Earning Your Beginnings

By Marshall Goldsmith

Earning your life is the long game. 

You need a strategy anchored in both self-awareness and situational awareness to sustain the urgency and avoid burnout—until earning has become your habit. 

In the course of a lifetime, you will experience episodes when one phase of your life ends and another begins. Some of them are predictable markers of modern life: graduation; your first “real” job; marriage; your first house; parenthood; divorce; career success; career failure; the loss of a loved one; a lucky break; a big idea. 

These moments can be exhilarating or confusing to the point of paralysis (“What do I do next?”). They can be opportunities or crises, turning points or setbacks. 

Gail Sheehy called them “passages” in her 1977 bestseller of the same name. My late friend Bill Bridges called them transitions. (Every few years, I revisit his 1979 classic on the subject, suitably titled Transitions. It’s highly recommended reading.) 

We all experience these intervals between the old and the new. According to Bridges, “The transition process does not depend on there being a replacement reality waiting in the wings. You are in transition automatically when some part of your life ends.” 

But we make a grave error if we treat a transition as a lull in the action that allows us to take a time out and passively wait for our next phase—our “replacement reality”—to begin. We do not roam through our transitions aimlessly until we find an escape route. They are living organisms, as alive as other fully engaging parts of our lives. 

The American choreographer Twyla Tharp is an expert on transitions. She has created more than 160 ballets and modern dances in her 50-year career. That’s 160-plus transition periods between one finished dance and the next new dance. 

It’s also 160-plus temptations—at least three a year—to lie down and take a nap before starting the next piece. Tharp doesn’t take the bait. She doesn’t wait for the next inspiration to whack her on the side of her head. She proactively seeks it. 

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In her words, she has to “earn her next beginning”—putting the old piece behind her, researching composers, listening to music, working out steps alone for hours with a video camera running so no idea is lost. Then when all of these disconnected parts align, she’s ready to start creating. 

This is how she earns her next beginning. To the untrained eye, what might look like a dead zone of inaction between projects is actually as focused and drenched in sweat as the intense hours rehearsing her dancers before opening night. Transitions to Tharp are not a respite from the earning process; they are one more critical part of it, as hard-earned as anything else she does. 

I think Tharp is right about this: Each of us has a unique set of criteria for defining the turning points in our lives, that moment when we begin to disengage with our previous self and start to accommodate the new person we want to become. 

Whereas a creative artist like Twyla Tharp might identify her transitional moments in a micro sense as the intervals between individual dances, or in a macro sense as the sharp breaks between major stylistic periods in her career (akin to the gap between, say, Picasso’s Blue Period and Rose Period), you and I might opt for different markers. 

For example, people are my markers for the big turning points in my life—specifically, people who offered me some variation of the “You Can Be More” speech. 

My earliest memory of such a person is Mr. Newton in eleventh grade, who told me a D in math was inexcusable. He expected more from me. 

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This kind of thing has happened a dozen times in my life. Each of these dozen people, whether they intended it or not, induced a sudden dissatisfaction with my current self and a strong desire to become someone new. I didn’t yet know who that person might be, but these folks nudged me into a transition where I could sort out my options, discover the answer, and earn my next beginning. 

The markers you use to interpret the arc of your life are a deeply personal choice. 

One executive told me his major inflection points are his screw-ups—because he turned the shame-filled memory of each fiasco into a teachable moment, a mistake never to be repeated. 

Another said it was in the half dozen moments when he realized he was no longer the most junior person in the room and that his influence had grown. He marked the passage of time by each moment he was made aware of his rising professional stature. 

An industrial designer marks off the inflection points in her career through the products she designed. Each design is like a milestone marking off the distance she has traveled between one product and the next. When she looks at the designs in chronological order, she sees the evidence of the evolving person she was when she brought each product to market. 

Age is also a factor. Your perspective on your major turning points changes with the accumulated years. 

In 2022, I can interpret my life through the lens of the influence that a dozen people have had on me over a span of 73 years, whereas an 18-year-old’s unit of measurement might be the 13 grades between kindergarten and senior year of high school, with summer break as the transition from one phase to the next. 

Later in life, the youthful transitions that felt like turning points will fade into the background, while other moments, unappreciated at the time, will emerge as defining ones. 

You cannot know if you’ve begun to earn your next beginning until you know you’re in transition. 

You cannot appreciate your transitions until you have a method for marking off your turning points.

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