How One Simple Phrase Became the Basis of Our Work

by: Rick Simmons

I remember the moment I first found a name for what I’d been feeling.

As part of our graduate program in organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Amy and I traveled abroad to Belgium to spend several weeks at a sister university.

There, we visited companies, heard case studies, engaged in simulations, and more. Everyone on the trip was struck by how much we were learning. In just a few days, we had grown and changed tremendously. When Amy shared what she had been experiencing with Johann, our Belgian professor, he responded with a shrug, “Well, this is a liminal space.”

Of course, my time in Belgium wasn’t the first liminal experience I’d had. Everyone has gone through multiple periods of discontinuity over the course of their lives—the challenge of navigating a foreign situation or environment, a parent passing away, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job. But it was the first time I had a name for it.

The word liminal comes from the Latin word līmen, or threshold. It is—quite literally—a point of transition, a space where what has happened in the past no longer applies and what will come hasn’t yet arrived. Today, we define liminal space as a period of discontinuity that creates an openness to change.

Whether astounding, difficult, or even devastating to face, liminal experiences can lead to powerful transformation—helping you locate previously untapped ideas, strengths, and solutions that have the potential to catapult you to new heights personally and professionally.

Much of that power lies in your ability to identify liminal space and use these periods as opportunities for growth.

Having a term for it was eye opening, to say the least. We came away from that program wanting to give others the opportunity to explore and grow from liminal space, because our time spent there had such a profound impact on our lives.

We came up with the idea for the telos institute on the plane ride home. We didn’t have the name yet, or all of the pieces, but we knew that helping people access these kinds of experiences would be at the heart of our work.

You don’t have to go to Belgium to harness the power of liminal space (though it certainly helps); these inflection points are all around us.

Think, for a moment, about the sun. For so long, we’ve been ignoring the fact that the sun is an incredible power source, and have instead relied on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, we have a tremendous source of energy that is virtually at our fingertips; we just have to tap into it.

Liminal space works similarly. It’s a remarkable catalyst for productive change. It’s just a matter of recognizing it, acknowledging its potential value, and using it to make meaningful progress.

Since uncovering this concept and its applications to life and business, we have helped business leaders and organizations around the world recognize and reap the benefits of liminal space.

Our book, Unleashed: Harnessing the Power of Liminal Space, forthcoming from ForbesBooks in July 2021, lays out what we’ve learned about the transformative power of consciously wading into the unknown for individuals, teams, and organizations—and the tools to access those benefits.