Navigating the Process of Reinvention: Talking With Researcher Linda Rossetti

Are you ready to make a change in your life? Or are you ready to make a transition? If you think they’re the same thing, you’re not alone. But understanding the difference is a crucial first step if what you’re longing for is a transformational shift in your life. After achieving a major milestone in her own career, Linda Rossetti found herself consumed by an unexpected mix of feelings that she struggled to name. She responded by making a series of changes that didn’t  help. Linda began researching what was really going on in her own life and that of many women she knew. Today the former tech entrepreneur and executive is a consultant guiding women through periods of upheaval and uncertainty. She is the author of Women in Transition, and hosts the podcast Dishing on Disruption.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

SP: I want to start with the distinction you make between change and transition, because I think that’s sort of fundamental to understanding all of your work. 

LR:  I view these two words as critical and grossly misunderstood in our society, right? Because we use change and transition interchangeably, when in fact, what I’ve learned in researching this notion of transition in women’s lives for more than a decade is that they mean very different things.Changes often have to do with a known outcome. They’re an alteration of something that we have in our world–I  need a new car, I need a new apartment, I need a new job, right? We might not be working for the employer we want to work for but we ultimately know that we want to be a writer, a finance person, a lawyer. We have a known outcome, and it’s an alteration on our current state. 

Transitions are very different. Transitions occur when there’s a shift in what holds value or meaning to us. And what’s happening when we’re transitioning is we’re reconstituting how we think about something. So it might be something like–I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to make partner by the time I’m 40–so a transition would be when that lawyer starts to wonder if being a partner matters, like wait a minute, I’m not even so certain being a lawyer is right. 

So transitions occur when there’s a shift in what holds value and meaning to us and it is different from change, because change is an alteration as a known outcome. Transitions are less well known in terms of its outcome. And mostly they have to do with this notion of investigating more about our own voices, who we are and how we can express ourselves in a way that isn’t imprinted by what other people think. It is more driven by the things that really make sense to us. 

SP: That makes perfect sense to me and I’ve had this massive life transition, and I didn’t know that distinction when it was first happening. I made a bunch of changes. And those changes turned out not to be ultimately the right ones. So I had to go through this process of changing before I understood it was sort of a deeper thing that was going on. So bring us back to when you started your transition and what inspired it.

LR:  You and I were in the same boat. When I started all of this, it was out of a point of absolute frustration because I had gotten to this point where things weren’t making sense. I turned to change as the elixir–like, it must be my job. changed the job and nothing improved. I found myself in this pattern of upset.The first event that I can point to is I remember I was that a VP of HR and administration for a global fortune 500 company. That meant that I had to travel all around the world, we had business in 37 countries. One time I was in London, and I got a call from my husband. And he says, oh, she’s fine. And I’m like, What are you talking about? My kindergarten daughter had been left at school at pick-up time. And everything was fine–she went to the principal’s office with her favorite teacher and it was all good–but it left me in tatters, as if something catastrophic happened. I could not reset myself.

 A series of those happened. I kept turning to people saying something’s the matter. Those who are closest to me professionally, and personally, we’re just like, oh, buck up, you’re fine. But I couldn’t find my way forward. And that was an indicator to me that I needed to learn something more, and I turned everywhere I could think of to find the answer, you know, Ted Talks, great books, counselors, work groups, whatever it is professional associations, and none of them spoke to what was going on for me, because all the ways I had known myself were all of a sudden kind of discombobulated, they weren’t fitting together. And a million times in the past, I had hit the reset button. And I was fine. Like, I could bounce back, Susan, and I kept hitting the reset button. And I was continually just getting more and more depleted. 

So I Initiated some research, right, I quit my job, I was fortunate enough that I had saved some money, I could financially manage a short amount of time out of the workforce. And I turned to some people that I knew and told them I wanted to talk to women and men who are in transitions of all sorts. A man who was the head of an outplacement firm opened up his organization to me, and it was a gift of a lifetime, right? Because what that allowed me to do was to work with or meet with big groups of people who were going through transition. I listened. And I listened. And I listened. And all of a sudden, I started to hear patterns that no one was talking about, I was like, wait a minute, there’s something here, it really needs some investigation. 

