9 observations about change

Neon sign that reads "Change"

It was a time of change. It was a time of keeping things the same. It was an age when every day brought something radically new. It was an age of longing for the stability of yesteryear.

The more everything changes, the more things stay the same. We live in a world today fundamentally unlike what our grandparents or even parents lived through. 

“Change is inevitable. Change is constant.”

Benjamin Disraeli

We want change in some areas and other areas to not change at all — to stay the same as we’re used to. That sounds contradictory and is. But then, we are complicated beings. Who said that life was going to be easy?

It would be easy if we could neatly divide it up and seek change in some partitions and keep things the same in others. Except that’s not how life works. 

Different areas of life are not securely walled off silos. They are more like your plate after a trip to a good smörgåsbord: Full of lots of different and interesting foods. That all touch each other, overlap and blend to form new taste sensations. The more you try to keep them apart on that plate, the more they mix up.

In life, change in one area will inevitably affect other areas. That seemed unconnected. Only when an area changes, do we find out how so many other areas are affected by that change. In turn spurring other changes. In short, it’s extremely hard to contain change. 

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

John F. Kennedy

Here are 9 observations about change:

The objective magnitude of change

First let’s talk about how big the change is. Because not all change is created equal by any measure:

Minor change

Getting a flat tire when driving to the beach for the day is annoying for sure, but temporary. It’s a change of plans. Maybe I’ll get to the beach later or maybe I have to cancel and not go at all today. A small part of my life changed, but it’s unlikely to have lifelong repercussions.

Big change

Losing my job on the other hand is a major change. One that will have effects for quite some time to come. May even prompt a move across the country that I wasn’t planning on before. It will include lots of time and effort to deal with the new circumstances.

Obviously, that objective magnitude of a change affects a lot of things. Including how we deal with it.

Perceived magnitude of change

Then there’s how we experience and feel about a change. This gets personal:

The end-of-the-world change 

When we’re first presented with a change, especially if it’s unexpected, it seems really big. I’m going to have to do what by when? The worst, worst-case scenarios flash before us right away. And we know that’s how it’s all going to come down. Because if there ever was an all-is-lost moment, this is surely it.

Then after a little time to absorb the change and understand it, we may realize that it will not be that big of a deal after all. If I do A and B and C, it will be fine. We can work around this. Who knows, there may even be something good coming out of all this change?!

The tiny, almost nothing change that keeps growing

Conversely, sometimes what at first seems like a minor change, that we can surely accommodate easily, may balloon into a major issue with multiple changes resulting from that first one. 

Every project manager knows about this: The tiny little change request coming when the project is almost finished. One little change request. That blows the schedule, the budget and everybody’s patience.

Also, a change that is a really big deal to one person, may not be a big thing to another. Because we all deal with change differently. Personality differences, temperament, what all else is going on in our lives — all play in here.

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.”

Helen Keller

Change will happen

Even if we resist change, the world changes around us. Status quo (the state where things stay the same) doesn’t really exist. Because left to themselves, most things will deteriorate if there’s no outside input. So it’s a given that things will change. It’s just a matter of how much, when, and in what direction.

With a lot of change, we have the ability to interact with it — to direct and shape it. Sometimes we can do that by ourselves, sometimes it’s a bigger thing that needs us to work together with others to accomplish.

Some of us desire to stop change or to even roll it back. But, as the saying goes, the genie is out of the bottle. Change can’t really be rolled back. Having lived through today, we’ll never be the same as we were yesterday.

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” 

John Maxwell

What we really want 

Because we know that change is disruptive and continuity is generally more comforting (certainly much more predictable), we tend to favor no change or a slower pace of change. Until we get frustrated enough and then demand change at any cost. Because things are so bad, they can’t possibly get any worse! (Although they usually can. Bigly worse.

We are often not good at predicting what we really want in the future. It’s been said that if Henry Ford had done surveys, people would have told him that they wanted faster horses, or better buggies. They didn’t know that they wanted a Model T in the garage (in black no less). Because they didn’t really comprehend how the newfangled automobiles would change the way they traveled. 

Change should be predictable

Ties in with the above comments about what we really want. Maybe we must have change, but at least it should happen in predictable ways. Manageable. Tidy. Not be confusing or overwhelming.

