Why change is mostly a simple process of cause and effect

It’s amazing how little attention people pay to the simple process of cause and effect. There’s a common saying that the best definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing again and again, while expecting the outcome to change.” By that definition, maybe the majority of working people—and nearly all their managers —today are insane. Here’s how to recover your wits.

If you can establish a link between an action and a corresponding result, repeating the action is extremely likely to repeat the result. When the connection is positive and short-term—so people see a certain action quickly produces an outcome they like—they seem fully aware of the link and follow it consciously. But when the outcome is negative and occurs some time in the future—behaving in a certain way now could well lead to unpleasant long-term consequences—they seem to find the link harder to grasp, especially if the action itself is pleasant or comforting.

Smoking is a good example. The negative consequences of smoking are well known and factual. Yet millions still smoke. Logically, being aware of the health consequences of smoking should make any sane person give it up, if they smoke already, or refuse to start an addictive habit they are very likely to regret. It doesn’t happen like that. Instead, people admit to the insanity of smoking, then go on doing it.

The reason has to be that the pleasure is real and here today, while the threat seems theoretical and far off in the future, if it ever happens at all. Many smokers admit the danger, then quickly point to someone they know, or have heard of, who smoked heavily all his or her life and lived to be 90. You could equally logically point to someone who smoked for a week and contracted lung cancer. When you’re dealing with probabilities, any single instance is statistically irrelevant.

Choosing a game plan for life based on short-term gratification

What has all this to do with business life, work, and slowing down? The answer can be expressed in a simple equation:

Old Habits + Old Thinking + Short-term Viewpoint = Predictable Consequences

This seems to be the game plan for life and career that many people follow. It’s definitely the basis of the Hamburger Management game plan.

But if you want to build a better, less stressful business, a better, more enjoyable, and more satisfying career, or a better, happier life, you won’t do it by sticking with the way the majority think and act today: following current fashion while looking only to the immediate future.

A short-term, conservative mindset is not your friend if you want your life to change for the better. Nor is clinging to security. That was my point at the start of this post. If you stick with habits and thoughts that are comfortable and undemanding, and don’t look much further ahead that next week or next month, expecting any different outcome from what you’ve experienced up till now is so illogical it must be described as form of insanity.

A game plan for positive change

To produce slow, measured change you should try changing one, or perhaps two, of the terms in front of the equals sign in the equation above. For example:

Old Habits + Old Thinking + Longer-term Viewpoint = Potential for Different Consequences

I say “potential” because those old habits and thinking will still hold much of your life in place until the longer-term viewpoint starts (fairly slowly) to change them.

The same would be true if you changed your habits, but kept your current ways of thinking and short-term outlook. There would be some change, but your old-style, short-term thinking would keep pulling you back towards the way you’ve always reacted to events until now—and thus to very similar consequences.

To make major changes, you must change habits and thinking and viewpoint at the same time:

New Habits + New Thinking + Longer-term Viewpoint = All New Consequences

If you do that, the “law” of cause and effect will ensure different outcomes and paths through life. When people have some life-changing experience, they often describe it as having turned their lives upside down. They can’t think as they did before, nor can they bring themselves to fall back on their old habits or see the world in the old way. They have new thinking, new habits, a new outlook, and therefore their life is totally changed.

Life-changing experiences . . . on demand

Armed with this insight, you can create your own life-changing experiences. Open your mind to new thoughts, lengthen and broaden your outlook, and try new ways of behaving. You can definitely expect different results to come about if you do that. The major drawback to a short-term, conservative, risk-averse mindset is not that it’s always wrong (though often it is), but that it’s static.

When you choose to alter your life in a controlled manner, inner change precedes outer change. You change yourself and how you choose and new consequences arise as a result. When outer change forces inner change on you, it’s nearly always due to some traumatic life event. That’s what happens when you stay fat, dumb, and happy until the universe forces you to make a major course correction.

If you wait until that happens, it’s likely to be painful. Wouldn’t it be far better to choose change than be compelled to experience it through a life-altering trauma?

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Why comparisons can so easily lead you astray

Competition and comparison have become shibboleths of our society, but there are times when it makes sense not to compare—especially when the basis for comparison is wrong or distorted.

In today’s society, comparison and competition have become so widely accepted as “good’ and “desirable,” that it seems almost a heresy to suggest than many of them are both false and misleading, and can lead to some very bad decisions.

