It’s banal to say that the interesting thing about change is how ironic it is. It is the one constant in our life, the one thing that never changes, and yet most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with it. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. We don’t seek it and, more often than not, we actively resist it. And yet there is no escaping this fundamental fact of our existence: Change happens.
I propose that we are not fearful of change itself but, rather, we worry our effort will not yield any benefits -- that we will end up in exactly the same place as if we had simply maintained the status quo. We fear wasting the time and energy it takes to enact a change only to find that nothing is actually different afterward.
Why is this the case? Why do we choose to accept the status quo rather than reject it?
The purpose of this article is to expose some of the fundamental reasons we are so uncomfortable with change and how these fears cripple our attitude towards pushing boundaries.
The Discount of Future Success
Most of us have an intuitive (but wrong) calculus that goes like this:
All the potential negative outcomes about a given change will happen, while all the potential positive outcomes about a given change might happen.
This is good from an evolutionary perspective. It encourages caution, generates contingency planning and ultimately minimizes the possibility of jumping headlong into the pit of quicksand that would eliminate us from the gene pool. However, this skewed sense of probabilities creates an inherent skepticism about the rationale for making change happen.
Overcoming change bias is as simple as being aware of this tendency and becoming intellectually honest when assessing outcomes. Take the time to think through the pros and cons, as extra clarity reduces resistance.
The Insidiousness of Expectation
The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote:
"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”
We spend much of our time thinking about the future. Sure, we think fondly (or critically) about the past or sometimes get in the groove and live in the moment, but most of the time, our train of thought is on the track going forward, looking ahead to future outcomes.
We define our intended outcomes, we decide how to measure them, we plan to achieve them and, in the process, we come to expect them. In fact, having invested so much time into thinking about outcomes, we become attached to the idea of them actually occurring so when they don’t go our way, we not only feel disappointment and perhaps a little resentment, we might even feel a sense of personal failure.
To make matters worse, we remember the hits and forget the misses, falling victim to confirmation bias. As a result, the way we relate to change calcifies into one of active resistance or, at the very least, passive discomfort.
This is the insidiousness of expectations, a state of mind that forms an attachment to a certain result. Unfortunately, it’s a flat out fact of life that there are too many influences out of our control to hold these expectations. It is self-evidently true that we are immersed in an interconnected and interdependent web of cause and effect from which we cannot escape. We can influence but never completely control our destiny.
The Zen of Change
Understanding this and, most importantly, accepting this, helps us decouple actual results from our attachments to desired outcomes. All we can do is our best, and surrender to the unfolding of events. This is the Zen of cultivating a healthy relationship to change.
A great example of the Zen of change found in President Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod. On the eve of the 2008 election, Axelrod was asked about election day contingencies. What would the consequences be if weather prevented voter turnout in certain states? What if there was a terrorist attack? Or, what if some other unexpected complication arose? He replied, “All we can do is all we can do. We can’t worry about anything else.”
Detaching your expectations from the result doesn’t mean you stop doing your best to achieve it. As Axelrod said, “All we can do is all we can do.” Aspiration and striving for a desired future state is good. In fact, to be fully engaged in an activity is the only thing you can control. But if we are not attached to the outcome, we are more at peace with whatever the outcome is and we are more resilient when it doesn’t go our way. Further, as our ego becomes less invested in the outcome, we begin to de-emphasize the misses, and we start altering our relationship to change, making it more familiar and collegial.
I can’t help but admire the capacity of poets to be succinct, so here’s a rhyme from Mother Goose that manages to encapsulate this entire blog.
For every ailment under the sun There is a remedy, or there is none; If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it.
Be mindful about the insidiousness of expectations. Do your best, but don’t hold the outcome too close. If it doesn’t go your way, learn from it and then let it go, because there’s only one thing we can be sure of: More change is coming.