Balance stability and change

If life never changed, if everything was the same over and over again, we would be very unhappy, bored and far from contented. Same old same old is not a recipe for a life well lived. However, if everything was constantly changing, we would feel very insecure. Imagine getting up each morning and there is little or nothing you can count on to be the same as it was yesterday. We would no doubt feel disorientated.

People often say that the only thing that remains constant is change, as I have argued many times, that is not true. Life is a mixture of changes and constants, but we tend to focus mainly on the changes. This is for three reasons. First, as biological organisms we tend to respond to changes in our environment and will soon learn to take for granted those aspects that remain the same. This is partly a defence mechanism, in the sense that tuning in to changes in our environment helps to alert us to potential threats. In this respect, it is s survival mechanism. Second, changes in our environment bring not only threats, but also opportunities, situations that we can enjoy and benefit from. Third, the mass media, such a powerful influence on behaviour and feelings in this day and age, tend to focus on changes (it is no coincidence that we have the ‘new’ in news and newspapers (oldspapers would not have the same appeal).

So, what we are encountering once again is a need for balance. Too much change will overwhelm us, but too little change will underwhelm us. Of course, when it comes to change, much is beyond our control, but we should not underestimate how much control we do have, in terms of both what changes (or does not) and our reaction to any such changes.

What can be helpful is to think about what we would want to change and what we would want not to change (what we would want to safeguard or preserve). If you are happy with the (relatively)  stable situation you are in, is it safe to do nothing or do you need to take steps to make sure it stays that way (by anticipating what could change the situation in a direction you do not want to go in and ‘heading them off at the pass’)? If you are not happy with a (relatively) stable situation, what can you do to change it? What steps can you take? Who do you need to enlist to support you?

Similarly, if you are happy with the changes you are going through, is there anything you need to do to keep those changes on track and to get maximum benefit from them? And, if you are not happy with changes you are going through, what can you do to either prevent the changes or lessen the impact?

The key to this is what the textbooks call ‘self-efficacy’. It relates to how good (or not so good) we are at managing our lives and achieving what we need to. One of the major obstacles to self-efficacy is underestimating how much control we have over certain circumstances. Of course, there are many things we have no control over and a lot more that we can control only to a limited extent, but that should not prevent us from realising just how much we do have control over. The framework I have presented here can be summarised as:

  • if you are happy with the degree of stability you have, safeguard it; if you aren’t, make some changes.
  • If you are happy with the degree of change, keep any such changes on track. If you aren’t, do what you can to ameliorate the situation.

The framework is not a panacea, but it is a useful tool for working towards a helpful balance between stability and change.

Do a hassle audit

What I mean by hassle is anything that causes annoyance, slows us down or in any way reduces our quality of life. And, by an audit, I mean a means of weighing up the hassles we face, considering the impact they have on us and trying to do something about them. I am not proposing any sort of formal measurement system, just a listing of those things that give you hassle, a consideration of how significant each of these is and then some thought given to what, if anything, you can do about them.

My career has involved me in helping people address problems and concerns that they are up against. This has often led to situations in which people describe to me what ails them and what is bothering them, and I respond by saying words to the effect of: ‘So, what are you going to do about it?’. The reactions to that question can be very interesting. Often it would be a look of surprise, as if to say: ‘Why didn’t I think of that? – as if it had not occurred to them that there might be a solution to their problem. This would usually be from people who are so bogged down in their problems that they have lost sight of any possible solutions; they survive by adapting to their circumstances, rather than trying to tackle them. Defeatism and cynicism can quickly set in when people are under a great deal of pressure, particularly if they had a generally negative outlook on life to begin with.

Another common reaction would be to simply say: ‘There’s nothing I can do’. When, in response to that, I would propose various steps they could potentially take, there was almost always a reason why they could not do any of them; each of them seemed to be more hassle than it was worth. This would then lead into a discussion about which hassles were worse and what could be done about each of them. In effect, it was a process of choosing your hassles – which are you prepared to put up with and which are you not (something we do very frequently, of course, even if we don’t realise that we are doing it). It comes back to the basic idea that there are always choices, and choices have consequences. A hassle audit can help to make any such choices informed choices.

But it isn’t just problems that can benefit from a hassle audit. Sometimes we can be enthused about a particular project or opportunity and sign ourselves up for it without considering the downside, the actual or potential hassles involved. Is what you are hoping or trying to do worth the hassles involved? It is so very easy for the excitement in some situations to blinker us to the hassle costs involved. So, before you let your enthusiasm get the better of you, think through what hassles you might be letting yourself in for. Of course, there will be many times when the benefits outweigh even a whole host of hassles, but it is better if we are aware of what we are letting ourselves in for, as it is certainly not the case that positives will outweigh the negatives.

Life is not, of course, a hassle-free zone and never will be, but, with a thoughtful approach to hassles, we are better equipped to keep them to a minimum.

Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.