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May 13, 2019

By Mimi Grinker

Ruth Messinger, the Festival’s guest speaker, is an advocate and former Manhattan Borough President. Her activism has taken her from two decades of prominence in NYC government to the global arena and the fight for social justice. She is formerly CEO and currently Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service. 
She spoke for us all.  Her insights about transitions, her journey, our journeys and why we’re in TTN were riveting.  

She said:
“Each of you has made transitions in your life, and some of you are facing transitions right now. Each of you is sufficiently self-aware to be part of The Transition Network.” 
“We see that new bar out there and know it is where we are meant to go.  We hope that there is a way to get there without letting go, but deep down we know that cannot happen.  We know where we are going, we may even believe that there will be smooth sailing on the other side, but to get there we have to take that leap, we have to hurtle across space without a net.  It is scary but it has to happen because it is the only way that real change occurs”

Ruth Messinger’s Speech:


I express my gratitude to the Lenape people who were stewards of the land and water on which New York rests. I begin my public remarks this way, as is common now in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, because it reminds us that things are always changing and that rights to land and water are critical issues of our time.
What I want to do here is to tell you a little bit about my own life transitions, talk about the transitions, which at least some of you have experienced or are facing now, and how these types of transitions hit all of us, and then suggest a few ideas for helping us cope.

As you heard, I have been around a long time, from shortly after the dinosaurs roamed the earth. So…I have experienced lots of transitions.  I was first determined that I would be a doctor—at least until I was 15—and then I became a social worker.  I went to graduate school sure that I would become a caseworker and then became, instead, an organizer, a policy advocate and a change agent.

I can continue. I assumed I would live in New York which I have, for most of my life.  But I spent two years in Oklahoma, by surprise (a move required by my former husband’s effort to stay out of SE Asia in the 1960s) and those two years in Oklahoma—a wild life transition to a place where I was constantly faced with new situations, many challenges, and some turmoil—shaped most of life, because it helped me learn to how to live and work with people very different than those I knew previously. The people with whom I worked told me right off the bat that they knew no New Yorkers, no women in positions of authority and no Jews…and that I talked too fast.  I told them I could change one of those things—and I did—but that otherwise they and I would have to learn to adjust and get along.

And I never would have imagined I would spend twenty years in elected office OR that I would change from an intense urban and local focus to being invested for eighteen years in international human rights and development work.

One other change.  I imagined five years ago that I would keep doing what I was doing—a great job, for sure—until, as they say, people carried me out.  And then I realized, maybe because I had begun to learn about the process of change, that if I stayed, my Executive VP—who had been working with me for 7 years, who was a phenomenal partner and who had a vision for the organization’s future—would, logically, leave to run another organization.

I then had to choose between two transitions.  I could keep going in my job, but he would leave and the job would not be the same; it would require many changes, some of which I realized I would not enjoy…or I could figure out a way to step down and have him take over, which would create new challenges for me.
That’s the road we chose.  We worked together for a peaceful transition. I would continue to work for the organization in a very different and part-time role, and I would make another set of life changes, picking up consultant and organizing jobs in and with organizations I knew, learning (at my advanced age) another way to do work about which I am and remain passionate.  That is what I’m doing now, still learning about how to handle these transitions, and there are many of them and that requires being more conscious about how to do my jobs well.

I want to make a personal point.  In doing international human rights work I had the opportunity of getting to know many grassroots activists and change agents, a majority of them women, who saw their job as making change, as effecting transitions for their families and communities. These women often took life risks that most of us never face, sometimes putting their lives on the line to fight for land or to keep their daughters from early marriage or to escape domestic violence or, even once, to end a civil war.  Seeing their work has helped to put some of my own challenges—not just the professional but the personal ones—in perspective.

So, now, something about you.  Each of you has made transitions in your life, and some of you are facing transitions right now.  Each of you is sufficiently self-aware to be part of the transition network.  Some of you are focused on career changes, some on personal or life changes.  From single to married, from married to divorced, changing partners, suffering loss, becoming seriously ill, being alone, having children and grandchildren!  Now there’s a constant game-changer.  

And remember we all did once crawl and now we walk.  When my daughter, now an accomplished professional with a great many life and career transitions, each of which she has weathered well, was about to learn to walk, she tried to figure out, quite literally, how to take this next step.  This was in an era in which infants wore baby shoes.  

For several weeks she would stop crawling, look at the adults around her, take her baby shoes off, put one in each hand and then stand up and start toddling forward.  If, however, she dropped a shoe, she would promptly sit down.  She knew these odd white things had something to do with helping her walk but she had not figured out what; still, she wasn’t going to try walking without them.

That is part of the story then: transitions are not easy, supports help, but the essence of change is that no one is ever prepared for it in all of its dimensions. No one.  So imagining that you know just what is coming and that you have it all together is misleading and will only lead to disappointment. 

