Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily. is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.

You become what you do, not what you think

According to psychologist Timothy Wilson:

People draw inferences about who they are by observing their own behavior. 

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. Two powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.

Tired of the American Dream

I have come to find joy in change. Among the changes, the one that gives me most pleasure is when something changes how I look at the world. Something that helps me align myself with reality. Not many things have that power, but Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers makes that list.

In it Gladwell argues that the story of success is not based on a few simple things that successful people did correctly. It has a lot to do with where they are from, what period they were born in, and how they came about finding their ‘art’.

He talks about the 10,000-hour rule which is based on some academic studies. He finds those who are exceptionally good at what they do, have spent more than 10,000 hours doing it.

Although, as the title suggests, Gladwell writes about successful people who lie outside what is statistically plausible. Researchers find that mere number of hours don’t lead to desired outcome. You need to put in the hours and develop a strategy to ensure that you are improving every hour. This is why I feel that the American dream is a bad nightmare.

Actually, you’ve just woken up to reality.

The version of the American Dream that I am attacking is this one: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from and what you’ve done in your past life, if you want to succeed at something (anything) then all you need to do is work hard to get there.

It’s mistaken to believe that only hard work will bring you success. It might enable you to become good at something. You may get recognised (in some way) for the work you do, but “success”, as most people define it, is different. That success is often based on public adulation of some sort.

Instead, what research shows is that all one can hope to do is take tiny steps in the right direction, where you improve at each step. Whether that leads to success isn’t something that can be predicted. The factors involved in such a prediction are too many to be aware of and most of them are beyond control.

People seem to believe that they have a lot more control on their lives than they really do. It’s this false hope that the American Dream gives people which is most worrying.

The illusion of control

Another book that changed how I look at the world is Leonard Mlodinow’s Drunkard’s Walk. The thesis he puts forth is simple – randomness rules our lives. As much as we’d like, there is a lot of truth in it. He is not saying that you don’t play a role in your life. It’s just that the role you play is very limited. A lot of things just happen to you. (PS: Harsha Bhogle admits it.)

This should in no way ‘demotivate’ you. Instead, it should motivate you more because, if you care enough, then you can find the few things that you really have control over. And once you find them, you should do all you can to influence them in your favour.

Accepting that randomness plays a vital role in your life only helps you to align with reality. It equips you to deal with the illusion of control and face the world more confidently. Swallowing this pill might be hard, but it’s worth a lot more than the pain.

Picture credit: Reuters

Living under an illusion

Sure, I’d like to change the world. Expecting that I will is plain wrong though!

All my life I have had different things that motivated me to do what I have done. But for the past few years, a constant driving force for the choices I make and the work I do has been the impact that those choices and work have on the world. Unfortunately, I have been self-deceiving myself into believing that what I am doing has or is going to have a measurable impact on the world.

For past three years I have been working on synthesising a large chunk of an even larger molecule. The way I put it to ninth graders, recently, was that I am attempting to stitch  atoms together in a very restricted manner. I am using the technology that chemists have developed over the past two hundred years to produce something in the lab that nature took millions of years to do. Sounds cool and it is.

And yet, when I finish writing my thesis I am not sure if it will be read by more than a handful chemists in its lifetime. The paper that will eventually be published in a reputed journal may be read by a few hundred chemists around the world and a small percentage of them may even cite my work.

A total of ten man-years of work, including three years of my work, and ~£1 million of tax-payers money will have what impact on the world of chemistry or on the world in general? Maybe nothing and maybe a lot, I don’t know.

This blog is very shortly going to reach the 100,000-hits mark since it was brought back to life in June 2009. What impact my writing has had on the world? I don’t know.

Some people will bring a small stone to the building called science and some people will bring a big one, but nevertheless no one can take that stone away from you.” These words by the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn’s, may soothe my scientist soul and may be I can find such words to do the same for my writing soul. But I cannot deny that walking into something thinking it will make a measurable impact on the world is a little foolish.

Looking back at one’s activities one may be able to understand what is the ‘impact’ those activities have had, but looking forward it is incredibly hard to do be able to predict that impact. But such is human nature that, as someone venturing in to a new area of work, I find it hard to be able to convince and motivate myself to keep working hard if I can’t see the impact of that work.

I posed this as a question to someone who has been working in sustainability for the past 10 years after having switched from a successful career as an accountant. The answer I got was an obvious one, but I think I needed to be told. He said, “The world is incredibly complex. One may never really be able to understand the impact of one’s work and, in this case, the only piece of advice I can give to you is something that won’t be satisfying. Learn to let go off the expectations and you will find it simpler to deal with the world and keeping doing the incredible work that you are doing.”

Knowing this is one thing, applying it to my life is another.

Related: It should be about choices not goals