Blood, Sweat, and Tears, or, Hard Work Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

August 22, 2014 1 comment


practice  One of my freshman essays in the fall of 1959 at Davidson College treated the theme that I    dubbed “E for Effort.” Based on my elementary school grading whereby E was for Excellent, S  for Satisfactory, and U for Unsatisfactory, I praised the ethic of hard work by concluding    that, if one went all out on an assignment, then they should get an E for Effort. My English  professor, William P. Cumming—an Oxford-trained polymath—would have none of it. “Howard,” he asserted, “hard work without know-how can ruin the finest garden.” Deflation ensued. For the next 55 years, the public debate on the relative importance of talent and practice has been enmeshed with my personal identity.

When I first read in the 1990s Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice and later saw it popularized by Malcolm Gladwell as the 10,000 hour rule, it sounded as though the debate was over—engage in deliberate practice (not just playing the same scale over and over again in the same way, but introducing variation and difficulties by playing slower, faster, louder, softer, with arms crossed, blindfolded, with food in my mouth, with another person, with loud noise in the background, and so on) for six hours a day for ten years and you’ll achieve expert status. This finding made extensive practice—not just “deliberate” practice—a cause célèbre for the Tiger Moms and Dads of the world. In a sense, Ericcson’s research was the nail in the coffin for Hitler’s (and others’) elitist (and racist) programs of eugenics and the inborn nature of talent and ability. People affirmed star status as the primary democratic ideal—everyone can be a star (or an expert, whichever emphasis you prefer) with (deliberate) practice.

Then on July 1 of this year (2015), the other shoe dropped. Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald (of Princeton, Michigan State, and Yale, respectively) published the results of their meta-analysis of research on the effects of deliberate practice on performance. Based on 150+ studies and 11,000+ subjects that spanned five performance areas (sports, games, music, education, and the professions), the researchers concluded:

  • The amount of deliberate practice showed minimal association with education (about 1 academic out of 25 appears to benefit from the Ericcson rule) and the professions (fewer than 1 lawyer, doctor, etc., out of a 100 benefits).
  • The amount of deliberate practice appeared to benefit about 1 in 5 athletes, musicians, and gamers (with slightly more influence on musicians, slightly less on athletes).
    • Inference: Deliberate practice has greater influence on the performance of physical skills than on mental skills, but the combination of other factors has greater influence.

The authors offered a series of related analyses that identified exceptions to these relationships, but the exceptions were all associated with diminished association. For example, the more rigorous the performance measure (e.g., a standardized, objective measure) used in a study, the lower the association, while the more lenient the performance measure (e.g., election to a fraternity or sorority) used in a study, the higher the association. In other words, the more rigorous the study, the weaker the association.

So what is our takeaway from this meta-analysis? Yes, deliberate practice is important, but it is not everything. For those desirous of achieving expertise, we also need to take into consideration:

  • Their relevant native mental abilities (such as short term memory, ideational fluency, and so forth)
  • Their physical characteristics (such as eye-hand coordination, audio acuity, reaction speed, depth perception, and so forth)
  • Their relevant personality traits (such as spontaneity vs. methodicalness, concentration vs. distractibility, comfort being alone vs. comfort being around others, and so forth)
  • Their relevant values (such as Achievement, Relationships, and so forth)
  • Their relevant experiences (such as Boy/Girl Scout experience, military experience, time spent on related skills, such as ten years on piano before beginning violin, and so forth)
  • The nature of their home environment (such as support for and relatives’ expertise available in their chosen skill)
  • The quality of their instructors, coaches, mentors, or other learning/training guides
  • The availability of challenging role models and competitors
  • And, of course, the luck of the draw!

In short, we humans are complex critters, and no single factor can account for our failures or successes.

 Note: “Deliberate” practice is not the same thing as “abundant” practice. I find it hard to believe that the researchers were able to determine whether or not the studies they reviewed were able to winnow out the subjects who simply reported on the number of hours they practiced doing the same old protocol repeatedly, or whether they genuinely engaged daily in “deliberate” practice by varying and shaking up their regimens. We can only wonder whether the associations might be stronger if we were reliably limited to subjects who ONLY engaged in “deliberate” practice.


Projecting Authority

May 16, 2014 1 comment

An associate gavelrecently lamented that too many of her co-workers did not take her seriously. “What can I do to project more authority?” she asked. I promised her I’d noodle around with that question and post the results in my blog. Here is the result of my cogitation on how people go about projecting authority to others.

