Taking a Long Hard Look at Change – Balancing Cautiousness and Curiosity.


This post is about the way we see change and how that determines how well we might react to it and take advantage of it. It starts with a reframe based simply on choosing how we view change. It then takes this reframe to a deeper level with a review of why change is so prevalent yet always to some degree, resisted.

Let’s start with a simple challenge for us to make a decision to ‘see’ change differently.

What You See, Is What You Get

W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G is a mnemonic often used in sales (pronounced wiziwig). It stands for What You See, Is What You Get.

The phrase is used to let buyers know that what they are buying is what they can physically see.  There can be no complaints if the product turns out to have something wrong “under the bonnet” once they get it home. The second-hand car market is particularly prone to the WYSIWYG factor.

The general rule for the buyer is that it pays to take a long, hard look at the product before parting with hard-earned cash.

With change, I often find it is worth taking a long, hard look before ‘buying’. The way we see change is a strong indicator of how well we might cope with it and how well we might realise benefits from it. What you see is, indeed, what you get. If change is seen as a nuisance, an imposition, or to be feared, then reactions are often negative, full of resistance and pain.

On the other hand, if change is seen as an opportunity, welcomed even, then initial hesitation or fear can be overcome and overall reactions can be positive. With change framed in this way, emotions can be a mix of the inevitable low-level fear, mixed with excitement. This is where we feel more fully alive at the “edge of chaos”.

This simple challenge to reframe how I see change, as an opportunity, not as an imposition, has helped me better deal with and take advantage of change over the years.

Easier said than done

However, this reframing, whilst simple in its description, is actually easier said than done. When faced with the fear of change it isn’t so easy to then say “don’t worry, this is an opportunity.” The feelings of fear and desire to stick with what is known, can run very deep.

Some years ago I was challenged with not always being able to see change as opportunity. I therefore decided to take the WYSIWYG challenge a stage further and take a long, hard look at change from a species perspective. Given that change is all around us, every day, I was wondering why humans couldn’t simply get used to it and not feel the inevitable fear. Why do we humans sometimes resist change that turns out to be incredibly helpful to us? And, if we fear change so much, why do we keep creating so much of it?

It turned out that this long, hard look helped me reach a deeper understanding of change and its impact on the human condition and made my reframing of change easier to enact, in the moment.

I knew from my reading into psychology and neurology that humans inevitably feel fear when faced with a change to the current status-quo. It is a natural reaction that has placed a necessary level of caution into our decision-making processes. I took this to be a survival mechanism that prevents unnecessary risks being taken.

However, the success of the human race has not just been brought about by the evolution of cautiousness. Along the way humans have taken incredible risks. We left our homelands and eventually walked to practically every corner of the globe. With a relatively slow running speed and no useful natural weapons like fangs or claws, we took on other predators, stole their kills¹ and defended our families.

Given this natural fear but overwhelming evidence that our ancestors must have been explorers and opportunists, I came to the conclusion that we must also have developed a deep level of curiosity to balance our cautiousness. Our desire for the new and opportunistic gains, balanced our fear of change and natural cautiousness. These balanced forces of caution and curiosity created a level of adaptability that ensured our survival and development as a species.

Before the agricultural revolution, when humans lived in relatively small tribes, living off the natural resources around them, this balance of caution and curiosity served them well. Change was more under individual control as each member of the tribe had an opportunity to influence decisions. Stress was probably short-lived and came in the form of infrequent threats from predators or other tribes.

As our circumstances have changed and we have become societies rather than tribes, individuals have found themselves with little say over much of the change impacting them. Even in democratic societies, little of the change that impacts individuals is under their control. Even when we are effecting change for ourselves, there are always forces at work that might derail or influence the final outcome. We have cultural norms, laws, regulations, neighbours, competitors, free-markets and the like.

It is this lack of perceived or actual control that generates the anxiety associated with change. After 2 million years of evolution, individuals still have the balancing forces of caution and curiosity. The problem is, for many, the former is being invoked much more than the latter. The normal balance of short-lived bouts of stress related to perceived or actual threats, along side longer periods of excitement and reward associated with curiosity-driven exploration and opportunism, has been upset.

A lack of influence or direct control over the change that societies create is one driver of this imbalance. The other is the ever-increasing pace of change that society is now able to generate. Our natural curiosity, honed over millions of years of evolution, is now finding laser-like focus through technology, organisation and sheer numbers of individual contributors.

As a species, our natural curiosity, expressed through modern means of production, distribution and communication, is creating massive levels of species-driven change. Unfortunately, our natural cautiousness, can be called upon too much when faced with this onslaught. The natural balance of caution and curiosity is broken when our species takes over the change agenda.

This is why reframing change is so important for individual health. Redressing the balance between cautiousness and curiosity at an individual level is needed. Seeing change as an opportunity, deciding which changes to worry about, which to accept, and which to challenge or influence, is an important skill to learn.

Take the WYSIWYG challenge. Take a long, hard look at the change impacting you and look under the bonnet for the opportunities that it may well hold.

The research I undertook some years ago was just such a WYSIWYG challenge. Taking a long, hard look at why change was so prevalent and why this was having a negative impact on individuals, has certainly helped me redress my cautiousness-curiosity balance.

I believe I am better able to call upon both my natural cautiousness and curiosity to live at the “edge of chaos” more often. This is the place where I feel most alive and paradoxically ‘in control’ of my own destiny. This edge is the place where I believe our ancestors found themselves as a matter of course in their every day lives. Unfortunately, we have to work at finding that edge, but it is there. Just take a long, hard look.

¹See here for modern tribesmen stealing from  pride of 15 lions with nothing more than spears for protection http://www.humanplanetblog.com/?p=1771 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNeNTMmltyc





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