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