief. These are all linear constructs. 

This model peaked in the 1970s, with the idea that everyone does the same thing in their 20s, the same thing in their 30s, and then has a midlife crisis between age 39 and 44 1/2. It’s hard to overstate how powerful this idea was. 

There’s only one problem: It’s not true.

Today even though we’ve updated how we view the world — we know about chaos, complexity, networks — we haven’t updated how we view our lives. We still expect them to be linear. 

We spend 25 years — or half of our adult lives — in transition. And make no mistake: These don’t clump exclusively in middle age.

Lesson #2: The nonlinear life involves many more life transitions. 

We get through most life transitions with relative ease, but 1 in 10 becomes what I call a lifequake — a massive burst of change that leads to a period of upheaval, transition and renewal. 

The average person has three to five of these in their lives, and their average length is five years. 

Do the math, and that means we spend 25 years — or half of our adult lives — in transition. And make no mistake: These don’t clump exclusively in middle age. Some people are born into lifequakes, and some of us have them in our 20s and our 60s. 

But here’s what causes so much anxiety: We still expect these lifequakes to happen on a predictable schedule, because we’re all haunted by the ghost of linearity.  

We think life is going to be linear, and we are completely unnerved when it’s not. We’re comparing ourselves to an ideal that doesn’t exist and beating ourselves up for not achieving it. 

And the pandemic has made this problem only worse. Among all the people I interviewed, a mere 8 percent of their lifequakes were what I call “collective-involuntary.” An example of a collective-involuntary lifequake is a natural disaster or recession. 

What’s unique about this moment with this pandemic is that for the first time in a century, the entire planet is going through the same lifequake at the exact same time. 

Every one of us is in a transition right now. And yet no one is teaching us how to master them. 

Lesson #3: Transitions are a skill we can — and must — master.

Big life transitions have three phases: (1) the long goodbye; (2) the messy middle; and (3) the new beginning.

And here are five tips, based on my research, to help you get through your lifequakes:  

Tip #1: Begin with your transition superpower

One way to understand a lifequake is as a physical blow: The lifequake puts you on your heels; the life transition is what puts you back on your toes. 

And yet when most people enter a lifequake, they feel overwhelmed and go to one of two extremes. They either make a 212-item to-do list and say, “I’ll get through it in a weekend,” or they lie in a fetal position and say, “I’ll never get through it.” 

Both are wrong. 

When you look at enough lifequakes, certain patterns become clear.

For starters, these big life transitions have three phases: (1) the long goodbye, when you mourn the old you; (2) the messy middle, when you shed your old habits and create new ones; and (3) the new beginning, when you unveil your fresh self.

But here’s the key: These phases do not happen in order. Just as life is nonlinear, life transitions are nonlinear. Instead, each person gravitates to the phase they’re best at — their transition superpower — but bogs down in the one they’re weakest at — their transition kryptonite. 

From my interviews, half of people dislike the messy middle, but others thrive in it. Maybe you’re good at making lists and analyzing your options. If that’s you, then start there. 

Meanwhile 4 in 10 dislike the long goodbye, but there are some of us that excel at it. Maybe you like confronting your feelings and mourning the past? Good — begin there.

The point is: Transitions are hard. Start with your superpower, build confidence and go from there.

Tip #2: Accept your emotions

In addition to those three phases, I’ve identified seven tools that people use to navigate life transitions. The first is to accept that transitions are emotional. 

I looked hundreds of people in the eye and asked: “What’s the biggest emotion you struggled with in your time of change?” 

  • The top answer was fear. As in, “How can I get through?” “How can I pay my bills?”
  • The second answer was sadness. “I miss my loved one.” “I’m sad I can’t walk anymore.”
  • And the third answer was shame. “I’m ashamed I need help.” “I’m ashamed of what I did when I was drunk.”

Some people cope with their feelings by writing them down; others, like me, by buckling down and going to work. But 8 in 10 turn to rituals — we sing, dance, hug. 

After Maillard Howell left his job in big pharma to open a gym, he tattooed “breathe” on his right hand and “happy” on his left, saying, “I knew I couldn’t go back to my corporate job with that on my hands.” 

Lisa Rae Rosenberg had a brutal year in which she lost her job, had a blowup with her mother, and went on 52 first dates. Her biggest fear was heights, so she jumped out of a plane. One year later, she was married with a child.  