This notion of the opportunity to reinvent ourselves is a perennial issue that we meet again and again in our lives. And what I’ve learned is that we really need to understand the context that occurs when that reinvention is happening. So all of a sudden, what looks like a loss is an expansion, right? It’s an incredibly positive outcome. And all we need is some different vocabulary and some education and it switches the entire experience.

SP: Obviously everyone’s circumstances are different, but if we think of transition as a timeline, what are the posts along the way?

LR:  There are two early ones. The first pillar that we hit when transitions might be underway is this need to disengage from meaning that’s imposed on us from others, right? Like our friend who wants to be a partner by the time she’s 40? Well, really, where did that come from? Was that because she got into a swank law school, and all of a sudden everyone she knew talked about being a partner. So what I’ve learned in the research is that very often when we become adults we look to our surrounding environment to help us to find meaning for ourselves. We tend to adopt meaning from all these places, and kind of compose a meaning that may be discharged from who we are.

And so the first step is to become aware of the expectations or the meaning that we hold that may be sourced from elsewhere–from industries, from relationships, from parents. 

The second is to be aware of the role of emotions. And this one is interesting because very often, particularly if it’s a work related thing, our first reaction if something isn’t going well is to think we have failed. As women we often turn inward and think we’re the issue. And I’ve learned the research that there’s actually two levels that occur when somebody transitions, right one is this notion of, Okay, well, if I’m not going to be x anymore, I need to kind of fill in the blank slate, what am I going to do, but there’s a power level, which is all about the role that emotions play, and emotions mobilize to keep us in place at the beginning of transition. 

Emotions are smart, they read instability as fear and they mobilize. They’ll throw guilt, or they’ll throw fear, sadness, or loneliness. And what those do is they further hold us in place.

But what we learned is to greet the emotions differently. We greet the guilt differently, say, Okay, I see you, but today, you’re only walking next to me, you’re not walking in front of me, we’re going to continue. 

SP:  It is true that when the structure of your life is threatened at all, it’s frightening. So the recognition of how to navigate those emotions is one of the most important things about what you’re teaching. I want to talk a little bit about the practical component. When I realized what I needed to do, or what I wanted to do, all the practical limitations came up. And I think for most women,if you don’t have a huge amount of money in the bank, you need health insurance, you can just leave your spouse, you have children to care for. People think this is only for the rich or those with partners to support them.

LR: I can’t thank you enough for making sure we talk about this because a lot of people disengage or  gate their ability to participate in this because of an inordinate number of hurdles or barriers. There’s two answers to the question of how do you do it? The first is a mindset shift. Because very often when we’re going through a transition, right, by the way, we’ve been socialized to do this, we think it’s binary, it’s if I’m not this, then I’m that? It’s either on or off, I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed, right? And so the mindset we often bring to this moment is that you have to have an answer. But what’s required here is a series of experiments that over time are going to help us shift our focus. And so an experiment may be an hour on  Tuesday night to listen to TED Talks. And that’s all I’m going to do, but it is going to reframe what I’m going to do. 

The notion that we need experimentation to guide us through this is essential. It is going to be different for everyone but that we begin is the common denominator. You need to start trying and understanding that the current state is no longer attractive or supportive or enough, frankly, is a first place of awareness. 