That is, however, exactly the case. For example, you may compare your own career progress to others around you, without taking into account your different strengths and values. Some people progress faster because they’re more willing to suck up to those in power; or they’re more political; or they’re more ready to knife colleagues and competitors along the way.

Unreal comparisons and imaginary targets

Comparisons about career progress or lifestyle can be especially tricky. Merely because someone else has does something does not mean it is suitable for you. You see other people’s achievements only from the outside. In many cases, they’ve been gussied up for public consumption too. What you see may not be what you think you are seeing. If you set that as the standard, you are pitting yourself against an unreal situation.

People often compare themselves to more-or-less imaginary or invented beings (e.g. media stars or people reported in the media). Role models are chosen—or imposed by fashion —who are ideals of perfection that do not, and could not, exist. Such comparisons cause particular trouble, since they set standards for “winning” that are impossible to reach.

How genuine are the stories that you have been told about such people? Do you know? Or are you chasing a set of criteria that have never existed outside the words of an article, the pages of a book, or the script of a TV show?

Comparison is no substitute for proper judgment

Many businesses are managed largely on the basis of comparisons: comparisons with assumed targets, last year’s results, a competitor’s reported sales or profits. All have the potential to be highly misleading. Any comparison, to be a fair one, requires that whatever is compared is truly and sufficiently similar.

Numerical comparisons, in particular, can miss glaring dissimilarities. Comparisons between this year and last year may well gloss over great differences between the circumstances at the time. Comparisons with points further in the past are usually based on recollections that are faulty. Comparisons with future targets are based on assumptions and expectations that are often unprovable, over-optimistic, or just plain wrong.

In many cases, management by comparisons—or, to use the jargon term, benchmarks—is simply a substitute for judgment. It’s much less demanding, mentally or strategically, to rely on some simplistic comparison with past results than to take the trouble to consider all the circumstances and weigh all the options.

Fair competition

Comparisons—and the competition that they produce— can only be healthy and useful when the targets set are:

  • Appropriate to your situation now.
  • Comparisons against criteria that you have chosen freely because they represent your true aspirations.
  • In line with your actual strengths and talents.
  • Based on realistic and truthful information.

For the rest, it is better to dare not to compare—to be yourself, not some pale imitation of an ideal that never existed. To follow your own best interests, not torment yourself with aspirations that were never truly your own.

Competition is not essential to life, whatever conventional thinkers claim. Use it when it helps and leave it alone at other times. Like all false gods, it easily becomes a devil that can ruin your peace of mind.

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You can’t afford to squander any “teachable moments” in your life

Most of the time, your habits, ingrained social conditioning and long-term values have your mind tightly barricaded against any possibility of significant change. Yet when events are just right (or just wrong, depending on your viewpoint), that doorway to your innermost mind is forced open for a little while. Use it or lose it. It doesn’t come that often.

Change is more about letting go of old ideas than finding new ones. Most of the time, people are sufficiently happy with the way things are, so they see no need to change. Life may not be perfect, but it’s good enough; the effort and uncertainty change brings look too great to be worth it. That’s why the moments when you’re open to change are precious. Miss them and your life and growth goes back on indefinite hold. Seize them and you have moments of infinite preciousness, when your mind is open to new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Robert Thurman, scholar and friend of The Dalai Lama, describes such times as “teachable moments”: Moments when you recognize consciously that your previous ways of thinking and coping aren’t adequate for what’s in front of you; when life serves up something you can’t handle properly with the tools you’ve used before—plus the opportunity to alter them.

Of course, all those habits and past conditioning immediately set up a howl of protest and start trying to force you away from this precious moment for change, even if the result must be a choice or an action that probably won’t turn out well. They prefer to keep the status quo and never mind the pain. Still, for a few, precious hours or days, they aren’t in control and your mind is receptive to fresh ways of seeing the world.

Here are some ways to take full advantage of these precious moments:

  • Let yourself consider the opposite to your normal way of thinking. Even if it’s not the answer, it will allow you to see past your habitual mind-sets. For example, if you usually like to plan carefully before acting, imagine what might happen if you just took the first, most obvious decision and allowed things to develop from there.
  • Let your imagination to run wild. Create mental pictures. Play with analogies and metaphors for the situation. Challenge your mind with thoughts like: “Suppose I was 20 years younger (or 20 years older, or the opposite gender, or had unlimited money, or decided to re-locate to Mexico), what might I do then?”
  • Combine and recombine options into all sorts of novel combinations. Don’t worry whether they’re feasible or practical. Just allow your mind to play. Then pick a few options and see how you might make them work.
  • Don’t allow the idea of failure to enter your mind. There are no failures; only actions that didn’t turn out as you anticipated. Take them and track exactly what happened, using that knowledge to produce still more alternatives; this time, backed up by actual experience.
  • Above all, do something. Anything is better than nothing. Any action will lead to a result you can learn from, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as you wanted.