Clearly, some methods for projecting authority depend on one’s values. So, not every suggestion on this list will fall equally on everyone’s ears. But, if you, or someone dear to you, is desirous of being taken more seriously, perhaps one or more of these many possibilities will work for you.

  • Dress. Check book and other resources on “dressing for success.” I was once told that, to be taken most seriously, I should wear a navy suit, starched long-sleeved white (or light blue) shirt with silk regimental stripe tie (with red in it), black shoes, and navy socks. That has become my uniform when the stakes are high. Fortunately I do not have to wear it often! Another clothing suggestion—if appropriate, dress for the job or position that you want rather than the one you have.
  • Title. Promote your title—on calling card, door, stationery, email signature—and perhaps find a way to reword your title to sound more impressive. But remember we are stupid—I always chuckle when I see someone who works totally alone (as being a solo consultant) and who arrogates to themself the title of President!
  • Experience. Find ways of promoting your experience—in your resume, for example.
  • Grooming. Some grow a beard to project authority, some shave their head, some use body art, others makeup, earrings, and so forth.
  • Degree. Obtain an appropriate university degree or a trade license and display your diploma or certificate prominently.
  • Possessions. Some like to project authority by displaying expensive, rare, or high quality possessions, such as a big television, fine car, technical gadgets, and so forth.
  • Interior Decorating. Decorate your work area with the material or content that projects the kind of image or authority that is important to you—family photos, trophies, fine desk, sofa, book shelves (but books may not be your thing—perhaps sports or other memorabilia).
  • Work Out. Buff says tough, flab says drab!
  • Memberships. Display memberships in professional associations, civic clubs, social clubs, and the like.
  • Positions of Responsibility. Take on a position of responsibility in an organization or in your community by volunteering or getting elected. Your community posts openings from time to time for various committees and study groups.
  • Publications. Get into print—this could be anything from a letter to the editor to a book. Also consider non-print media, as in getting photos published online, sculpture displayed, or songs and other music recorded.
  • Hobbies. Active pursuit of one or more hobbies typically pursuits admiration and respect—crafts, horses, acting (as in Little Theatre), music group (band, chorus, chamber group), scrapbooking, and so on.
  • Postures and Gestures. Nonverbal behavior can help establish greater authority, as in maintaining appropriate eye contact, erect posture (chest out, not sunken), appropriate touch, projecting calmness (i.e., being in control of yourself), and so forth.
  • Firm Handshake. More like a grasp, less like a limp noodle.
  • Goal-Setting. It is not enough to have goals—share them with others, and also share with them periodically your progress towards achieving your goal(s).
  • Service. Volunteer your time and talent in ways that set an example for good citizenship.
  • Publicity-Seeking. Self-promotion comes more naturally for some folks that for others. I am amazed how some folks promote themselves (i.e., their achievements, especially) on Facebook and other social media.
  • Conversation. The ability to make conversation—telling stories, relaying jokes, discussing current events, making puns—is a gift. Use it, but not to extremes.
  • Delegate. Effective delegation in front of one’s peers helps to establish one’s authority. However, there is an art to delegating, such that it comes across as more collaborative and not so bossy.
  • Skill Display. If you can, exhibit your talents and skills in appropriate ways. If you are an accomplished pianist, do sit and play that piano in the lobby, or in the airport concourse. Or sketch, or whittle, or whistle, or tap dance.
  • Attention to Kids. To show kindness towards children—to entertain them, converse with them—is heartwarming and admirable. Just don’t overdo it—watch their parents’ facial expression to determine if they’re in it with your, or if they are getting uncomfortable.
  • Accent/dialect/voice Management. When I was in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I wanted others to think I was not local, so I attempted to ape what I thought was a Midwestern accent—neutral, radio-like. Consider how your language can work better for you—engage with a speech therapist to make sure you are using the optimal part of your voice range, and learn how to project.
  • Physical Display. For some, showing evidence of physical strength works, or showing appropriate skin, or showing spiritual mastery, as in yoga positions.
  • Office Location. Attempt to gain optimal an optimal office location, as in a corner, room with a window, etc.
  • Real Estate. If you have control of where you work or live, try to select a location and design style that projects an image that will appeal to your desired constituents.
  • Tools. Carry around with you the tool(s) of your trade (stethoscope, legal pad, technical gadget, book).
  • Role Models. Study persons in your field who project the authority you would like to strive for. Read their biography or autobiography and see if you can learn how they do it. Observe them and find appropriate things to emulate.
  • Web Presence. Have your own website or blog, and be present on social media such Linked In and Facebook. Get someone to help you establish your own domain name, as in
  • Free Consulting. Ask your web search tool for advice! Be specific—ask about the particular context, the kind of people you want credibility around. I just Googled “how to establish one’s authority around salespeople.” My first hit was entitled “The Ten Biggest Goofs that Salespeople Make.” Perfect!

