William Bridges, the author, teacher, and consultant whose pioneering work on transition transformed the way people think about change, died on February 17, 2013, at his home in Larkspur, California, from complications of atypical Parkinson’s Disease. He was 79.
Through his books, public speaking, and the worldwide network of experts he trained and certified to coach people through transition, Bridges had a broad impact upon educators, psychologists, corporate executives, business consultants, and not-for-profit leaders, as well as the general public.
As John Alexander, former CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, observed, “Bill’s contribution was incalculable. He gave us a vocabulary for understanding and talking about change that was entirely absent before. He helped us understand how people actually experience change and what they need to get through it.”
Originally trained in American literature with an emphasis on 19th Century New England writers, Bridges brought a rich historical and philosophical perspective to his highly practical work, along with a finely honed and fluid literary style. His gift for developing rich theoretical insights to help ordinary people better manage their daily lives placed him firmly in the American tradition of pragmatic philosophy exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.
Bridges’s experience trying to negotiate significant transitions in his own life led directly to what would become his life’s work. As an observer and thinker whose knowledge and skills bridged many fields, he carved out a distinctive and highly customized career path for himself and helped others to do the same.
In the late 1960s, Bridges was working as a literature professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, when he became interested in the psychology of literature and decided to take a sabbatical to explore it. He was influenced by the human potential movement, then developing around The Esalen Institute and at Berkeley, and by his wife, a Jungian analyst.
In the summer of 1970, he established and led a three-week training program in humanistic and depth psychology at Mills, bringing some of the era’s most influential thinkers together. He would later become president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. Because he himself was experiencing a period of profound change and considering a new career, he decided to teach a course called “Being in Transition.”
He wanted to write about the subject, but found it a struggle; he later noted that, although it felt alive to him, it seemed dead on the page. But a phrase from Emerson’s classic essay “Self-Reliance” came to his rescue. Emerson declared his dictum that “imitation is suicide,” and exhorted his readers to refrain from quoting others. “Say what is true for you and every heart will respond to that iron string.”
Bridges took this advice and began to write not as an academic drawing on peer reviewed literature but “…as if I knew what was true.” In the mid-70s he resigned from his position at Mills College to continue writing and, in 1979, published Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. In the book he set forth the idea that, while change was situational, transition was psychological, and needed to be better understood, especially in America where change is both endemic and rapid.
Transitions proposed that individuals experience change in three stages: first as an ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, and then followed by a new beginning. He noted that because Western culture offers few rituals to mark the passage through these stages, people often try to skip from the first stage directly to the last. Instead, he asked individuals to spend time in what he called “the neutral zone” as a way of psychologically accommodating the space between.
At the time, Bridges thought the book seemed “slight” and feared it would soon go out of print. But it struck a strong chord with readers—the “iron string” Emerson had referenced––and by the time the 25th anniversary edition was published, it had sold over a half-million copies. He would follow it with Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change in 1991, also a national bestseller and now in its third edition. In 2001, he published The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments, which in part explored the pain of his own transition following the death of his first wife.
In 1994, he published JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Job. Exploring the consequences of flattening hierarchies and the disappearance of management jobs that characterized the recession of the early 1990s, Bridges accurately predicted the explosive growth of self-employment and helped individuals and companies understand how to prepare for a world in which secure jobs would be increasingly scarce.
By distinguishing transition, an internal human process, from change, an event caused by external circumstances, Bridges set a different course than engineering- based change management programs then gaining popularity, a position that reflected his humanistic roots. In the 1980s, he began consulting with individuals and organizations about managing transition. He founded William Bridges & Associates and developed a custom program to train and certify practitioners to work with corporations, not-for-profits, and government agencies experiencing transition. This helped spread the influence of his work around the world.
In 2000, Bridges was approached by Steven Kelban, executive director of the Andrus Family Fund, a division of the Surdna Foundation, whose wife had given him a copy of Transitions when he retired from a previous position. “The idea was that I might find it personally useful, and I did,” Kelban recalled, “But as I read it I also thought, why not also use this approach to structure social change?”
The Andrus Family Fund makes grants to not-for-profits working in foster care and community reconciliation, both of which Kelban believed could benefit from a better understanding of transition. He flew to Mill Valley to meet with Bridges. Thus began a collaboration that Kelban said has made a substantial difference in helping both young people and damaged communities adapt to change. “We now ask all our grantees to incorporate the transition framework into their proposals and provide transition coaching for people who deliver services,” Kelban said. “The work has had a fundamental impact, especially on how transition out of foster care is handled. It’s changed the language and has spread strongly. When people look for best practices in foster care, this is it.”
Bridges’s impact on consultants working with change and leadership was also far-ranging. Jim Kouzes, author of The Leadership Challenge, noted, “Bill’s major contribution was to give us permission to talk about the pain and difficulty of change and acknowledge that it can be very confusing. Americans have shame around pain—success is somehow supposed to be easy. If you’re struggling, it’s as if you’ve failed. Bill moved past that relentless optimism and said, yes, you can find real meaning in change but only if you are willing to experience the pain.”
Although Bridges enjoyed success as a consultant and worked with major Fortune 500 clients, the depth and humanity of his thinking was not always understood. John Alexander recalls that when he was at the Center for Creative Leadership, he once accompanied Bridges on a client call at a major technology firm. As Bridges began to explain the three stages of transition, the company executive informed him, “We have our own philosophy of change here. It’s called, get over it.” Bridges remarked that, in that case, the company probably wouldn’t have much use for his work.
Tom Yeomans, a practicing psychotherapist and founder of The Concord Institute who participated in the original sessions at Mills College, notes that the Emersonian tradition continued to affect Bridges’s work. “Trust informed Bill’s process and trust is the core idea of self-reliance—trusting your instinct, what you know, your potential to be more truly yourself, trusting the process of change and moving with it. Bill’s work was profoundly consistent, built on the recognition of a deep human pattern, but he found many ways to develop it. Because he remained deeply connected to Emerson and the transcendentalists, he helped open organizations and individuals to the possibility of transcendence.”
Bridges is survived by his wife, Susan Bridges, who is president of William Bridges & Associates. He is also survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Anne Gavin, Sarah Bridges, and Margaret Bridges, by seven grandchildren, his brother, Daniel Bridges, and niece Amy Madden.