Precious moments of open-mindedness are worth more than gold or diamonds. Never waste them. Use every one to learn something to help you develop. There’s a name for the rare people who make this a way of life. We call them geniuses.

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On a long journey, rest breaks are essential if you want to arrive safely. That’s true of your life and career journeys too.

It’s fall migration time. Millions of birds are heading south down the three broad flyways that link the breeding grounds in the north with wintering areas as far south as Argentina. For birders like me, migration is magic. You never know what may pass through. Sadly, many of today’s migrants won’t make it to their destination. The ones that do aren’t just the fittest. They’re also the ones that find places to rest up and re-fuel along the way. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

Some of our native birds travel thousands of miles on migration. But they’re sensible. Every so often they stop off for a few days of rest and recuperation, to feed up and fuel themselves for the next big push southwards.

Southeastern Arizona, where I live, is on the Pacific Flyway—the route down the west coast from Alaska into Mexico and beyond. Our summer monsoon, with its burst of fresh flowers and vegetation, creates an important flyway resort for birds from hawks to hummingbirds. At this time of year, the bird population is swelled by millions of visitors looking for somewhere they can get a good night’s rest and a solid meal of nectar, bugs . . . or migrating birds. Since our climate stays hot for all but two or three months of the year, we usually have a good supply of bugs varied enough for every bird’s taste.

Humans also need regular periods of rest on our journey through life. It’s tempting to keep going and ignore this need. There’s a barrage of advice to push ahead, show determination, get things done, and stay focused on your goals. People and problems are continually demanding your attention. But, like the birds, you need rest and fuel for your mind and body. Pushing yourself too hard causes exhaustion, mental and physical. On a long journey, doing so can be fatal if you want to arrive at all.

What’s your ideal flyway resort?

Here are some ideas to give yourself a break for some much-needed R&R in a hectic world:

  • How about taking a long weekend of total rest at a health resort or a retreat? Leave the cellphone and the laptop behind. It’s an exceptional call or e-mail that can’t wait a few days for an answer. Being available constantly is mostly fashion. It’s almost never necessary.
  • Get out in the fresh air. Walk, ride, hike, go up into the mountains or down to the beach. In a two-hour walk this morning, less than five miles from my home, I encountered more than twenty species of birds, plus lizards, grasshoppers, hundreds of butterflies—and a three-foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake, quietly slipping through the grass on its way home after a night of hunting. We live in a land of staggering beauty. Enjoy it.
  • Do something different. Volunteer to help with children or elderly people for a day—or a week. Go to a show or a concert you’d never imagine yourself attending. Make love all afternoon. Ban TV for 72 hours.
  • Lose yourself in a book. Better still, in a series of books. Forget the problems you face. They’ll wait for you. Be a detective, do some time traveling, visit lands you’ve never been to, explore ideas that haven’t crossed your mind before.
  • Change your routine. Get up earlier, or stay later in bed. Have a midday siesta. Take more exercise, or relax more. The old saying that a change can be as good as a rest is true.
  • Change your diet. Try eating more healthily and more slowly. In the non-stop rush of today, too many people bolt down their food as if taking more than 10 minutes for lunch will cause the world to end. Take time to enjoy your food. Be like the French, Spanish, and italians for a few days: have a 3-hour lunch break and spend it really appreciating what you eat.

This isn’t self-indulgence, it’s an unbreakable law of nature. A Rufus Hummingbird that tried to fly from Alaska to Mexico without stopping would collapse and die from exhaustion well before it reached halfway. A person who tries to make their life journey into a nonstop endurance event will meet the same fate mentally—and likely physically as well.

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Looking again at the causes of stress at work

Are the true causes of stress internal or external? The external demands of working life? Or how you react to them internally? Getting rid of self-induced stress might make all the difference.

People love to find simple causes for things. Nowadays, just about every drought, flood, or other upset in the weather is blamed on global warming—as if extreme weather had never existed until the last 20 years.