 Do keep in mind that these strategies are not universal in their effectiveness. What works in one context may not work in another. Perhaps you could evaluate a strategy by running it by a friend or associate before trying it.

Goals for Grays

April 7, 2014 1 comment

ImageI recently presented my happiness model to a group of 300+ seniors—the Senior Scholars at Queens (University in Charlotte NC). A major element of my model focuses on goals—not on goals per se, but on making progress towards goals. To have a goal of building a mountain cabin is titillating but does not particularly contribute to one’s sense of well-being. However, completing a step towards completing that cabin does elevate one’s mood, one’s sense of well-being, one’s felt happiness.

At the conclusion we had a Q&A session. One delightful yet puzzled lady lamented—“I understand the importance of having goals and making progress on them. However, I am 83, my husband died, and I just don’t feel I have much to live for except to stay as healthy as possible. How is your emphasis on goals applicable to me?”

Well, that just got me to thinking! What poured forth were oodles of possible goals for seniors.

  • Design your own Winter Holiday Card every year and send it out to your family and friends list.
  • Vicarious goals, such as helping a student/young person attain a specific grade reading level, mathematics competency, drawing skill, craft mastery (macramé, knitting, etc.), public speaking confidence, and so forth
  • Keep your profile on your college alumni/ae website updated
  • Living until the age of 90, then 95, then 100, then 105, well, you get the idea!
  • Make it a point to write, email, call, visit, or otherwise communicate with all of the members of various sets of friends, family, or acquaintances from your past and present: all your children, all your grandchildren, all your great grandchildren, all your cousins, all your siblings, all your former co-workers (at least, the ones you liked!), all your high school friends, all your college friends, all your graduate school friends, all your military buddies, all your former spiritual advisors, all your former favorite teachers, all your former favorite neighbors. Do this weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, etc. (maybe a different set of folks each week). If you have trouble thinking of things to say (you can tell them about your progress on all of these goals!), then just tell them how much they have meant to you and that your memory of them is still warm and active.
  • Take care well in advance of how you want to distribute all of your possessions among your descendants and others close to you, so there will be minimal squabbles when the time comes! My mother made a list of everything, then asked each of her seven children to pick something, starting with the oldest child having first choice, then continually cycling through each of the seven children until the last item was chosen.
  • Write a poem (or song, or paint a picture, etc.) for each grandchild, child, or other significant person for their birthday every year.
  • Create (if you haven’t already) your bucket list of all the things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket, and then share the list with friends, family, retirement home social planners, etc., to see how many of the items you can check off. And keep adding items to your bucket list as you think of new things you would like to do, be it travel, crafts, reading, trying a new food or cuisine, meeting people, or whatever.
  • Write your autobiography, including photographs, stories, history, favorite songs/foods/movies/athletes/etc., medical history, where you’ve lived, your heroes, your mentors, where you’ve traveled, awards you’ve won, concerts and plays you been in, loves you’ve won and lost, biggest regrets and proudest moments, and so on. Once you have a finished product, have a copy made for the school and public libraries where you grew up, and one for each of your children and grandchildren.
  • Write a biography of your parents or grandparents.
  • Join online and build your family tree—you’d be amazed at what you will find with their online resources. I’ve traced one of the lines in my family—the McGaheys—back to the 4th century BCE!
  • Make a scrapbook, either a paper one or an electronic one (I have made 14 different family scrapbooks using Power Point’s “photo album” feature). Make a different scrapbook for each major theme of your life—your childhood, your school years, your courtship(s), your children, your grandchildren, your special interests (concerts you’ve been in, newspaper clippings from political campaigns, sports, etc.), and so forth.
  • Find or purchase a scanner that you can use and set out to create digital versions of all of your family photographs. Both black and white and color photos deteriorate over time. But if you scan them and convert them to a digital format, you stop that deterioration. You can even learn how to reverse some of the fading and sharpen old photos that have suffered the ravages of time.
  • Begin a series of collections of various kinds: stories your parents told you (you could write them out, or you could dictate them to a recording device), songs your family sang, games your family played (at holidays, birthdays, etc.), poems/verse your family recited, family recipes. One of my nieces is working with her two daughters to type up all of our old family recipes that are now on 3” x 5” cards and are fading fast.
  • Build or make something: a cradle for your grandchild/great grandchild, a doll house, a model railroad, a display rack, a special storage case for something someone values (like a musical instrument), a piece of furniture, an item of clothing (maybe a christening dress!).
  • Set a goal for exercise—number of repetitions for situps, pushups (I try to do 40, three times a week), number of steps per day (use a pedometer).
  • Reread or revisit all of the great art from your past. You will be amazed at how much about them you have forgotten, and how much meaning they have decades after you first encountered them. Every time I reread a Shakespeare play, revisit a Breughel painting, or rehear a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, I am thrilled to rediscover what is in essence an old friend whom I’ve not visited for years. All of the old programs you heard sitting on the floor as a kid next to a monstrous Philco radio are available now in digital form—Dragnet, Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Green Hornet, Jack Benny, The Great Gildersleeve, and so on.
  • Every time your college alumni magazine asks you for an update, send them something, including your progress on all of these goals you are working on!
  • And of course, help plan your family reunions! If your family doesn’t have one, then get the planning started. If your nuclear family is no more, then join in with another family that you are related to, or one that you just like being a part of