But oftentimes, the thing that keeps us there longer than we need to is not a disagreement over what I’ve just described, it’s fear that I don’t know what’s ahead. And so this notion of experiments is meant to reduce the risk level of making that move. It’s like, okay, I want you to do the next smallest step you can think of, not the biggest, the very smallest, but then you have to do another one, right? So okay, if it’s a TED talk this week, the next week, maybe you have a conversation with somebody on the telephone, or the week after that, you participate. It’s like, the next smallest step. And if you can be, again, into this series of behaviors, right, next smallest steps, always, all of a sudden, you create this data set that says, You know what? Boy, I was thinking that, you know, in my case, right, I came from the tech industry, right? I was an executive in a tech company, right now. I’m a researcher and consultant to people who are reinventing themselves, right? That is a very different shift. And it didn’t happen in a day, right? It happened over a period of probably eight years, where I did a series of experiments. And each one helped me reframe that next step that much more.

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SP: What you’re really essentially saying is you can do this process consciously, or unconsciously, because I did it unconsciously, and what wound up happening is that you’re doing those experiments by default, because you keep trying new things. And they tend not to work out because you really don’t know what you’re trying to do. And then the universe is going to intervene on some level if you ask me. But I see in my life, and certainly some women I’ve seen that have gone through these longer transitions, is like you’re you keep getting thrown up against the same problem in some other form, whether it’s the new relationship, whether you move whether you change the job, if you’re not consciously understanding what’s driving that, and what needs to come in, and what needs to be let go of, you’re going to wind up going through a more negative transition experience than you would have, if you were consciously doing it.

LR:  People ask me what I do and I think at one level, I educate, right, because if you had that context, when you were going through that, you would bring a different energy to those moments. And so ultimately that is a really very critical element is to make sure people have the context so they can place their experience in a broader set of processes so that if you happen to fail they’re not on this downward spiral of ‘I’m just a loser. I just keep making terrible choices.’ It’s a step in a broader set of changes. 

And I’ve used the word change there very specifically, because I want to make sure people understand that as we transition, we can go through a series of changes, right? They’re not mutually exclusive, right? There are those who will change and never transition, right. And for those people, that’s a real risk, because transition allows us to tap into our untapped potential. And unless we’re willing to really bring a new energy to those things at home, meaning for us, we never get there. So there’s some people who are locked into change, change, change, never touch transition. But those who do transition, understand that they go through a series of changes. If you go beyond my research and look at like that academic kind of world, they look at this as this pattern that marches us to this notion of self-authoring.With self authorship we are kind of becoming our own seat of judgment, we can feather in the things that were important from our youth, or our jobs that we learned and what have you. But ultimately, we’ve come up with this kind of amalgam of things that really makes sense for who we are. 

My newest favorite definition for transition is that it’s an invitation for a deeper connection to ourselves. 

SP: And that’s something we need to consciously take both because you have to recognize that the transition involves separating from some known things. And there’s a loneliness, at least when I went through it, there was a loneliness because you’re separating and some level from the things you know, and no one around you is going through the same experience. Or maybe you have a girlfriend that’s going through it. But that’s because she’s going through it in her way, or there’s no language, there was no language, there was no commonality. 

One of the things that’s important in your work is the importance of building a support system. How do you do that, when you don’t really know where you’re headed? 

LR: The number one accelerator to this work is connection to others. But how do you do that, practically? And it does take a little bit of courage, right? I run a free service every week online, for people who are going through this who want to connect. Anyone can come and for the very reason that you’re talking about. It is incredibly lonely, because we can be disengaging from people who we relied on for many years to help us be stable. And we’re moving into this period of instability, we’re saying, No, you don’t work for me anymore, right? So this is putting those people together.

They don’t have to be your best friends. They have to be people who are willing to ask you questions. And the good news is, many of them are unfamiliar to you, right? Like I always say that like best friends, spouses, you know, siblings can’t play, because they bring too much of who you are to them to the conversation. So you want to get to places where you can find people who are relatively new to you. And that can happen through professional associations, Alumni Associations, mean, I run a group at our local library, right? There’s lots of resources where you can connect with people who are in periods of change, and their online groups.

Ultimately you want to try to get to a moment where there’s kind of a kitchen cabinet group of people, and they don’t all have to be in the same place. You don’t even have to physically be there now that we all know zoom. But ultimately, you want to find ways to interact with people who can ask you questions, because it is in responding to their questions that we make new connections for ourselves.