Every gyration in the financial markets is instantly explained by reference to a single cause. “It was what so-and-so said to analysts,” the pundits cry. “The chairman of the Federal Reserve coughed and upset investors.” What sensitive little flowers all these Wall Street types must be, constantly disturbed by chance remarks and the state of the sorghum crop in Timbuktu.

When you think about it rationally, even extreme events—let alone normal, if unpleasant, workplace conditions—don’t really have as much power as we give them. Bad things happen, yet the vast majority of people survive untouched.

Perception changes reality

Imagine this scene. You go into an office where everyone is obviously extremely busy. Phones ring constantly and people are running from place to place. You ask what is going on.

“We’ve just been told we can win a huge piece of new business,” someone tells you. “The time-scales are really tight, but we’re giving it our best shot and everyone’s excited. Sorry, no time to talk right now.”

Now imagine a different conversation.

“We’re really up against it. There’s this huge piece of business up for grabs, but the time-scales are total killers and everyone’s already rushed off their feet. We’re being hounded into trying to make it and something’s going to fall apart real soon, I tell you. Can’t talk. We’re dying here, but the boss will have my hide if I don’t look busy.”

Same circumstances, but a totally different situation in terms of the amount of stress present.

Drama queens

The words people use, even to themselves, can either limit the stress from events or greatly add to it. Unfortunately, many people have picked up two distressing habits from the media: emphasizing the negatives and adding emotion to pump up the drama. Since good news doesn’t seem to get people excited enough, the news and news-type stores are almost overwhelmingly negative: full of anger, hatred, fear, murder, destruction, and miscellaneous mayhem. Even sports programs seem more interested in feuds and fights off the field than play on it.

Factual reporting is judged too dull by most newspapers and TV channels. In their search for “human interest stories,” what they produce are synthetic versions of events with added and heightened emotions, regardless of whose. Instead of simply being informed what happened, we’re bombarded with accounts of what someone felt about it. If no eye-witnesses are available, a casual passer-by or a person miles away will do, just as long as they can appear suitably excited or tragic.

This may be what viewers and readers want (it’s generally what they get, regardless of their actual wishes), but carrying the same habits of thinking into our personal lives makes little sense.

There are bad things happening in today’s workplaces. Many bosses do indeed act like jerks. But why respond like a drama queen? It will certainly raise your stress and make you feel worse, but will it change anything? I doubt it.

Responses matter

There seems to be a basic confusion between (positive) emotions as a source of people’s passion for their work and (negative) emotions as the source of a large part of the stress that people suffer.

Both sets are emotions, so that isn’t the reason for the difference. If you suppressed all emotions, you would remove the positive ones as well as the negative.

The difference lies in how each person responds to their emotions. Controlling them isn’t the same as suppressing them. The major benefit of human reason is the ability it gives us to discriminate between those emotions and responses that are beneficial and those that are not.

That’s where the confusion lies. When urged to control—even ignore—negative emotions, many people respond as if they had been told to suppress every emotion, good or bad.

If you can stay in charge of the emotions you allow to affect you fully, you can have all the joy and benefit of the positive ones, and keep the negative, drama-queen types from screwing you up.

There’s an old, pretty well known story of a teacher who explained to his students that the human mind is like a battleground between two huge beasts: one that represents all that is positive and life-affirming and its ferocious adversary that brings hatred, anger, and every kind of negative behavior. The battle seems never-ending, now swinging this way, now that.

“Who will win,” an anxious student asks.

“The beast that you feed,” the teacher replies.

When times are tough, which beast are you feeding?

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The more you focus on what you don’t want, the more of it you’ll keep finding to get rid of.

What you give most attention to nearly always assumes a larger role in your life. This isn’t some nutty “law of attraction” nonsense; it’s a simple observation of the way that the human mind works. People who become obsessed with the amount of dog-poop thoughtless owners leave behind on the street see it everywhere. It drives them mad. The rest of us simply step in it, curse, and forget about it. Still, you can sometimes learn even from what you step in.

I’ve had it up to here with the “Law of Attraction”—about as goofy an idea as ever spawned a thousand web sites and helped lead gullible people astray.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth hiding within the hype. The more you focus on something, the more you’ll keep thinking about it and the bigger the part it’s therefore probably going to play in your life—at least in the short term.

It’s commonsense. The toughest element in breaking yourself of a habit is usually how very aware you become of what it is that you’re trying to give up.

If you’re always thinking about food (a common problem with people on diets), you’ll constantly notice tempting goodies and be instantly aware how much you want to eat them. Until you decided not to watch TV so much, you were barely aware of the screen in your living room. Now it’s a constant presence tempting you to switch on.