Many of these goals could be tricky if you tried to do them by yourself. Perhaps you could find a student who could visit with you after school or on weekends and who could help you with your project(s). My 90-year-old sister in Pittsburgh bought her first computer for her 90th birthday, and she found a high school student in her church who stopped by regularly after school to help her with email, printing, etc.

Being older does not mean we stop having goals. I am 72, and my To Do list will take about 500 more years to complete! While I still work a full week, every week, for my career, it is not necessary to be in the work force in order to have meaningful goals. I hope I have triggered something for you to pursue. Happiness comes, among other things, from the joy of chasing your goals! Read more about the pursuit of happiness in my 2013 book, The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

The Antipodes–or, Standing on Both Feet

December 23, 2013 2 comments

AntipodesThe opposite point from where you now stand (or sit) is on the other side of the earth. These two points–where you are, and the opposite of where you are–are called the “antipodes.” Accordingly, the North Pole is called the antipode of the South Pole. The antipode of Britain is a point south of New Zealand, such that the islands there have become known as The Antipodes. The word means opposite foot.

As with geography, personality also has its own kind of antipodes, or opposing feet. We call them complementary traits, or dispositions. Each trait comprises two such opposites, two kinds of behavioral energy, such as solitude and sociability. The two members of each pair of traits are equally necessary for a satisfying life. While each of us tends to have a set point for each trait—some preferring more time alone, some more time with others, and some equally divided between solitude and society—we ignore our antipodal trait at the risk of living a life out of sync. In the spirit of preparing for the New Year and its tradition for making resolutions, today’s blog is a reminder of the value of giving expression to our less preferred, or our less natural, traits. The 23 reminders that follow are based on the 23 subtraits of the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0TM.

  • Embrace your calmness, but give voice to your fears.
  • Be at ease, but express your anger appropriately.
  • Optimism will get you through, but pessimism will arm you.
  • Be quick to recover from adversity, but allow time for grieving and recovery.
  • Know when to be still and attentive, and when to be enthusiastic and bold.
  • Use your time alone to absorb energy, and your time with others to burn it.
  • Take time to sit and think as well as to move and do.
  • Know when to be independent, when to follow, and when to lead.
  • Be skeptical when cues warrant, but keep in mind that trust builds relationships.
  • Be direct so critical messages are understood, yet tactful so egos do not bruise.
  • Build with what is known, but dream for what is possible.
  • Keep it simple, but not too simple.
  • Enjoy the comfort of the tried and true, yet be ready to take flight for the new and different.
  • Pay attention to the details—some say God is there, yet step back to take in the big picture.
  • Let your needs be known and pursued, while embracing the needs of others.
  • Stand your ground when conflict arises, yet know when to collaborate, compromise, yield, and avoid.
  • Be proud, especially of those dear to you, yet know when to deflect praise, especially towards others’ efforts.
  • Speak your mind, then keep silent while others hold forth.
  • Know when good is enough, and when perfection is required.
  • Allow casual spaces in your life, but know that order is reassuring.
  • Accept your lesser status in most areas, while embracing a few areas for excellence or dominance.
  • Allow distractions in order to be accessible, but ensure adequate focus to get things done.
  • Trial and error is in order when no proven method is available.

Never allow any of these antipodes to thrive at its opposite’s expense. Knowing when to alternate from one foot to the other is a key to personal health and happiness.