SP:  That’s an absolutely unrecognized and brilliant way to hear who you really are. Because people who know you well do not ask you questions. And for me, it became apparent that that was true by default. I’m so used to asking people questions as a journalist, but in my transitions, I moved first to Connecticut where I didn’t know anybody, then I moved out of California. So you’re able to, it’s not even that you’re defining yourself consciously. But maybe things are coming out of your mouth, that you didn’t even realize people like what do you do? And I say things that I maybe wouldn’t have said or no one asked me because they know me for 30 years or they knew what I did, or they knew my context. When you’re out of context. It’s very helpful.

LR: The number one accelerator. A lot of people say they are introverts and it is not going to work. I’m not suggesting that you have to go get a bestie you don’t. What you have to do is put yourself in opportunities where people can ask you a question and you’ll be asked to respond. 

And it can happen once a month, it can happen for five minutes, it doesn’t have to be, you know, oh, the answer is going to be because they’re going to quiz me it isn’t. It’s about how you start to put your narrative together in a way that begins to make sense to you. And those interactions are invaluable. As you begin this progression, you know, to a deeper connection to who you are, which is really what transition is all about. 

SP: It’s so important to recognize here in everything you’re saying, the difference between the internal process and the external. Because one of the lonely aspects of it is you think your circumstances are the cause of various things. And everyone has different circumstances. So you feel like that person can’t understand what I’m going through, because they don’t have this child with special needs, or they don’t have this financial problem, or they don’t have whatever that whatever, everyone’s got something that can hold them back from moving ahead, if you look at it as an external process, but the recognition that something’s going on inside of you, and that can play out in a whole lot of different ways. Once you recognize these values. For me, it was sort of a value shift, or how I wanted to live my life that played out in different ways than I expected, and continues to play out in different ways. But that separates you from those externalities a little bit. 

LR: Absolutely. Because what that all of a sudden does is say that kitchen cabinets can be virtually anyone who’s had a period of change in their life, because when I went through it, I was like, Oh, well, is this just work people. But when I did those focus groups, I put somebody who had just lost a spouse, to somebody who had learned to live with a child that had, you know, severe health issues, to somebody who had geographically moved to somebody who had changed careers to somebody who had always dreamed of being x and figured out that x had no value right to them. So all of a sudden, I said, Okay, let’s test this, do the circumstances matter, right to I have to put all divorced people in a room and only talk to divorce people? And the answer is no, categorically for exactly what you’re saying, right? Because, yes, the external circumstances will differ. But what’s happening in the process of transitioning is this, this reconstitution of our voices, and everyone who’s going through that is following a similar process. And so it makes it easy. So if you go to the library, and you say, Oh, I met this great person, they’re going through X, Y, and Z and that has nothing to do with me, but we’re great friends. The reality is, it’s no surprise in that because the process of transitioning is the same, regardless of what your initiating circumstances are, right? Yours was a geographic move. Mine was a work related kind of crisis. That doesn’t mean our processes, but things that we’re going through aren’t exactly the same. And that has been validated not only in my research, but all the academic research that I’ve studied. And I hope that I’ve read it all. And it is something that’s very freeing for people once they understand it, because oftentimes, when we get to this moment, right, I feel incredibly isolated. Sometimes there can be failure or shame. As we sit here, we say, Well, I don’t know anyone who’s going through and we named the 16 things that are part of our experience. And that may be very well true. But the good news is that this kitchen cabinet, the number one accelerator for this process, has nothing to do with those 16 things. What it has to do is our ability to connect with others. Let them ask us a question. And let our own energy just try to come up with a response. Because our narrative, our voice, refueling, our voice is a very big part of the process that we’ll never get to, if we stay isolated, waiting to find the match for those 16 circumstances.