Getting more of what you don’t want

In the workplace, as elsewhere in life, most people find it much easier to define what they don’t want than what they do.

They don’t want a boring job. They don’t want a nit-picking or domineering boss. They don’t want to work with people that they don’t like. They don’t ever want to work with Adam from Accounts again.

Managers are especially prone to this outlook. They sometimes spend so much of their time and attention trying to root out what they don’t want that very little time or energy is left for working on what they do.

Of course, conventional management teaching and writing encourages this. It urges people to look for gaps in people’s skills and concentrate on filling them. To look for all the ways their operations are falling short; to become paranoid about variances from the plan and any mismatch between expectations for profits (in reality, these are mostly little more than over-enthusiastic dreams) and the reality. Only last week, Dell admitted that some executives had falsified accounts to match profit expectations; another case of leaders focusing on what they hadn’t achieved, not what they had, with embarrassing consequences.

Nature abhors a vacuum

If you focus mostly on negatives, you’ll find more and more of them. If you only know what you don’t want, not what you do, you’ll create spaces with nothing to go in them.

Sometimes you do have to clear what you don’t want out of the way to make room for something better. But if all you do is get rid of what’s unwanted, with little or no clear idea of what should go in its place, you’ll produce an empty space: a vacuum waiting to be filled.

The vacuum that you produce will be filled—often rapidly—by something you may want even less than whatever it was you had before.

People who give up smoking often gain weight. The gap left by stopping the rituals of getting and lighting a cigarette are filled by getting something to eat instead. Supervisors told to give up their habit of taking charge of everything themselves (managing by issuing orders) find they have unexpected free time, which many fill by micro-managing instead (disguising it as coaching) or holding pointless meetings.

It’s quite likely that not knowing clearly what you do want, then focusing on eliminating things you don’t, will leave you worse off than if you had left well alone. Look at the businesses who have focused entirely on eliminating costs by outsourcing operations overseas—then discovered a slew of quality problems. They knew what they didn’t want—high labor costs—but failed to define what mattered instead, so they got their wish . . . plus an unpleasant surprise.

Getting the sequence right

If you begin by being clear about what you want, you’ll find things tend to happen roughly in this sequence:

  • Getting what you want often replaces things you would otherwise have had to remove. There’s no gap. The new (and better) simply takes over from whatever was there before.
  • You’ll quickly become aware of exactly what needs to be removed and when. Since you know what must go in its place, once again there will be no gap to be filled by the unexpected.
  • Quite a number of things that you thought you would need to give time and energy to removing turn out to be trivial or irrelevant. They wither away on their own or can be ignored, with a great saving of your effort.

People who want a slower, more civilized kind of working life need to concentrate on what will produce that, not what doesn’t fit their vision. Instead of focusing on cutting time at the office (which will just make you uncomfortably aware of what you are leaving undone), think about the positive ways you are going to spend the time instead.

Spending the commute home in pleasant anticipation beats spending it worrying about what you left behind—only some of which will be still there to deal with tomorrow. A surprising amount will somehow have evaporated overnight, or been reduced to trivia you can safely and happily ignore, if you stop obsessing about it.

Slowing down isn’t just giving up on rushing. It’s moving to a different, more pleasant, and more effective lifestyle. Focus on that and even the urge to rush will dissipate.

In the end, the power of the habits that we most want to break lies in the amount of attention we lavish on them while doing so. Give that up—focus instead on what you will put in their place—and you will weaken them so much that they’ll stop bothering you.

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The worst kind of management obsolescence occurs in the mind

People tend to stick with the beliefs they were brought up with—at least until they’re forced to change. That’s why much of workplace culture has hardly been affected by the changed notions coming from the academic world and elsewhere; and why we’re paying the price for leaders still peddling out-of-touch attitudes to work. Is the only answer to wait until the last Baby Boomer quits?

The people in charge in most organizations today are part of the Baby Boomer generation, brought up by parents born before World War II, and trained in schools and universities during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

These people saw the attempted social changes of the 1960s wither and die, replaced by a return to an extreme form of social conservatism, whose espoused values can mostly be translated into property value, shareholder value, and investment value. Their few remaining ideals suffered a fatal blow from the Vietnam War and they settled down to believe in the natural order of free-market capitalism: that a few must lead and make decisions, while the majority are led and have their decisions made for them.