Changing Habits versus Changing Traits

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Neuroplasticity (or more simply, plasticity)—the ability of the brain and nervous system to reshape itself—is a hot topic. Norman Doidge (The Brain that Changes Itself; 2007), Michael Merzenich (Soft-Wired; 2013), Jeffrey Schwartz (You Are Not Your Brain; 2011) and other neuroscientists write with optimism about our capacity for rewiring ourselves. The very term plasticity suggests the opposite of “etched in stone.”

However, as with much discovery, enthusiasm can create false hopes for panaceas or easy fixes. Too many of us tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. Either we cannot change ourselves, or we can do a total makeover. To think in shades of gray complicates things. However, life itself is comprised of shades of gray. We are not fat OR thin, but rather we are somewhere on a continuum. We are not calm or anxious, but somewhere on a continuum. Those who have argued for a genetic basis of personality talk about us being hardwired, while those who argue for environmental influence on personality talk about us being malleable, plastic, like a blank slate. Personality is neither nature nor nurture, but both interacting, intertwined.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we teach human resource professionals the use of the Five-Factor Model in the world of work. We show how an individual’s traits can support or not support their work performance, job satisfaction, and life in general. Every day we get the question: “I don’t like my score on X—can I change it?” The answer is yes and no—behavior change is a complex process, and one should be forewarned before committing to a behavioral makeover.

Here is my best effort at summarizing the process and its assumptions succinctly:

  1. Traits are not 100% hardwired—best estimates are around 60%. That leaves a LOT of wiggle room for allowing the environment to shape who we are! That 40% would include opportunities for the efforts of cognitive behavioral therapists and other neuroplasticity proponents as well as the influence of our parents and peers.
  2. “Hardwiring” is a complex subject—it refers to nerve pathways, relative size of brain and other physical structures/organs, chemical levels, quantity of receptors, how long a habit has had to become established, and so forth.
  3. The research on neuroplasticity is focused on modifying specific habits, not complex traits.
  4. One trait, such as Warmth, is comprised of hundreds of habits. To change one such habit would be an aim of neuroplasticity therapy (earlier called cognitive behavioral therapy). For example, eye contact is associated with warmth, so for someone reluctant to make eye contact, a therapist might work on changing that habit so that it becomes more natural.
  5. So, to change a trait to a substantial degree, we are talking about changing dozens, if not hundreds, of habits that comprise that trait. Other habits that contribute to our warmth include sensitivity to touch, comfort touching others, our tendency to smile, our tendency to vary the pitch, volume, and timbre of our voice, the tenseness/relaxedness of our posture, our level of physical activity, our ability to keep our mouths shut and listen to others, our habit of paying compliments to others, whether we are huggers, the quality of our handshake—the list goes on. And, each specific habit—such as eye contact—might need to be broken down into its many different contexts—eye contact with parents, with a partner, with children (my children versus others’ children), with police officers, with my boss, with customers, with hostile people, with same/opposite sex, with seductive people, and the list goes on.
  6. It might be more satisfying to set out to change one’s way of life in a way that builds around our stronger characteristics, rather than to set out to change those characteristics. For example, a sales person low in Warmth might switch from face-to-face sales to telephone sales. This would enable them not to worry about inadequate eye contact, touching, activity level, hand-shaking, and so forth, and to focus just on modulating their voice.

I’m all for plasticity. However, I think it should be reserved for individuals a) whose natural behavior is not working for them, b), who are not free to change their circumstances in order to build on their strengths and c) who are strongly motivated to change one or more of those behaviors/habits.

Forecasting Errors

August 5, 2013 2 comments

ImageOne of the components of self-knowledge is our capacity to predict how we will behave in certain situations. Another is our capacity to predict how well we have performed on a particular task. Both of these might be called forecasting errors.

In two recent studies, researchers found some amusing yet powerful insights into our capacity to forecast. The first (Williams, Dunning, & Kruger, 2013) found that people who rely on methods to achieve their results tend to be overconfident. Their familiarity with their own methodology blinds them to needs and opportunities. It is as though adherence to one’s method guaranteed stellar results. Apparently not! Methodicalness apparently has a tendency to reduce one’s attention to the task at hand—we focus on the method and not on the quality of the task itself.

