“change please” by Robert Wilson

January 23, 2011 at 8:30 PM | Posted in Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment

This article appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of Oklahoma Professional Engineer magazine.  It hit home with me because, as a young engineer interested in the environment, I face (along with thousands of new engineers) the daunting task of switching the design field in civil engineering from what it currently is to something more sustainability-oriented.  Of course, the ASCE has recognized sustainability as an issue in engineering and has given formal guidelines on what is and is not sustainable.  While the ASCE has general guidelines on economic, environmental and social sustainability for projects, the fact remains that economics and policy-making drive the quality of engineering projects down to what is considerably lower than what we need to survive and thrive as a species.

As you read it, also consider that this philosophy can easily and readily be applied to anything in life – not just engineering.  As I have gotten a little older and left the artificial world of college, I’ve happened upon a new, ugly world that most people like to refer to as the “real world.”  No, it’s not ugly because I have to get up at 8 AM and the man keeps me down.  It’s ugly because I see SO many people with such heaps of wasted potential in their wake.  So many people, who could do so much in the world and have so much to offer (when the world needs it most), are stifled by fear of change and this illusion of security that so many seek, whether it be through marriage, reproduction, a dead-end job or plain old inactivity.  Keep these these things in mind as you read through the article.  And now, without further ado, the article itself.

“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

These are the words of the woman who became the poster child for overcoming adversity.  A woman who was isolated into the two dimensional world of touch and smell at the age of 19 months.  Yet, she went on to inspire millions around the world.  Sightless and deaf, Helen Keller resolved to make something of her life.  She lived with a keen understanding that change is inevitable, but growth is intentional.  Unwilling to give in to her blindness, she chose to strive for a normal life.

Motivation is all about motion or movement.  In other words, if you are comfortable, if you are happy and content, then you DO NOT move.  you do not change.  Why would you?  On the other hand, if you are uncomfortable, if you’re unhappy, then you want to change.  you want to move back toward your comfort zone.  There are millions of motivators in the world and all of us at any one time are being motivated by a dozen or more: Hunger, Safety, Sex, Love, Enlightenment to name just a few.

Interestingly, you can take all those motivators and boil them down to a variation of two basic emotions: Fear and Desire.  You are either moving toward something you desire; or you are moving away from something you fear.

Fear, however, can become paralyzing and will keep us in one un-comfort zone because we fear the perceived discomfort that comes with change.  We fear that change could open a Pandora’s Box of more and scarier things.  I’ve seen it in relationships and in business.

I know a married couple who over the years have drifted apart and their marriage has become stagnant.  I know they both desire greater intimacy with the other, but they both fear rejection and so they do nothing.

I know a small business owner who watched his business shrink in the recent recession.  His self-esteem is closely tied to his success and his falling income triggered fears of inadequacy.  Frozen by fear into doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, he has not adapted to the changes going on in his market.

Helen Keller once again has wise words for such situations, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

When couples try new things together they actually stimulate the receptors in their brains that invoke the feelings of romance.  Taking a class or starting a new hobby together is a great way for couples to renew their feelings for each other and discover a greater depth of intimacy.

For small business owners, a recession is a great time to try out a new idea or innovation.  It attracts renewed interest in the business and can even create new customers and open new markets.

The trick is getting comfortable with change a little at a time.  Start engaging in simple changes at home.  Low risk changes will generate immediate rewards.  Here are a few you can make that will help you get into a habit of adapting to change:

If you drink coffee every day, switch to tea for a week.  If you always listen to rock music on the radio, switch to country, jazz or classical for a week.  Rearrange one piece of furniture in your house.  Read a section of the newspaper that you’ve never read before.  Take a continuing education class in a subject not related to your career.  Join a hobby group on MeetUp.com.  Taste an ethnic food that you’ve never tried before (as an alternative revisit a food you think you hate).

