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Tribe, Flow, and Power in Transition

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Good morning, Team Room –

For my friends, family, brothers, sisters, colleagues, and teammates. For six years, Bridget and I have experienced our own transition from national service into the private sector, and have worked with two outstanding military transition organizations in serving others doing the same. It’s a topic of both interest and personal experience for us. I think about transition most days, because I’m simply curious about why and how personal transitions manifest. Specifically, what’s the structure of a transition from national service? A transition is at the core of our human endeavor. Here’s a look at one person’s perspective on one part of the structure of a military transition.

Transitioning anytime in our lives is challenging. Six years ago I found transitioning from the service to be neither impossible nor debilitating but it was certainly suboptimal – in the literal, definitional, and experiential sense. It has possibly been the most suboptimal experience of my adult life. Making the transition could have easily become debilitating if not for exploring the fundamental elements involved.

When transitioning from service, we’re literally operating outside of nearly every element of an optimal – or peak – experience. This article is about a perspective on why transition from the service can be so challenging. Maybe it’s about why any transition is challenging? And how to regain your Tribe, Flow, and Power!

Here’s what I learned…

The first thing I learned was that it wasn’t just me, I didn’t have a “problem,” and I wasn’t broken. Our bodies, our being (our selves), when in transition, have physiological, psychological, and emotional constraints. We need to deal with them head-on. For many of us, dealing with the physical effects and their integration is THE primary task. Transition, however, is also as much about your relationship with the environment as it is about you personally.

How is it that a person (me in this case) can go from the euphoric feelings of contributing so much to society to feeling lost and of little value to society? How is it that one can go from daily optimal experiences to near depression? How could I go from feeling near personal enlightenment to being frustrated, disoriented, and unable to recapture my power? How is this possible? What are we to make of it?

There had to be more to it than just “getting out of the military is a big change!” That’s too simplistic. It doesn’t capture the nuances, the research, or the underlying principles of the human condition. There had to be more to the picture. What explains the big macro categories of “why” transitions are so challenging? What fundamental principles are involved?

In researching this topic, here’s what I’ve learned. Humans ultimately seek four things: 1) meaningful relationships, 2) a feeling of belonging, 3) the freedom to pursue our personal interests and challenges, and 4) the opportunity to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

In How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen, comes to a similar conclusion. What people desire from life and work is 1) opportunities to learn, 2) grow in responsibilities, 3) contribute to others, and 4) be recognized for achievements. Ray Dalio, in his book Principles, says what he ultimately pursued was 1) meaningful work and 2) meaningful relationships. In Tribe, Sebastian Junger shares the fundamental elements of self-determination: 1) the need to feel competent at what we do, 2) the need to feel what we’re contributing to society is real and authentic, and 3) the need to feel connected to others.

In these reflections it’s clear that we, as humans, derive much of our meaning in life from personally engaging activities, contribution, group affiliation, and pride in a meaningful pursuit. For students and practitioners of peak performance and optimal experience, you’ll recognize the similarities to the fundamental elements of flow, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research (Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience) in these descriptions. We know, from peak experience research that we enter optimal experience when our activities are:

◆ Goal directed
◆ Bounded by rules
◆ Require (and demand) all of our attention
◆ Within our skills to complete the task
◆ and when Immediate feedback is recognizable, understandable, and actionable.

The way I transitioned wasn’t goal directed at all. I didn’t understand the new rules, my attention was scattered across too many things, I wouldn’t have known transition skills if they ran me over with a truck, and had no actionable feedback whatsoever.

When still in the SEAL Teams, nearly every single day for me was an optimal experience. Most days I experienced multiple optimal experiences. A simple day at the rifle range met every condition of flow. A day at the drop zone getting a few free fall jumps with our team met every characteristic of flow. When in the service – at least in my line of work – we were consumed (spoiled) everyday with flow experiences. Moreover, each experience was enhanced by being part of a cohesive tribe, within a mini-society where I knew how to contribute effectively, and where my personal contribution was clear and definable.