Rituals like these are especially effective during the long goodbye as they are statements — to ourselves and to others — that we’ve gone through a change and are ready for what comes next.

It’s essential that you don’t go through transitions by yourself. Share your experience with others — a friend, a loved one, a colleague or a stranger. 

Tip #3: Try something new  

The messy middle is messy, scary and disorienting. Now what? My data show we tend to do two things during our time in the wilderness. We shed things — mindsets, habits, routines. Like animals who molt, we cast off parts of our personality. 

Jeffrey Sparr, who has OCD, had to give up his reliance on a paycheck when he quit his family’s business to open a nonprofit focused on art therapy. 

Leigh Wintz, an executive who went through cancer, divorce and a career change all at the same time, had to shed her habit of opening the fridge every time she came home from work. She lost 60 pounds. 

Shedding lets us make room for what comes next — astonishing acts of creativity. At the bottom of our lives, we can dance, cook, garden, take up ukulele.

Army sergeant Zach Herrick got his face shot off by the Taliban and went through 31 surgeries between his nose and his chin. He experienced suicide ideation. But he started to cook, then write poetry, then paint. He told me, “I used to get out my hostility by splattering the enemy with bullets; now I splatter the canvas with paint.”

The simple act of imagining — a painting, a poem, a loaf of bread — allows us to imagine a better future.

Tip #4: Seek wisdom from others

Perhaps the most painful part of a life transition is that we feel alone. In fact, I believe that one under-discussed reason for the rise of loneliness in much of the world today is the rise in the number of life transitions we all face. 

Which is why it’s essential that you don’t go through transitions by yourself. Share your experience with others, whether it’s a friend, a loved one, a colleague or a stranger. 

Yet not everyone craves the same type of response.

Each of us has a preferred type of feedback. One-third of us like what I call comforters — responses like “I love you, Dave, you’ll get through this.” One-quarter like nudgers — “I believe in you, Anna, but maybe you should try this.” But one in six of us likes slappers — “OK, Bob, get over yourself; it’s time to try this instead.” 

The most important thing is this: Don’t assume the person you’re asking for help — or the person you’re helping — knows the type of support that works best. Tell them (or ask them) before you receive (or give) advice.

It’s critical we reimagine life transitions. Instead of viewing them as miserable periods, we should see them as healing periods that repair the wounded parts of our lives. 

Tip #5: Rewrite your life story

A life transition is fundamentally a meaning-making exercise. It’s an autobiographical occasion that calls on us to revise and retell our life stories, adding a new chapter in which we find meaning in our lifequake.

That’s what happened with my dad. After I sent him that first question about his favorite toys, he wrote a short story about model airplanes — even though he couldn’t move his fingers. 

I sent him another question — “Tell me about the house you grew up in” — then another and another — “How’d you join the Navy?” “How’d you meet Mom?” 

He’d respond by writing. 

It went on and on until June 2021, eight years after I sent him that first question, my father — who had never written anything longer than a memo before this — completed a 65,000-word memoir. 

He did this — one question, one story, one life-affirming memory at a time.

That is the power of storytelling. And it’s a reminder that no matter how bleak your story looks, you cannot give up on the happy ending. You control the story you tell about yourself — even the parts of yourself that seem most painful.  

That’s why it’s critical we reimagine life transitions. Instead of viewing them as miserable periods we have to grit and grind our way through, we should see them as healing periods when we take the wounded parts of our lives and repair them. 

The Italians have a wonderful expression for this — lupus in fabula, or the wolf in the fairy tale

Because just when our fairy tale seems poised to come true, a wolf shows up and threatens to destroy it. Just when life is going swimmingly, along comes a demon, a dragon, a diagnosis, a pandemic. 

And that’s OK. 

Because if you banish the wolf, you banish the hero.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned: We all need to be the hero of our own story. That’s why we have fairy tales, after all. And why we tell them night after night, bedtime after bedtime. They can turn our nightmares into dreams.

This post was adapted with permission from Bruce Feiler’s TEDxIEMadrid Talk; you can watch it below.

To find out more about Bruce Feiler, go to brucefeiler.com. And for more advice, check out his book Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age and subscribe to his newsletter, The Nonlinear Life.