I’ve got a few follow-up ideas and points for discussion or critical thinking.  First of all, I hope you take this to heart and seriously think about it.  People are always searching for a quick fix to their problems – problems that have developed over years or even decades.  But I’m here to tell you there is no quick fix to a lot of things.  We’ve been trained by medicine, technology and society that there’s a quick fix out there for everything – a chemical to cure depression, a pill for anti-aging, a technology to clean up our public waterways or disinfect our mass-produced meat, even a quick fix to personality disorders or ways to manipulate people into getting what you want (how many persuasion science books have you seen out there?).  That’s just not true.  The solution to your problems lies not in instant gratification but in the true strength of character – perseverance, courage, integrity, grit, etc.  You can’t build those things in a day.  And NO one is born with them – we all have to work for it.  Genetics play no part.

In the article, he makes a few points that he doesn’t elaborate on that I’d like to call attention to.  First off, he says that you can “make a habit of adapting to change.”  This is really important.  This suggests (and rightly so I think) that people not only have the ability to adapt favorably to change, but that it can even be adopted as a habit or perhaps a skill.  I think that not only can it be done, but that it might very well be the most important habit or skill that we can create/acquire.  I firmly believe that the ability to adapt to change is of the utmost importance on both a personal and a societal level.

For example, the happiest old guys I know are the guys who adapt to change throughout their lives.  My boss is a great example – he went from using a slide rule in his youth to AutoCAD and calculators in his old age, nearing retirement.  He keeps current on all the new water treatment and water supply technologies, making him an asset to his company, instead of an unnecessary draw like so many other old men who get “let go” because they simply cost too much.  He conducts his personal life and his relationship with his wife in the same way, leading them to have one of the happiest, strongest marriages I have ever seen.  My grandfather is another great example, having the ability to adapt to changes in his market for cars and trying new things in his retirement with my grandmother.  They are two of the happiest people I know.

The crankiest old guys I know, whose level of dissatisfaction with life is beyond anything words can express, are the guys who can’t adapt to change at all.  They remain fixated on their youth or their “golden years,” when everything seemed so much better.  They spend all their time and effort trying to get back to a situation that simply doesn’t exist anymore.  They remain focused on the negative things, depend heavily on their illusions of job security and represent a threat to the company they work for because they refuse to change the way they do business or do their job.  They constantly talk about when a gallon of gas cost a quarter, or a gallon of paint cost $10.  They quit doing the things that make them happy because of some perceived change they can’t adapt to – changes in their market of business, aging in their bodies “keeping” them from being active, etc.  They have become inelastic and unbending, and strain every day under the stresses and strains of simply continuing to exist because of it.

On a societal level, the ability to adapt to change is more important than ever.  I’m in the middle of a book called Collapse, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jared Diamond.  The book focuses on how previous civilizations have failed or succeeded.  The main issue with civilizations that have failed is actually the condition of their environment.  I won’t go too much into detail, but here are a few examples – civilizations on Easter Island and in the American southwest failed because they grew beyond the constraints of their marginal environments and did not adopt policy or changes in lifestyle that were consistent with their surroundings.  The failures scream eerie semblances to our own society today as a global community – semblances that we could learn from.  But we fail so far as a society to do enough because we fear change.  People fear the slight inconvenience that comes with recycling, or the perceived economic peril from investing in clean energy.  People continue to drive enormous, gas-hogging vehicles and ignore the hybrid car market.  People continue to purchase and use extremely energy-expensive television sets and avoid purchasing products made from recycled material.  Even simple changes, like buying detergents that are safe for natural waterways or electing to get power from wind or energy sources through the local utility company are overlooked.  I can buy a bottle of natural detergent for $1 more.  I can elect to get wind energy for $4/month more.  I have literally heard people say they cannot afford such luxuries.  Why?  Fear of change.  Fear that something on the other side will make life more difficult and perilous than it is now – when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Give this article some thought.  It can be applied in so many different ways, and it can solve a lot of the problems you deal with in your life.  People keep putting off change in their lives and assume the government will fix everything, or put blame on others when a change that needs to happen doesn’t.  They keep waiting for the price of clean technology to drop and the economy to get better, or they hope for some other change that they feel is beyond their control but will make everything better for them.  If we all sit on our hands and do nothing, we will surely doom ourselves to failure.  Remember this quote from Eckhart Tolle: “The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens.  It cannot happen anywhere else.”  I hope that you’ll take something positive away and try a simple change in your home or life.

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