I hope that you have enjoyed the last couple episodes on liminal space. As I mentioned in Episode 110, I had not heard of the concept before it was shared by Thomas Winninger and I feel very fortunate to have been able to share with you some of the things that I learned as I investigated this topic. And today, I will share with you some final thoughts that will wrap this up.
There are a couple of other folks out there who I found insightful when discussing liminal space. Emily Perlow gave a TEDx talk back in 2014 called Leadership in Liminal Spaces. This talk was recorded at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Vancouver and I thought she introduced a couple of key points through examples that can help us understand liminal space.
I shared previously that the Latin root of liminal is the word limin which means threshold and how it referred specifically to the transverse beam in a door frame. The example I share is the tradition of a groom carrying the bride across the threshold.
This is indicating the move from something known to something new and unknown. It’s exciting, and if we are honest, a little terrifying! And that’s okay. Courage is moving forward in the face of fear.
What Liminal Space Feels Like
So the examples that Emily uses really help us to connect with the feelings of liminal space. She identifies the lead up to liminal space as separation. This is an event that transitions us from what is known. Many cultures have practices that we refer to as rights of passage.
For instance, young boys moving into manhood might have a tribal expectancy of a trial or test. They leave the tribe and head out alone to face an extreme condition. You are leaving everything you know, taking a massive risk, a monumental gamble on yourself, and betting that you can overcome this great obstacle.
If you succeed, it will not only give you a tremendous boost to your self-confidence, but also a sense of achievement and a community who recognizes that you have become. That is, you will be doing something that you’ve never done. And some will think you aren’t capable of doing.
Can You Survive It
And until you have done it, you yourself don’t even know if you can do it. Who are you? What are you made of? Are you capable of succeeding in this great difficulty?
And there’s always a rub, right?! It’s not just doing something you’ve never done, or going somewhere you’ve never been, it’s all about the discomfort that results from not truly knowing what you are getting into.
You really aren’t alone though. There’s this companion who is always with you: one who brings you great confidence and certainty or one that brings you the great terror of failure. Yes, it’s your thoughts. Not so easy to escape them.
You were comfortable where you were at – you knew how to function there. Maybe you were happy, maybe you weren’t, but what’s certain is that it was known.
It’s like driving the same route to work for the last 10 years: you could almost drive it with your eyes closed. And that’s a problem. It leads to complacency. Too much confidence. You stop being aware of necessary changes that will keep you on top of your game.
You don’t just know the turns, you know the potholes and the narrow spots. If someone asked, you could probably tell them within 15 seconds how long the journey would take based on time of day or hitting the long or mistimed traffic signals. Emily refers to these as scripts. Scripts are directives.
One way to look at liminal space, she says, is to think about traveling to a different culture. You don’t know the language, don’t know where you are at, you’re struggling to communicate and understand the people there, not only do you not know what’s next, you don’t even know what’s expected! That’s liminal space. Crossing the threshold into something new and actually having to figure it out as you go.
No wonder we try to skip past it so quickly! But that’s a mistake, isn’t it?! There’s a miraculous component of being in liminal space. It’s the antithesis of complacency.
Here, you are hyper-sensitive and keenly aware. The old scripts aren’t going to work and you have to go about the hard work of creating new ones. This is where creating new neural pathways comes in.
Your brain is lazy! It wants to conserve energy, not deplete it in this new survival mode. Habits and repeated patterns help your brain conserve energy. If you want to create new neural pathways and preserve brain health, then you need change. You need liminal spaces, thresholds, that challenge your old paradigms.
It’s why you should listen to music you don’t like or take a different route to work or use your opposite hand to brush your teeth. These force you to adapt and change and become! How cool is that?
Your Greatest Asset
Don’t be afraid of the liminal spaces in your life. Embrace them as opportunities for growth. When you’re the new person to the team, you bring a fresh perspective. Don’t ever forget this. Simply because everything is foreign to you at this moment, you are blessed with a unique perspective. Find it. Use it. Help others who are blind to it.
Your greatest fear (the unknown) actually becomes your most valuable asset. You aren’t encumbered with a bunch of historical baggage weighing you down – rather, you are free to see it differently. It’s as if there’s a built-in right to challenge the process. In healthy organizations, it’s encouraged because leaders recognize that it benefits everyone!
Innovate, Don’t Emulate
Here’s another aspect Emily mentioned: critical thinkers don’t copy and emulate. That’s the easiest way to repeat the past mistakes other’s have made. Instead, they forge a path for themselves. It might look like paths others took. You can’t help that.
Own your decision. Slow down, sit down, think it through, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. You will forge it based on your decision to not just blindly copy how someone else did it.
Can you see the connection between this process when you are in liminal space and good listening skills? As you listen, it’s not to respond. It’s to understand. You are inviting others to express or share. You are engaging. As a result, this unknown starts to feel less frightening and more collaborative.
Emily says that we move from liminal to reintegration. Don’t force it. Take your time. Enjoy this space. The transition from separation to liminal space and finally to reintegration shouldn’t be rushed. Maximize the benefit.
Finally, one last thought. In another TEDx talk, this one in Portobello, Edinburgh, Mike Small shared something in a talk called Liminal Land. Please remember this: liminal space affords you the ability for self-determination.
This is the opposite of dependence, which, by the way, happens very subtly. In this process of transformation, from who you were, to who you are becoming, you get to make space for hope.
You don’t have to stay the person you’ve always been. Things don’t have to stay the way they’ve always been. There’s a place for metamorphosis – a change so significant that no one recognizes you. You can determine to abandon cynicism and believe that positive change can happen.
And it can happen not just in the world, it can happen right inside you. Embrace the space to become who you were destined to be. The world needs that from you.
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
The Leader To Leader Podcast Episode 110: Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty
The Leader To Leader Podcast Episode 111: The Best Actions To Take During Uncertainty
Emily Perlow’s TEDxWPI talk Leadership in Liminal Spaces
Mike Small’s TEDxPortobello talk Liminal Land
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