Defining my transitional space as part of my career transition by Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich (guest)

Credit Image: Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich

Credit Image: Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich

Career transition is a hot topic these days. People talk about it, engage in it, and fail at it. Only few seem to be aware of the breadth of coaching which could help them master this – after all, it is a long-term endeavor. Particularly coaching that facilitates access to one’s “intuitive” knowledge is underleveraged. Yet, using it could provide the support and learning space for a more playful career transition – after all, play can help make transitions easier!

One of the transitional spaces I’ve used as part of my career transition is participating in an Executive Master’s program (in organizational psychology). It helped me become more aware of some of the limitations that exist in academic knowledge and to overcome them to add value to coaching practice. I know what I am talking about because I continue to be fully immersed in a career transition myself, and assessed one coaching tool: transitional space.

A little background on transitional spaces

Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst, originally termed the notion of transitional space it in the 1960ies, referring to “a psychological reorientation that people have to go through before the change can work” (Mitchell, Bridges, 2003, p. 2). The ability to endure the “transitional space”, a time of considerable psychological stress, is crucial to a successful career transition (Reid, West, 2011, p. 178). Unless one has it all mapped out, a career transition requires one to sustain periods of self-doubt, uncertainty and a more fluid concept of (professional) identity.

Why, you might ask?

In our modern world, people identify with their professional role to a certain extent – changing professional roles includes changing part of your identity. The last time this happened was probably during puberty when one had to deal with an array of confusing emotions, identity questions and evolving roles. And for most, this was a very confusing moment in their life!

How did I leverage this existing concept, transitional space?

The notion of a “psychological reorientation” resonated with me, yet appeared a bit abstract. I strived to make it more practical and more easily understandable for a coachee. I wondered: which actual features constitute a transitional space? Several professionals I interviewed helped me shed light on this.

  • They said that their psychological reorientation had consisted of engaging in experiments (testing potential future professional roles), it had been made possible by support (from a friend, a coach, a significant other).

  • All agreed: the main feature was the doing, not the thinking. (This reminded me of the current bible of entrepreneurs: “The lean startup”, whose main message is to create a minimum viable product, an MVP, and have it tested by customers as quickly as possible – the future professional self is such a minimum viable product).

Based on these insights, I defined transitional space as a psychological space which allows a professional to reconnect to his / her creativity while embracing uncertainty; engaging in creativity experiments (changing behaviors, engaging in (identity) play, being open to novel ideas, possessing an elevated level of autonomy) (Mitchell, Bridges, 2003, p. 2; Reid, West, 2011, p. 177, Ibarra, Petriglieri, 2010, p. 10).

Let me be more specific: the reference being made is to creativity inherent to learning (“mini c” creativity).

Creativity is integral to enabling transitional spaces

Ok, now … creativity, I hear you asking? I believe that creativity plays an outstanding (and undervalued) role in the context of transitional space. The professional and personal growth that takes place in the transitional space can be likened to adult learning – one acquires new knowledge and implements it – in this case, knowledge applied to one’s professional identity (substitute identity for role or persona if you can relate to this more easily). Note: professional and personal change go hand in hand.

For shorthand, this is my equation:

Creativity inherent to learning -> adult learning -> professional and personal identity; transitional space-> an arena for professional and personal identity change.

Defining one’s transitional space is a creative exercise in and by itself. Depending on one’s preferences, a transitional space could consist of:

  • writing an Executive Master’s thesis (this was one of my transitional spaces),

  • taking an interior design class (one interviewee did so to validate an emerging professional identity as interior designer), or

  • reflective journaling encouraged by a friendly coach.

The sky is the limit with respect to transitional space. Other examples I happened upon were: taking voice lessons, watching Koi fish on a regular basis in the early morning (guilty – another one of my transitional spaces) or gardening. The below vignette captures how I used a combination of reflective writing and daydreaming as part of my self-coaching when considering my transitional space. Rereading the vignette helped me understand that the Koi fish represented an emerging sense of different (future) professional selves to me.

Koi vignette

What do the fish present to me?

I don’t know what the fish present to me. Maybe they are objects representative of elegance and tranquility. I very much enjoy watching them. It is interesting to see how they behave differently based on time of the day and climatic conditions.

In the mornings, they are usually active and swim quickly. At noon time and in the afternoons, they are slower. Sometimes, they seem to be lazy, idly swimming through the water, one elegant move of their tail ensuing the other.