Recognizing that leading was going to be the better option, most have pursued a steady path of personal advancement—eventually reaching levels where they have indeed became the leaders.

Command-and-control as a natural law

Brought up on ideas of natural dominance and hierarchy, many of today’s senior leaders still see no reason to change this viewpoint. While they may engage in a little cosmetic softening on the outside—they are not immune to the benefits of good PR—nothing has changed within their heads. Their mental attitudes are still those formed 30 or 40 years ago.

While the world has been transformed, what we are seeing today is the steady application of old-fashioned command-and-control management to problems inconceivable 30 or more years ago.

Take the rumbling concern about executive salaries. New methods have been found to enrich a favored few. If those in charge seize on them without scruples, this is not simply greed. In the minds of the immediate post-war generation ruling today’s boardrooms, it’s entirely fair that those who have risen to the top should take most of the rewards. Who better deserves them? Their parents lived in a world where individual merit was of small importance in promotions. Pre-War, family ties, social standing, and seniority (based on years of service) were the basis for rising up the hierarchy. The Baby Boomers saw that swept away and adjusted their mental viewpoints accordingly. Their generation invented merit-based pay and has benefited from it handsomely. Why should they give it up?

The current turmoil in the stockmarket is another example. Baby Boomers lived through the post-War experiments in social democracy and government intervention in people’s lives. Most of these forms of social engineering were judged to have failed, to be replaced by doctrinaire free-market viewpoints. Of course, now that the free market is wetting its collective knickers because the resulting greed and lack of regulation have caused horrendous problems, government is expected to return to social engineering and step in to rescue them. The Baby Boomers have learned well the belief that government should keep out of their hair when things are going well and provide a safety-net when they aren’t. Success (and its rewards) is down to individuals, coping with failure (and its costs) is up to society as a whole.

Paying the price of macho attitudes

Nothing in this world lasts for ever; nothing comes without a price. The price of decades of rampant individualism , extreme free-market economics, financial deregulation, and social conservatism is proving to be a heavy one.

What ordinary people are paying for a macho, “me first” society like ours now includes:

  • The stark alternatives of selling your soul to the organization or being shut out of advancement.
  • Accepting that you can lose your job any day for reasons that are entirely beyond your control; and that you’ll be on your own when you do.
  • Fierce competitiveness that cares little for the weak, the sick, or those down on their luck.
  • Continued racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, justified by appeals to “family values” derived from sentimental myths based on idealized 1950s households.
  • Confusing self-reliance with disregard for the needs of others.
  • Such a blind disregard for environmental issues that politicians still can’t act when the effects of past greed and neglect are finally too obvious for even the most dinosaur-like moron to deny them.
  • A nagging fear of loss of savings and retirement benefits due to the actions of a handful of speculators. (Why don’t many people save? Maybe because they don’t trust the savings will still be there when they need them.)
  • Falling trust in the basics of life, like safe food and safe drugs, because maintaining safety and increasing profit rarely go together.
  • Stress, burnout, and cynical layoffs to drive up “shareholder value.” (Not of much interest if you neither own shares nor have enough of a retirement fund to worry about.)
  • An increasing gap between the rich (who get ever richer) and everyone else. (How is it that thousands of ordinary people losing their jobs is a natural and unavoidable part of global competition, and a handful of hedge funds patronized by the super-rich losing their money is a national and international crisis?)

What happens if people lose faith in the future?

Is this a civilized society? Is this how we want to live in the 21st century? Is this the only option available to us?

There comes a time when every generation is replaced and ideas that once seemed unquestionable truths are thrown into history’s dustbin. The imperialism of the 19th century was swept away by the First Wold War. Optimistic beliefs in the return of rationalism and social progress were fatally wounded by the Depression, then killed by Nazism and Stalinist communism. 1960s belief in the power of love and freedom to change society swiftly dissipated under the pressures of the Vietnam War.

We seem to be at another turning point, linked to another war. Far from embracing the ideas and economic structures developed in the last 50 years, radicalized dissidents are trying to replace them with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Newly industrialized nations like China want to benefit from our financial structures, but reject our political and social ones.

In the Western world, a new generation of entrants to the workforce are demanding more equitable treatment and greater control over their working lives. In many cases, a career in a large, “blue chip” corporation—the centerpiece of their parent’s vision of a good life—is dismissed as second-rate compared with becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself.

In Arizona we suffer many flash-floods at this time of year. Monsoon rains cannot be absorbed by parched, thin soils, so they run off into the washes and seasonal rivers, causing sudden floods that rise and disappear in an hour or less.

