Why change sucks

Everywhere we look in today’s world, there is change.  In fact, you could make the argument that change is ubiquitous and that we should actually stop even talking about it as something that comes and goes or is cyclical because it is here to stay.  This is obviously not a new idea since Heraclitus (a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) is credited with saying, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”  Imagine that this concept of change as a constant was posited over 2500 years ago and we are still trying to develop “change management” techniques.  (As an aside here, I will not engage in tirade over change management and how ludicrous it is that people try to fool themselves and others into thinking that we can manage change and control how things change in our environment because this is our own weak attempt at building mental construct that provides us with some level of false security that we are able to control our environment…oops, I guess the aside morphed into a mini-tirade…sorry). 

The observations that follow are based on my own personal experiences, failures, starts/stops, and ponderings.  I have had the good fortune to experience a great deal of change in my life.  I choose to frame it as good as it has provided me with a vast array of experiences that have enriched my life although, unfortunately, not in a monetary fashion.  These experiences (interestingly enough the word “experience” comes from the Latin “ex pericolo” which means “from danger”) have enabled me to learn so many lessons about life and meet so many interesting people that  I would not change one of my decisions even if I had the chance.  Funny thing is that I would also not wish these experiences on anyone else as some of the impacts of these experiences are not for the weak of heart.  That is what brings me back to the topic of “why change sucks”.

The epiphany that has led to this posting came to me this past weekend and is a result of intersection of two events: starting a new job & playing basketball.  One of these is a passion of mine (basketball) and the other would be a passion of mine if you asked my wife since it happens with too great a frequency (I think I have career ADD).  The BFOTO (blinding flash of the obvious) I had is that why we avoid change is because it threatens our IDENTITY.

Each time we do something new like start a job, play basketball with a new group of people, move to a new city, etc. we must re-establish our identity and here is why:

  • New people do not know us so they will form an opinion of us based only our future performance and not on the cumulative past performance that has provided us with our identity.

This is why change sucks!  We spend most of our lives becoming whoever we are and when something changes, that impacts our identity.  The real reason we become uncomfortable and seek to avoid change is:

  • Cognitive dissonance (as defined by Wikipedia) is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts.

The dissonance we experience is who we believe we are and who these new people think we are based on our actions from the point they met us.  If you really want to push the discussion and make it even more uncomfortable, then you have to entertain the possibility that our internal identity may be inaccurate as it may be reflective of two things:

  1. The cumulative results of our actions that we have amassed with our current group which have built up over time and provide sort of a trend analysis so the lows and highs are smoothed out and they see the “median us”
  2. Our own version of our “ideal self” that is probably romanticized a bit so we can limit our own self-loathing

When we make a change, we are faced with a couple of options:

  1. Re-establish our previous identity with the new group (the degree of work to accomplish this will vary depending on how idealized your “self” was in comparison to reality. An example might be a 42-year-old guy who had knee surgery earlier this year and who plays ball once a week, beginning to play with a group of guys who are in their late 20’s & early 30’s and who play several times a week. 
  2. Leverage the opportunity to grow and create a new identity based on the best of both realities (who you were and who you would like to become)

I think most of us become frustrated because we are convinced the only plan of action is option #1 and that can be problematic for a number of reasons:

  • The person we imagined we were we had not been for a number of years
  • Our identity was tied to achievements in our past
  • We had most the discipline required to be the person we thought we were
  • We were surrounded by enablers (we all are) who continually reinforce the idealized us

Regardless of the reason, the pain is quite real (this pain could be physical, financial, psychological, emotional, etc.) and we are faced with the challenge of closing the gap between what our belief and our reality (cognitive dissonance).  How, and if, we do it is the key.  As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  The problem is that we do not stop and make a conscious decision most of the time.  We just continue to plow ahead thinking that our current level of performance will get us the same result we used to get and that is a fallacy.

We have only ONE OPTION and that is GROWTH.  As with many things, this is simple just not easy.  The best closing for this posting is to refer you to Albert Camus’ commentary on the Myth of Sisyphus.  It is just several paragraphs but an extremely profound and thought-provoking read.  I first read this years ago in college and have shared it hundreds of times with friends and co-workers when we discuss the work that is our lives.  I hope you enjoy it!

(Lest you think I would “go gentle into that good night”. I played ball with the new group of guys (all younger) two weeks ago and played quite badly.  This performance haunted me all week and I returned this past Sunday to close the gap on my own cognitive dissonance.  I was “successful” and played quite well and reaffirmed my “identity”.  Since Sunday morning, I have taken 6 ibuprofen/day and the pain in my right hip, knee, & ankle as well as my left shoulder has just subsided as of this morning.  As Dylan Thomas said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”)


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Filed under Adaptation, Looking in the mirror, The Human Condition

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