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William Emery Bridges

William Emery Bridges Obituary
William Bridges, the author, teacher and consultant whose pioneering work on transition transformed the way people think about change, died on February 17, 2013, at his home in Larkspur, California, from complications of Lewy Body Disease. His wife, Susan Bridges, was by his side. He was 79.
Through his books, including "Transitions, Managing Transitions" and "The Way of Transition", his public speaking and the international network of experts he trained and certified to coach people through transition, Mr. Bridges had a worldwide impact upon educators, psychologists, corporate executives, business consultants and non-profit leaders as well as the general public.
As John Alexander, former CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, observed, "Bill's contribution was incalculable. He gave us a vocabulary for understanding and talking about change that was entirely absent before. He helped us understand how people actually experience change and what they need to get through it."
Originally trained in American literature with an emphasis on 19th Century New England writers, Mr. Bridges brought a rich historical and philosophical perspective to his highly practical work, along with a finely-honed and fluid literary style. His gift for developing rich theoretical insights to help ordinary people better manage their daily lives placed him firmly in the American tradition of pragmatic philosophy exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.
William Emery Bridges was born in Boston in 1933, the son of Ronald Perkins Bridges and Helen Emery Bridges. He lived as a young child in Maine, Arizona and California. He received his BA in English from Harvard, his MA in American History from Columbia and his PhD in American Civilization from Brown University. He served in the US Army in the mid-fifties and was posted in Germany. He married Ramonda Kump in 1959.
Mr. Bridges held the Aurelia Henry Reinhard Professorship of American Literature position at Mills College in Oakland, California, in the late 1960's, when he became interested in the psychology of literature and took a sabbatical to explore it. He was influenced by the human potential movement, then developing around The Esalen Institute and at Berkeley, and by the teachings of Jung.
In the summer of 1970, he established and led a three-week training program in humanistic and depth psychology at Mills, bringing some of the era's most influential thinkers together. He would later become President of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. Because he himself was experiencing a period of profound change and considering a new career, he decided to teach a course called "Being in Transition."
In writing about transition, he initially found it a struggle. But a phrase from Emerson's classic essay "Self-Reliance" came to his rescue, reminding him to, "Say what is true for you and every heart will respond to that iron string." Mr. Bridges took this advice and began to write not as an academic drawing on peer reviewed literature but "as if I knew what was true." In the mid-seventies he resigned from his position at Mills College to continue writing and moved his family to an intentional community of seven families in Northern California. In 1980 he published "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes." In the book he set forth the idea that, while change was situational, transition was psychological, and needed to be better understood, especially in America where change is both endemic and rapid.
"Transitions. . ." proposed that individuals experience change in three stages: first as an ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, and then followed by a new beginning. He noted that because Western culture offers few rituals to mark the passage through these stages, people often try to skip from the first stage directly to the last. Instead, he asked individuals to spend time in what he called "the neutral zone" as a way of psychologically accommodating the space between.
The book struck a strong chord with readers and by the time the 25th anniversary edition was published, it had sold over a half million copies. He would follow it with "Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change" in 1991, also a national best-seller and now in its third edition. In 2001, he published "The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments", which in part explored the pain of his own transition following the death of his first wife, Mondi, in 1997, of breast cancer.
In 1994, he published "JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs", which was excerpted and featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine. Exploring the consequences of flattening hierarchies and the disappearance of management jobs that characterized the recession of the early 1990's, Mr. Bridges accurately predicted the explosive growth of self-employment and helped individuals and companies understand how to prepare for a world in which secure jobs would be increasingly scarce.
By distinguishing transition, an internal human process, from change, an event caused by external circumstances, Mr. Bridges set a different course than engineering based change management programs, a position that reflected his humanistic roots. In the 1980's, he began consulting with individuals and organizations about managing transition. He founded William Bridges & Associates and developed customized training programs for organizations experiencing transition. This helped spread the influence of his work around the world.
In 1998, he married Susan Mitchell, a colleague and established leadership development consultant, who joined him as a partner in the business. She became President of William Bridges and Associates in 2007. Mr. Bridges expanded his thinking and writing into new areas of personal transition and growth and completed a novel, which remains unpublished.
In 2000, Mr. Bridges was approached by Steven Kelban, Executive Director of the Andrus Family Fund, a division of the Surdna Foundation, whose wife had given him a copy of Transitions when he retired from a previous position. "The idea was that I might find it personally useful, and I did," Mr. Kelban recalled, "But as I read it I also thought, why not also use this approach to structure social change?"
The Andrus Family Fund makes grants to non-profits working in foster care and community reconciliation, both of which Mr. Kelban believed could benefit from a better understanding of transition. They began a collaboration that Mr. Kelban said has made a substantial difference in helping both young people and damaged communities adapt to change. "We now ask all our grantees to incorporate the transition framework into their proposals and provide transition coaching for people who deliver services," Mr. Kelban said. "The work has had a fundamental impact, especially on how transition out of foster care is handled. It's changed the language and has spread strongly. When people look for best practices in foster care, this is it."
Mr. Bridges' impact on consultants working with change and leadership was also far-ranging. Jim Kouzes, author of "The Leadership Challenge", noted, "Bill's major contribution was to give us permission to talk about the pain and difficulty of change and acknowledge that it can be very confusing. Americans have shame around pain-success is somehow supposed to be easy. If you're struggling, it's as if you've failed. Bill moved past that relentless optimism and said, yes, you can find real meaning in change but only if you are willing to experience the pain."
Tom Yeomans, a practicing psychotherapist and founder of The Concord Institute in Massachusetts who participated in the original sessions at Mills College, notes that the Emersonian tradition continued to affect Mr. Bridges' work. "Trust informed Bill's process and trust is the core idea of self-reliance-trusting your instinct, what you know, your potential to be more truly yourself, trusting the process of change and moving with it. Bill's work was profoundly consistent, built on the recognition of a deep human pattern, but he found many ways to develop it. Because he remained deeply connected to Emerson and the transcendentalists, he helped open organizations and individuals to the possibility of transcendence."
Mr. Bridges is survived by his wife, Susan Bridges, his daughters from his first marriage, Anne Gavin (Curtis Gavin), Sarah Bridges, and Margaret Bridges, seven grandchildren (Dylan, Tristan, Tyler, Porter, Jackson, Noah, William), his brother, Daniel Bridges and niece Amy.
Memorial services are pending.
Donations may be made to the UCSF Foundation for the "William and Susan Bridges Neurohospitalist Program Fund B2390" and sent to S. Andrew Josephson MD, Director, Neurohospitalist Program, UCSF, 505 Parnassus Ave, Box 0114, San Francisco, CA 94143.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Mar. 3, 2013
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