SP: That is hugely important right now because we are in a pandemic, that’s just sort of one level of uncertainty that we’re all living in right now. So we can look at the external factors and all the massive limitations that are being put on us psychologically and when a lot of things are changing it seems hard to figure out. If I have no idea what’s going to happen in the world, how can I move now or how can I change my career? How can you negotiate a process like this when your own life is in transition and the world around you is. When none of the parts is stable? 

LR: I think ultimately it goes back to trying to figure out what problem you’re solving. And I think it sounds like a silly question, but you need to ask ourselves a question. What is it that is happening in our experience–Is it a change or is it a transition. There is an initiating circumstance that virtually everyone on the planet is experiencing.  It’s a pandemic. And it’s persistent. There are some that would say this is a persistent trauma. Some people in the face of persistent trauma will say I need to change a job, a house, spouse, you name it. There are others who are going to say their values are shifting. Right. And maybe that’s the great resignation, you know, April 21 when 4 million people voluntarily left the workforce. I’ve found that some of the biggest power starts with asking ourselves a question about scope, like, what are we trying to address? And it’s not an easy question, right? The quick one is easy. Make the bills. 

Ultimately if we keep asking ourselves that question, I think we get to the answer of what path we need to be on because we can be on a path where we can make changes, or the path that we need to make transitions. 

And I think that, as somebody who has transitioned many times, who now tries to educate the world about what transition is, I shudder when I hear everyone’s transitioning. That statement, based on what I’ve learned, would be false. We all have an opportunity to choose here. And asking ourselves what fits now is a really important question. Because if we go back to where we started, transitions occur when there’s a shift in what holds value and meaning to us, and it can happen in lots of different ways. And sometimes it’s not really even entirely conscious. The way it expresses itself, is we can’t we can’t reconcile things, right? There’s conflicts that we can’t somehow kind of use our standard kind of adaptive behaviors to settle them, right? They remain unsettled, right? That’s a signal that says, there’s something going on here. And those are invitations, but not everyone is going to respond to this time by accepting that invitation. And I think that the first best step is to try to ask ourselves, is this my time to explore it, there is a huge amount of power in accepting that invitation. 

SP: Talk a little bit about the power of finding your voice in this because even very confident people may be surprised that if they went through this process a little bit or if they’re forced to go through this process, usually not realizing they needed it or wanted it. What is sort of the end goal, you know, beyond again, to circumstances, but I sensing that it’s really feeling who you are at a much higher level, but a stronger level? Or is it reconnecting to who you were as a six year old girl? For me, it’s always what did I want when I was six?

LR:  I’m so happy you asked me this question. This notion of power is so important. And it’s not like beating the chest power. It’s this power that emanates from an alignment of who you are and the kinds of things that make sense for you. I’ll never forget a really elegant woman who participated in my research early on, and she was somebody who had a 26 year career with a very large organization. And because of the dramas that exist in organizations she lost her job in her early 50s. And she was devastated. She’s like, I’ve always been my identity, this is who I am. And through a period of probably close to five years, but actively for the first two or three, she made a lot of changes, but knew that she was transitioning. Eventually she said ‘I never knew that I didn’t know myself.” And she said what has come out of this is astonishing. 

That is universal of all the people that participated in my research.  They talk about joy and energy and peace and freedom. And I go back to that woman saying, but she said, I didn’t know I didn’t know myself. And she said, You know what, and this was at 56. She said, I feel like I’m breathing for the very first time. And right so I have goosebumps because I can remember the tone of her voice. She was so sincere. And I think that ultimately, this is the invitation that’s on the table for all of us. And whether it takes a pandemic as the initiating circumstance, or something entirely different, it doesn’t matter. The question is, do we have the courage to open ourselves up to really consider what might be signaling us because those initiating circumstances are things that offer us this kind of opportunity to approach it differently. And from my work, research and my work, I would say it is universally positive. That if somebody chooses to explore what transition might mean the inflection point in their life is extraordinary.