Let’s say that I need to plan my second daughter’s wedding. It so happens that I created a detailed plan for my first daughter’s wedding. So, I pull out the plan (i.e., the method) and make the appropriate substitutions (names, and so forth). Then I begin with step one on through to the cleanup after the reception. I am likely to think I have done the perfect job. However, my reliance on my existing method has failed to take into account the unique features of #2’s wedding: she has some different values and preferences from #1, the politics of the soon-to-be-in-laws are dramatically different, the time of year is six months later, and so on. My confidence in my method will be in for a surprise when I hear the grumblings after all is said and done. My performance would have been better if I had made more of an effort to reinvent the wheel, as it were.

The second study (Zelenski et al, 2013) found that more introverted people tend to underestimate their level of enjoyment in situations where they must act more extraverted. In other words, “acting” extraverted, regardless of one’s trait level, provides a hedonic boon. For example, I am somewhat introverted, and I dread the times that I have to go to receptions (and their ilk) and schmooze for a couple of hours. I know I must do it, but before getting there I’m already dreading it and thinking that it’ll never end. However, when I arrive, within five minutes I’m engaged in a stimulating dialog with someone who knows more than I do about a recent news event–I’m pumping them for information and insight. When people begin to leave, I’m still going strong and having a ball.

The lesson from both findings is similar—enter each new experience with a sense of wonder. Look for meaning everywhere. It may not appear, but give it a chance nonetheless.

A thought—I wonder if more extraverted people underestimate the pleasure they will find when they make time for solitude? Or whether non-methodical people underestimate their performance? More opportunities for research!

Are you resistant to change?

May 11, 2012 2 comments

ImageI recall two times in my life when people I cared about called me “resistant to change,” and it hurt. Made me think. I have always thought of myself as progressive, as open to (appropriate) change (not change for change’s sake). I have always liked the notion of holding on to the eternally satisfying things in my life (my mother’s Brunswick stew) and letting go of the questionable ones (my mother’s overcooked, bacon-drenched vegetables). Sort of like southern journalist Hodding Carter’s comment that the two most important, and paradoxical (if not downright conflicted), things we can give our children are roots (like mom’s traditional stew) and wings (like being free to abandon some things and to embrace the new or different).

 Once a relative accused me of being resistant to change when I was unwilling to shift positions in a six-person raft just before entering the roughest part of the Nantahala River. My reason was safety. If the remainder of the river had been less dangerous, I would have thought nothing of changing the seating arrangement.

 More recently, our new senior minister began a series of changes aimed at making the music program appeal to a wider audience, but that had the effect of watering down its quality (e.g., no more singing in foreign languages). We left and joined another choir—all the while dealing with charges of being “resistant to change.” Again, it hurt, and made me (and my wife) think hard. However, the minister’s tampering with Bach’s German text to us was like messing around with my mother’s Brunswick stew recipe. He was tampering with what for us was an “eternal verity.” A non-negotiable. Gotta have a few of them in order to keep your feet on the ground. Not too many. Just enough. Surely, a different number of them for different people. That is what makes the difference, I think, between conservatives and progressives—the proportion of changes met with acceptance versus those met with rejection.

What is change? Any disruption of business as usual. How do we react to such disruption? I propose five classic ways of reacting to change:

  • Embrace it—saying, “ok, this makes sense, I’m for it”
  • Endure it—saying, “it’s not right, but I’ll not fight it”
  • Ignore it—not really embracing it, but merely tolerating it
  • Challenge it—openly resisting it and attempting to alter its objectionable features
  • Reject it—getting out of its way and changing your own situation in order to escape it

In the first case above, I endured the change on the river, with the awful consequence that my wife, Jane, and her sister had a near death experience. I have replayed that in my mind, certain that I should have challenged the change and brushed off the criticism of being rigid and resistant to change. I should have been confident of safety as my reason.

In the second case, I (and Jane) rejected the change and left to join a program that was not being watered down by pandering to less sophisticated tastes.

So, what are the criteria by which we may be confident in how we react to change? I propose the following:

  • Values—is the proposed change compatible with my values?
  • Harm—would embracing the change do harm to others or self?
  • Benefit—would embracing the change provide a benefit to others or self?
  • Universalizability—would the world be a better place if everyone reacted the way I plan to? (Kant’s categorical imperative)
  • Stakeholder buy in—Sissela Bok’s Lying proposed that it is ok to lie if, upon checking with all of your stakeholders—persons who could be affected by your lie, most of your stakeholders would agree with your decision. I suggest that this applies to our reaction to change also.

What has been your experience? When is it permissible to resist change?

In the future, when someone charges me with being resistant to change, I must have the presence of mind to respond with “Yes, in this case I am,” with the confidence that 1) I have my reasons and 2) resistance to change is not an all-or-nothing trait.


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