Sometimes this natural run-off gets blocked. When that happens, pressures build up until the dam of debris is swept away. A raging torrent of water pours down the mountainside, carrying rocks, tree limbs, and even vehicles along with it. In the resulting flood, roads are destroyed, buildings are flattened, and people are killed.

Let us hope that in our generation there can be a peaceful, non-violent change of ideas as Baby Boomers like me finally surrender control. Whether that is what happens really depends on all our choices today. Unless those in charge in our organizations give up their obsolete modes of thinking, they will continue to act as a dam to progress—with sadly predictable results. No organizational structure or mental outlook is proof for long against a violently changing environment.

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A birder’s view of choosing your path in life

Binoculars are essential to all birders. Some birding beginners give up because just the binoculars they’re using aren’t satisfactory. They don’t see the birds well enough to make it interesting. Seeing your vision for your life ahead clearly enough is equally essential to a successful and interesting career. Some people give up on their lives or careers because the vision that they’re using isn’t up to the job.

The more you consider binoculars and birding, the more links you see with how people use and choose their vision for what they want from life and work.

Focusing on small areas

Binoculars both improve and limit your view. They magnify a small area far away, so that you see it better, while they restrict your view to that area only. Your “field of view” is greatly narrowed compared with normal sight. That’s why people unfamiliar with using binoculars often find it hard even to find a bird that they know is in plain view. Their viewpoint is too narrow when they look through the binoculars. More experienced birders hold the bird in view with the naked eye while they slowly lift their binoculars into place.

Your vision for your life and career works in similar ways. You are going to look at events, people and ideas “through” that vision, focusing in closely on those parts that it picks out for you. Everything else will be out of focus or out of sight. Like binoculars, the stronger the power of magnification, the narrower the field of view. Beginner birders often buy binoculars that are too powerful and have such a narrow field of view it’s almost impossible to focus on a moving bird. Some people’s visions are also too strong for them, causing narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

Always choose the best that you can

That doesn’t mean the biggest, the most expensive, or the most powerful—and certainly not the most fashionable at the moment.

As I just pointed out, binoculars that are too powerful are virtually useless. They’re too heavy to carry for long and make seeing the birds harder, not easier. Nor are the most expensive brands the best for everyone. The best means the best for you and where you are today. The best vision for your life is what is going to work for you, not what anyone else would choose.

Quality does count in binoculars and life and career visions. Cheap binoculars for birding are a waste of money. They usually provide a poor image and make everything look dull and fuzzy. Advice to new birders is always the same: “Buy the best binoculars you can afford. Never stint. You’ll quickly regret it.” It’s the same with visions. Cheap, tawdry ones produce dull, frustrating lives and careers. Good visions are expensive, not in cash, but in the duties they place on you to stand up for what’s right and the way that they constantly challenge you to do better than feels comfortable. No one ever managed to live a satisfying, successful life on the cheap.

There’s another characteristic that visions and binoculars share. Binoculars must “feel right” to be of any use. Choosing binoculars is an intensely personal business, not something you can easily do via the Internet or mail order. You have to hold them in your hands for a little while and sense if they’ll be good companions on your birding trips.

There are three “big names” in birding optics: Leica, Zeiss, and Swarovski: the first two two German, the last Austrian. I used to use Leica binoculars, now I have Swarovski. I’ve never been comfortable with Zeiss. There’s no difference in optical quality, the price is almost the same, and Zeiss has a fine reputation. Many excellent birders won’t use any other brand. But I can’t bear them, just like I’ve never driven any vehicle made by Ford on either side of the Atlantic that I didn’t want to get out of immediately. It’s just me.

Is it time for you to upgrade?

People get comfortable with their current life vision and can’t see any value in those others that use and love. It’s personal and irrational, just like me with binoculars. People also use that same basic vision everywhere they go, just like I’ve taken my binoculars with me from Australia to South America, Europe and Africa. The trouble is that the vision they have is a poor one. It’s outdated, limited in quality, picked up on the cheap, or just plain inadequate.

I’ve known people whose personal vision for their life is the equivalent of using binoculars handed down from their great-great-grandparents. I’ve also found many people using viewpoints that, if they were binoculars, would be flimsy, battered pairs picked up in some garage sale or flea market. Dreadful shoddy, cheap things, not fit for anything except the garbage.