I’ve realized that a huge part of transition is an exercise in re-learning flow, or optimal experience. A transition disrupts every single element of flow. This is normal. Expect it. After two solid, focused years of intentional reflection, research, and counseling, I’ve found that paramount to flow there are four evolutionary principles of human flourishing that are disrupted in transition. They must be respected in order to fully understand and deal with reality well:

1)  Tribe: We lose our tribe. Our cultural and tribal affiliation is at risk.
2) Anomie: Which literally means, the “lack of rules.” A condition where “norms of behavior” have become muddled.
3) Alienation: The opposite of anomie. Alienation is being constrained by the social system to act in ways that go against your goals or values.
4) Mana’: A Maori and Polynesian concept. Our “personal prestige and character,” and the “spiritual goal of human existence.”

With respect to tribal, and group affiliation, it’s the fundamental role of any community to “shield its members from chaos…and reassure them of their importance.” Our community is the place – the environment – where we make a meaningful contribution. Where we know how to make a meaningful contribution. Abraham Maslow’s third level of human needs is intimate belonging. We can’t outrun evolution. We need a tribe.

When support from our tribe is revoked, or we have voluntarily switched tribes, as we do in transition, we lose our “customary support.” We are then susceptible to “floundering in a morass of apathy and anxiety.” In most cases we aren’t deliberately shunned or asked to leave. It’s worse. We voluntarily detach ourselves from our tribe. Many times this is for good and healthy reasons but it’s voluntary and abrupt nonetheless. And while doing so we beat ourselves up since we feel like it’s quitting (one of the dirtiest words in our vocabulary). In the process, we’ve lost the tribe we know, don’t know how to find a new one, or don’t know the rules of the new tribe when we find one. Be patient with yourself. You’ll find a new tribe in due time. And despite how it feels, you haven’t completely lost the old one.

Which literally means the “lack of rules.” We experience anomie when what’s permitted or not permitted simply isn’t clear anymore. When it is “uncertain what public opinion values, behavior becomes erratic and meaningless.” In transition, I found myself outside of my tribe, and dropped into a foreign country (civilian community), wondering what the new rules were. To make matters worse, I didn’t know what type of rules to look for. The rules of a stable, non-physically threatening environment weren’t believable at first. Given that it’s conditional to have clear rules and boundaries to get into flow, transition is anything but an optimal experience. Again, be patient. Learning the new rules of a new evironment is a long term and deliberate game. Being an expert learner is more valuable than being an expert. Seek mentoring, coaching, and transition assistance!

Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., writes about teams operating within disciplined boundaries and constraints as a required condition for high creativity, and thus optimal experience. In transition we lose the boundaries and constraints in which we operated for decades! Alienation is commonly described as being “isolated or estranged,” either intentionally or unintentionally. However, alienation in transition is being constrained by the social system you don’t fully understand while induced or encouraged to act in ways that go against your goals. This alienation emerges primarily from a misalignment of your personal values and how best to use them in impacting the people around you. The two questions I often ask myself today is “Who do you want to help?” and “What do you want to learn?” This helps to give me tremendous clarity and direction.

In the Maori, and broader Polynesian culture, mana carries spiritual meaning. It is often described as authority, personal power, character, humility, strength, and gentleness. Again, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, his fifth level describes self-actualization. “What a man can be, he must be.” Our mana is finding that place to contribute our unique power and character. In finding our mana, we’re answering philosopher Buckminster Fuller’s question, “What is my job on the planet? What is it that needs doing, that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?”

When in transition from the service, we have lost a tribe, or at least a part of our community. We are trying to learn the new rules of a new environment. We are simultaneously, and inherently, constrained by the environment as we work to find where our goals/values align with society and how we best direct our power and character. We’re finding how to regain and express our mana again.

Transition has many lives. Everyone will experience it differently. However, it seems fundamental to me that we must first work to align our goals and values with society and within a new community. I learned to be patient in learning the new rules of a new game. Thankfully, I eventually found the right mentors, coach, and process to help explain and direct my mana – our “spiritual goal of human existence.” No one can negotiate this process alone. And remember, transition is as much about your relationship with the environment, and the natural structure of a transition, as it is about you personally.

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