J. referred to them as “the guys”. At first, I thought he alluded to all of them being male. After having discussed this impression with him, I realized he was simply referring to them as being part of a bigger group.

I am not sure they are a group. They are quite individualistic to me. They look different from each other. I am sure that if I spent even more time watching them, I would be able to tell them apart. There is one golden (yellow) Koi fish. There are also two to three grey ones. A pair of them which I call “the twins” is orange, with white patches on their back, interrupted by smaller black patches. They are all majestic, beautiful, elegant beings.

This morning, one surprised me. I was sitting on the steps close to the water, enjoying a moment of (near) calm, as most of the MBA students (who usually talk a lot) were not around. Suddenly, there was a “splash” – I did not see what happened, but the ground in front of me was wet. It seemed like one of the fish had tried to leap up (but not out?).

At times, I am amazed by the fishes’ ability to glide aimlessly, yet hardly ever bumping into each other. At other times, I find their behavior erratic, not understanding why they turn in circles. Yesterday (and I believe prior to that), I noted that one of the bigger, slightly more yellow, fish, “freestyled” it – he didn’t swim straight, but turned his body to be in a 45-degree angle. I wonder whether he (she?) finds that more comfortable.

The four turtles that inhabit the pond are their own group. I have caught them “observing” us humans occasionally. They come up close to the steps, stick their head out and watch. I am not sure they make eye contact. But they observe. At times, I find this a bit intimidating. They are good swimmers, quick, elegant as well. They like to sit on the three stones erected in the pond. At times, two or three sit there. As there isn’t enough space for two turtles to sit comfortably, they often pile up on each other. It looks like a stack of turtles.


Accepting uncertainty and giving it time

Transitional space can be leveraged as a tool to sustain uncertainty. It can consist of multifaceted activities and iterative reflection cycles. The notion of space hints at a key factor: a transitional space necessitates a certain amount of time. It is not a set period (of time), a date by which one decides on a new professional identity and hence, the career transition is concluded. Instead, it honors the fact that change is a process.

The definition of transitional space also explicitly refers to autonomy. A coachee must - based on his / her own preferences - opt for a transitional space (and career change), and it must be authentic to them. We all are familiar with the many change projects that fail simply because they never gained the buy-in of those most affected by them – autonomy is key.

To begin defining a transitional space, it’s useful to begin with the following:

  • One must acquire a certain awareness of the psychological space (psychological reorientation) that one is in and that is quite peculiar

  • One should define one’s preference for engagement patterns (as transitional spaces can take many forms and one may need to find out first which one is a suitable one)

  • A coach can help a coachee appreciate and understand the learnings from each of the different transitional spaces as part of the bigger career change endeavor.

Where next

Transitional space is a useful concept that I’ve tweaked so that it includes a “fun” and “playful” component. Embarking in any transition, small or large, is challenging. As I reflected as I wrote of how I self-coached myself in different transitional spaces, I realized again that growth is both professional and personal. THIS insight is largely ignored and not made explicit in coaching for professionals.

And so, in my next piece I explore the activities of entering one’s transitional space, focusing on the necessary disposition of a coachee. For example:

  • What does the actual activity of “entering” entail i.e. psychological reorientation – acknowledging that a period of uncertainty occurs

  • Specifically, which mindset is required and how it can be achieved

  • Adopting and sustaining a playful attitude.

To connect with Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich


“Caro, you are so cosmopolitan” – this is what I often get to hear. German-French by birth, I have spent many years working as a management consultant and am slowly transitioning into more creative industries. Reflecting on transitions, career changes and the underleveraged roles of creativity and playfulness are part of this. I have a passion for maneki nekos (“lucky cats”), sustainable fashion and Vinyasa yoga. Slowly but surely, Asia has become my second home turf.

Bridges, W. Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Press 2003; 2nd ed. updated and expanded.
Ibarra, H., & Petriglieri, J. L. Identity work and play 2008. Fontainebleau. INSEAD, 2008.
Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity.
Knowles, M. (1978). The adult learner: A neglected species., 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Gulf Publishing.
Jonathan P. Reid (2011). Career Planning, Development, and Management: An
Annotated Bibliography (Routledge Library Editions: Human Resource Management)
(Volume 28).