Gravity: The Six Transition Essentials


“You have to learn to let go.” –Astronaut Matt Kowalski

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s new movie Gravity has much to teach us about making personal and business transitions. This spectacular 3-D film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It is the fictional account of a spacewalk gone awry at the Hubble Space Telescope. When a neighboring Russian satellite is intentionally destroyed, the debris causes a deadly chain reaction that requires the two surviving American astronauts to journey to the International Space Station using only a thruster pack.

Like all good shipwreck survival stories, Gravity demands that they face their fears and overcome dire circumstances. It has much to teach us about the power of the human spirit. It is also instructional about what is required for any successful transition.

Calamity drives the storyline. The astronauts, running low on oxygen and completely vulnerable to their environment, must find their way to safety. They have lost contact with Mission Control and are forced to fend for themselves in an orbiting debris field.

Sometimes, here on earth, our lives can feel untethered too, like we’re spiraling out of control. Circumstances come at us like threatening debris. Just when we think we’ve seen the worst of it, around it comes again to test us.  Such adversity forces us to call on our inner resources, a central message of the film.

The Transition Archetypes

While most of us will never face being lost in space, almost all of us have had that lost feeling at some time in our lives. Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien has identified the archetypal transitions we all encounter no matter what our age or stage of life might be:

  • Work: Our jobs begin or end; we are promoted or terminated; we change careers; or we find ourselves dissatisfied with work.

  • Relationship: The arrival of new friends; the loss of old friends; marriage and divorce; death; disappointment and betrayal; and the need for deeper intimacy all bring transitions to relationship.

  • Health: Aging and illness; pain and suffering; and    the recovery of health and wellbeing also challenge us to grow and change.

  • Finances: Gain and loss; unexpected financial needs; financial failure or reversals all carry uncertainty and change.

  • Identity: How we define ourselves is also effected by transition. Beliefs, assumptions and opinions can be swept away in transition. Roles, responsibilities and behaviors may also be discarded or replaced.


The fundamental requirement in transition is “letting go.” When we are overly attached to roles, co-dependent in relationship, or stuck in old views and behaviors, we will be shaken and shaken until we free ourselves from these entanglements. This is poignantly portrayed in the film, when an astronaut becomes entangled in a Soyuz space capsule’s parachute cords.  The metaphor here is obvious: transitions are easily sabotaged when we are caught up in the past.

The Six Essentials

Given transitions are inevitable, the only wise course of action is to prepare well. Here are six essentials for anyone committed to meeting life’s transitions as an adventure rather than as an affliction.



Every transition presents us with a choice: will we panic and abandon all of our training?  Or, will we use our knowledge, skills, character qualities, and resourcefulness to be successful. Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is challenged continuously to maintain a state of self-sufficiency, even if it requires her to guess at which buttons to push in an unfamiliar space capsule. By relying on her capabilities she is able to solve her problems as they occur. She does not quit on herself. She meets adversity with a can-do attitude.

2. Self-Trust

Trusting ourselves in transition makes navigating much easier. We resist the urge to panic, doubt and second-guess ourselves. We remain confidant that we have what it takes to meet uncertainty and that we can figure out a course of action despite the difficulties. Even when we are shaken by circumstance, we do not allow ourselves to be undone. We resist the urge to allow fear to commandeer our choices. Self-trust also allows us to access intuition, those gut-feelings that help us make choices that cannot be made logically.

3. Accountability

It is easier sometimes to be a victim of transition rather than step up to leadership. Too many people collapse and wait for someone to save them rather than taking command of the situation. George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, models the kind of accountability required in difficult transitions. He remains committed to supporting his crew and returning safely to earth despite the odds. He does so with an unusual mix of authority, creativity, and charm. When his own personal circumstances are compromised, he continues to lead and encourage, refusing to abandon his job or his people.

4. Proactivity

Gravity is a primer on proactivity – the ability to move tasks and relationships forward together. As the relationship between Kowalski and Stone grows, so does their effectiveness as a team. Kowalski coaches Stone, helping her gain the confidence required to take action in the worst possible conditions. Strong relationships support successful transitions. They fund the resiliency to perform well in difficulty.

5. Courage

Gravity is truly terrifying at times. Again and again the astronauts must fight fear and remain focused on the task at hand. Even when all appears lost, courage is summoned to do the impossible. Kowalski and Stone model what Ernest Hemmingway called “grace under pressure”. We too have a choice in transition. We can either meet it cowering in fear or we can meet it with courage. The film suggests when we are sufficient, anchored in self-trust, accountable and proactive, we can find the courage we need to overcome our fears more readily.

6. Right Company

Transitions can be lonely, isolating and scary experiences. Having someone you trust in your corner can be the difference maker. In a pinch, you’ll probably want someone like Stone or Kowalski, someone who truly cares for you, can provide sound advice, reliable assistance, and the odd laugh. That’s right company.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are starting a career, changing jobs, moving across the country, or taking your first walk in space, transitions challenge us to grow. They help us focus on what is essential. We recognize that superficial things – how much money we earn, what car we drive, or what club we belong to – are somehow far less important than we thought.

Ask anyone who has faced serious calamity what is most important to them and, usually, they will give you the same answer: their lives, their family, and their friends. Everything else can be replaced.

If you haven’t seen Gravity, I recommend it. Go see it for the excitement of the story, the beauty of the visuals, and the fine acting. Better still, go and see first hand how to meet your next difficult transition.

Patrick O’Neill


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November 30 & December 1, 2013
Toronto, Canada


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Posted on October 11, 2013 .