Fear of change is what keeps us stuck in dead-end jobs, relationships, or towns. It’s understandable that many err on the side of caution, but being understandable isn’t the same as being good. If fear of change is coming between you and a life of joy, freedom, and fulfilment, this blog post is for you.
I’ve written and spoken a lot about courage in the past, but not so much about fear. This was because I like to focus on the positive side – what do we want more of? – rather than the negative side – what do we hope to avoid? As Garth Stein writes in his wonderful book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, your car goes where your eyes go. In other words, put your attention on what you want, rather than what you don’t want.
However, there seems to be a lot of fear in the world right now, of various kinds, so I thought I would write a mini-series of blogs about fear, starting with fear of change. I’ll suggest some possible causes, and attempt to offer a solution.
So what causes fear of change? There are many factors, no doubt. Here are three:
Fear of change is very natural. Evolutionary biology would seem likely to select for not doing things you haven’t done before, and especially not doing things that nobody has done before.
“I wonder if this mushroom is good to eat?”
“What lives in this hole?”
“What is on the other side of that ocean?”
It’s easy to see how questions like this could prove dangerous, even fatal. If there is a gene for adventurousness, I can imagine it might have died out quite quickly as its carriers removed themselves from the gene pool before getting the chance to pass it on. After the thousands of generations of human existence, is it possible that we have bred ourselves to become progressively more risk-averse?
Culture and Structure
Imagine you’re thinking of changing your job. What you do is okay, but doesn’t really fulfil you. You’d like to do something more meaningful.
But when you look around at new opportunities, you see that you’d have to take a pay cut because you’d be coming in with no relevant experience. You’d struggle to pay the mortgage on the lower salary. If you’re American, maybe that role in an exciting startup doesn’t come with healthcare.
You could just about make it work, but it would be a financial sacrifice, a risk. You sigh and shut your laptop, resigning yourself to staying put.
Our financial and corporate structures may not have been specifically designed to keep you where you are, but they tend to have that effect. Financial commitments, long notice periods, and worries about how it might look on your CV if you chop and change your career – they lock you in.
Human minds have many quirks, biases and fallacies, and the status quo bias is one of the most powerful. We tend to prefer the devil we know to the devil we don’t, even if the devil we don’t seems likely to be a significant improvement, and/or we have long outgrown the devil we know.
My interpretation of this is that when we are contemplating a change, our algorithm is based on comparing the potential new situation with the one we are in. But it’s an unfair comparison. We are intimately acquainted with the situation we’re in, and can only imagine the situation we wish to be in.
Optimism bias might help us imagine a rosy future, but for the less optimistic among us, we may prefer the security of sticking with what we know – especially if our evolutionary biology dictates a cautious approach. It seems to take more than a 50/50 balance to overcome the inertia of the status quo – more like 70/20 or 80/20 in favour of making a change before we finally reach the tipping point and take the plunge.
A Possible Workaround
As with so many things – just about everything, actually – it’s a matter of perspective. The same objective reality can take on a very different hue when you change your subjective viewpoint. If you’re feeling the fear of change, ask yourself:
What am I optimising for? What do I believe life is about?
If you believe that life is for playing it safe, optimising security over life satisfaction, then you will always feel the fear of change.
But if you’re feeling stifled by sameness, then try imagining how different your life would be if you optimised for personal growth and freedom. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter what happens to you – failure, financial hardship, an odd-looking resumé – so long as it helps you grow as a human being. Things you might formerly have regarded as an unmitigated disaster turn instead into a supercharged opportunity for learning, unlocking capacities for courage and resourcefulness you didn’t know you had.
In 2015, David Brooks wrote an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, called The Moral Bucket List, adapted from his book The Road to Character. I recommend the op-ed, and I’m sure I would recommend the book too, if I’d read it. However, for now, here is an excerpt:
“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
“We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
“But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”
This, surely, is the point of being blessed with free will – to be aware of our genetic inheritance, cognitive biases, and cultural conditioning, and yet consciously decide to do the thing that challenges and stretches us. As the saying goes, the magic happens outside your comfort zone.