Take a moment and think about the vision that is currently guiding your life, your career, and the way that you’re looking at the world. How well does it work? What’s the quality of the “lenses” it offers you? Does it narrow your field of view too much? Is it old, damaged, dusty, or well past its prime? Is it time that you swapped it for a better one? Can you afford not to?

Remember the advice to new birders: “Never use poor binoculars. Always get the best you can afford—even if you have to stretch a little. Looking at the world through poor optics is a waste of time and limits you to a dim and distorted view.” That’s very sound advice for life visions as well.

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Change rarely happens in the way conventional ideas suggest, individually or organizationally.

Despite all the pontificating that goes on about change and change management, the conventional image of how change works is badly flawed. If you want to make real changes—ones that stick—it’s time for a newer, more rational way to understand how change works.

The conventional view of change in the workplace pits a new, usually fragile idea for change against powerful forces totally committed to the status quo. Those pushing for change are, typically, a minority of individuals outside the ruling elite. They may have a compelling vision (at least in their eyes), but those opposing them have all the power.

This is why so many people give up on change. The contest appears so one-sided as to be hopeless from the start. “That’s a great idea,” they think. “It would be wonderful to see it happen, but there’s no way I could ever get it past the people in charge.”

In personal matters, too, change is pitted against entrenched forces of habit and apathy. People want to act differently, but they lose heart early on, discouraged by what seems to be an impossible task. It feels easier to resign yourself to the status quo than to take on something that is almost bound to fail.

But do you need permission?

This conventional picture assumes that change cannot happen without either gaining permission from those most likely to dislike the whole idea, or sweeping them away forcibly. It’s a view with conflict built into it; conflict that can only be ended by the surrender or destruction of one of the sides.

What’s missing is any idea that change might prevail because people have changed their minds. That no permission will be needed because those who were in opposition have decided to join the group in favor of change.

When you consider historical changes, far more have come about in that way than by either violent revolution, or the willingness of those holding power to allow change to take place as a deliberate course of action.

The unstoppable power of a united movement

Organizational change usually happens via a quite different route: the route of a movement with a specific end in view. It works like this:

  • One or more individuals reach the view that change is needed.
  • They discover like-minded people and start to group together for support in thinking their ideas through.
  • As more and more people get involved, it becomes natural to want to translate these ideas into action. A pressure group is formed.
  • The pressure group publicizes its views widely. If those ideas are taken up, they start to become accepted as obvious and natural.
  • Those committed to the status quo feel out-of-step with the majority. Far from being the ones with all the power, they now face an increasing sense of dissonance and vulnerability.
  • To regain their former feelings of security and strength, those in charge shift their position to align with the majority. The change has become the new norm.

You can already see how attitudes on global warming, for example, are shifting as the ruling elite move from denying it, to opposing any change, to getting on the band-wagon.

A pattern for individual changes

At the individual level, a similar process happens:

  • Someone gets caught up in an idea and finds others who already share it or can be persuaded to do so.
  • Together, these people reinforce one another’s attachment to the idea and provide mutual support.
  • The individual’s current lifestyle starts to feel increasingly out of alignment with the ideas that are current in the group.
  • To lessen the dissonance, that individual starts to make significant lifestyle changes. When these are approved by the group, they are reinforced.
  • In time, the changed lifestyle becomes the norm.

The power of shared ideas

What is driving change in both these situations—individual and organizational—is the power of shared ideas. Unlike direct demands for specific change, which can usually be beaten down by the use of power, ideas slip around the barriers.

At the start, they seem too weak to be worth trying to squash. Later, they take such a hold on people’s minds that it becomes impossible to drive them out. They even spread in secret, if overt opposition is too dictatorial to allow them free expression.

How can you crush an idea? How can you force people not to think it or pass it to others? How can you stop it spreading, even if you have all the means of institutional power at your disposal?

Nothing is quite as powerful as an idea whose time has come. For individuals too, the power of an idea that seizes your mind is almost unstoppable. It can change your life in a moment, even altering habits that you may have struggled with for years.

The message is clear: to make real organizational change you first need an idea that can grip enough people to start a movement. In your own life, you need an idea powerful enough to seize your mind, plus a support group who come to share that idea. Once that has happened, it is just a matter of waiting while enough momentum builds up to make the current ruling elite (or your existing habits) experience such unsettling dissonance that they have to change to resolve it.

That’s how change works best. Of course, it takes time . . . but nothing worthwhile ever really happened in a flash, whatever people tell you.

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