The thing about change is that it’s change. And it’s not very predictable. There will be consequences that we didn’t see coming. Which will have to be dealt with.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

The right amount of change 

Determining what’s the right amount of change is tricky at best. More likely impossible. Because we can’t foresee all the possible effects of even one change. 

Throughout history, cultures or groups of people have tried to draw lines in the sand to say that change up to here is okay, but not beyond this line. 

For instance, there’s the Amish, who still farm with horses and drive buggies when going anywhere. They don’t use tractors or power equipment for farming. Don’t have electricity and modern communications in their homes. 

Yet, what at first glance seems to be a straightforward choice to live a simpler lifestyle, turns out to be more complicated. Because while the Amish don’t have cars or trucks, it’s perfectly okay to pay an “English” to haul lumber they need from the lumber yard to their farm on his truck. 

And every time I travel on a train, I run into Amish families going to another part of the country. Obviously they’ve made allowances for when horse and buggy won’t suffice. There’s a lot of deliberation going into what change they allow in their communities and what they choose to do without.

The point is that drawing a line to keep change out is really hard. And so is determining what is the right amount of change to embrace. 

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”

Peter Senge

How change happens

No doubt this is further complicated by how change happens. Which can be in a myriad of ways:

We seek out change

Some things change because we want them to and take steps to make it happen. So we can control the change and how it happens. Or for some people it’s about just unleashing change and letting it happen, like bursting a dam and letting the water run free.

Change that happens regardless of anything we do

When things are changed in the world around us. Decisions made by others that affect us. We just get to deal with it and make our lives fit around the change.

Change by ceasing to do

This is a tricky change. Not something we seek out intentionally, but it happens over a period of time because of many little choices that are made and that all lead to a larger thing ending. This is often how relationships break down. Slowly, almost imperceptibly for a long time. Until things are so strained that there seems to be no way back and instead everyone involved is faced with a major change. Because overwhelm has set in.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

The old days were better — less change

For many of us, the way this one goes, is we long for the simpler days of yesteryear, which is typically when we grew up. Maybe when we were teens. You know those formative years when we come of age. And really discover the world around us. So it’s no wonder that for a long time, the 1950s have been hailed as a kinder, simpler, gentler time when all was right with the world. If we could somehow just get back there (without giving up most of our modern conveniences).

Except, those days were not so perfect at all. Some highlights of the ’50s: Jim Crow, McCarthyism, rampant expansion and consumerism with little apparent thought about how it affected the world around us — to name a few things that don’t fit the idyllic retrospective view.

I also recall how, when I was growing up in the ’60s, the older generation then would talk about how much better things were back in the old days, which for them was the 1930s. At least for the duration of those conversations, memories of the Great Depression had faded. Or maybe it wasn’t so bad after all, but the ’60s scourges of the Beatles, long hair and women’s lib for sure were.

If we dive into history, we have to go very far back to find that Western society didn’t change significantly in any given generation. It’s simply not true when people claim that life went on with little change for generations at a time. The Industrial Age brought massive change, as did the Manufacturing Age before it. Not to mention the Age of Discovery, the Renaissance, or the Black Plague.

Mostly it seems to be a comforting idea to us when feeling overwhelmed by change around us today to think that there was a time, just outside our grasp when life was simpler and less confusing. So we strive to get back to it. Even if it never really existed.

“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

C.S. Lewis 

Change will bring counter reaction

One final thing about change. Because there will always be someone who doesn’t like the change that happened, there’s often a counter reaction. A backlash.

Change affects what we’re used to. We don’t like that. So when things change, there’s a pushing back, trying to get back to the way things used to be. Because we convince ourselves that things were just fine back then. We just need to get back there. But change happened because things were not so perfect.

Just like change may have unintended consequences and go too far, so the counter reaction tends to push the pendulum too far back. For instance, if we feel that personal interactions have become too liberal, the counter reaction will push too far in the other direction to very narrowly prescribe how we can interact.

In an ideal world, the pendulum would find an equilibrium and settle down so we can all move forward and be better off for it. But we don’t live in an ideal world, so we are more likely to find things going from one excess to another. Prompting more change.

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”

Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s 9 observations about change. One final thought: Without change, there would be no life. Our lives are long cycles of changes. One after another after another and so on. Life and change go hand in hand.

The magic is learning to live with change.

 God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

Reinhold Niebuhr