And as I thought about these transitions, about preparing for them and yet realizing that there is no way ever to be fully prepared, the analogy of gymnastics came to mind.  I would love to be able to say that I took the important lessons learned in my gymnastics career and carried them forward, but I never had such a career and am, in fact, notoriously not skilled in that arena.  Still, I have a granddaughter that is, I have watched gymnasts and gymnastic meets, I have always loved acrobatics and so something clicked.

Some connections are obvious.  Gymnasts practice hard, push themselves toward mastery but in the end they are always out there, likely to fall at some point and having to pick themselves up and try again.  We each know what that is like. And there is the balance beam, that agonizing piece of equipment on which we watch people trying to manage to walk a straight line (with no shoes in their hands), knowing that they can almost never be perfectly prepared, that they will stumble often on their way from here to there.  We know that feeling as well.  And the amazing thing about these gymnasts is that once they fall they pick themselves up, they often go right back on the equipment, that know that another try is what is required.

And that then brought to mind another physical or acrobatic performance, that of the trapeze, and a wonderful essay that captures for me this idea that we are never fully prepared for these transitions. The author, Danaan Parry, writes:
“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.”

He goes on to say that most of the time we are hanging on the bar, sometimes hanging on hard, but we know what we are doing, and we are functioning rather smoothly.  And then there is that transition that must be made.  

We see that new bar out there and know it is where we are meant to go.  We hope that there is a way to get there without letting go, but deep down we know that cannot happen.  We know where we are going, we may even believe that there will be smooth sailing on the other side, but to get there we have to take that leap, we have to hurtle across space without a net.  It is scary but it has to happen because it is the only way that real change occurs.

That is, for me, the essence of my experience and I think it works well as advice for each and all of us; it has stood me in good stead.

This is how I felt when I lost an election in 1997 and realized I did not know where I wanted to head next or who would be willing to hire me.  The fact that the person who beat me was urging people not to give me a job added to the anxiety, but I survived.

This is how I felt two years ago when I helped negotiate the job transition that I mentioned previously.  I did know it had to happen and I did know, intellectually, that I would end up some place good, but I did not know where that would be or for how long I would have to fly through space, feeling the transition trauma in my stomach, before I landed some place good.

Remember that I had not planned to make this transition and then realized it was necessary.  That did not make it easy.  There is a big leap between knowing and doing, and I felt it in every fiber of my being.  

There are lots of articles about these CEO transitions, and we are delighted that there is one being written about ours, saying that we did it well.  The article praises some of the steps we took: planning ahead, moving slowly, working with a small group of our board.  It also notes that a CEO who steps down may require extra help adjusting—how true—and it praises us for having worked through our anxieties with an executive coach.  

Still, I repeat, that it wasn’t easy, that that experience of flying through space with no bar to grab was definitely present.

We did a few things that helped ease the trauma.  The coach helped us identify the specific steps of transition and set some specific time limits for taking each step.  And then my wise husband, knowing that the panic would be there regardless, proposed that we leave the country for a month, so that I would be far away, able to try to enjoy a little time in space, and able to focus on finding that next bar.  

It made a huge difference but, of course, I realize we don’t each have such great careful planning for some of our transitions.  Some of what each of you, each of us is dealing with just happens; there is no planning and there it is.

Still, we do have to learn to let go, to fly through unknown territory.  And planning both for the logical steps AND for being ready to feel unmoored and anxious will help whether it is a job or a life transition.  Don’t expect it all to go smoothly, think of that new bar that is out there AND remember that it will take time to find it. 

And it helped me to remember that my skilled colleague, coming into the CEO role, was having some of the same anxieties, wondering what it would really take to do his new job well.  I am touched that he told the author of this forthcoming article: “One of the best pieces of advice Ruth gave me was that there are certain aspects of this job that you can’t learn until you sit in the seat. And she was right.” 

What I wish for each of us is that we remember how many transitions we have made, that we try to learn from each of them and that we don’t allow ourselves to think that any of them was entirely smooth.  We need to take to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s teaching that “every day you must do the thing that you think you cannot do”, that many of these steps will require flying through the air without a bar, with that anxiety in the pit of our stomachs.

Remember that the anxiety and trauma are a necessary step along the road even with the best planned transitions. Believe that the next bar will appear, that we will have help and support sometimes from unexpected places and that we will land in good spaces if we give it our best time and energy.

Every time we manage to do this well, we help others who are feeling paralyzed.  Every time we manage to do this well, we become role models for the next generation that may well have to make even more transitions than we have.  And every time we manage to do this well, we learn more about ourselves and make the next transition—planned or unplanned—that much easier.

We cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore.