On Change and Changing Our Minds

4 minute read

Change is the only constant…

The more things change, the more they stay the same…


In the dawn of our species, human survival depended on being hyper-aware of and sensitive to potential danger, in order to survive and have surviving offspring. Over time, vigilance repeatedly proved to be an asset, and our brains became hardwired to be biased toward, or to cling to, new and potentially negative information. Today, 99% stimuli we encounter in our daily life are non-life threatening, but our brains haven’t necessarily changed the way we perceive them—to us, most unknowns are still perceived as being potentially deadly on some level. In a world of constant technological, cultural, scientific, and philosophical change, the result is the modern phenomenon of chronic stress-related diseases, disorders, and dysfunctions.

We used to think there was little we could do about that—our brain structures and functions were what they were, simply because that’s the way human brains form. But advances in neuroscience have debunked the theory that the brain doesn’t and can’t change after reaching adulthood. Dr. Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, discusses how we are all capable of “re-wiring” our brains to think differently. This shift in how we think about our brains, described by Hanson and many others, has had a profound impact on our coaching philosophy.

In a recent edition of Dr. Hanson’s e-newsletter, Just One Thing: Simple Practices for Resilient Happiness, Dr. Hanson writes about four kinds of peace: the peace of ease, the peace of tranquility, the peace of awareness, and the peace of what’s unchanging. On that fourth kind of peace, Hanson writes:

“First, while most things continually change, some don’t; for example, the fact that things change doesn’t itself change. Two plus two will always equal four. The good thing you did this morning or last year will always have happened. Things that don’t change are reliable, which feels peaceful. Second, while individual waves come and go, the ocean is always ocean. While the contents of the universe are changing, the universe as universe is not.”

It’s an interesting concept, and one that responds directly to the perennial favorite workshop topic of Change Management. We regularly teach workshops on navigating and managing change because it is easily one of the most challenging processes in the business world today. Change truly is the only constant, and it’s unfortunately often framed as something undesirable—we commonly comfort ourselves and others with such expressions as this too shall pass.

While it helps to know even the hardest situations typically change, we’d also like to point out that the subject of change doesn’t have to be negative. Innovation is also change. And we often forget that people regularly embrace innovative (read: positive) changes. One rarely hears complaints from those receiving news of forthcoming tax cuts, four-day work weeks, or casual Fridays, to name a few.

In business, we all know that when things don’t change, they stay the same…and potentially become obsolete. Technology is a perfect example: when was the last time you used a floppy disc, CD-ROM, rotary telephone, or fax machine? The ubiquitous iPhone came out just over ten years ago (2007), and today iPhone versions become “obsolete” in just a year’s time. The rate of change can seem overwhelming and disconcerting at times, but in business, if there is anything to fear, staying the same should be much more of a concern than change.

For this week: When learning a new habit or changing the way we think about something, we are creating new neural pathways, which can create literal physical discomfort. Some of us tolerate it better than others, but when we’re attempting to change deep-seated behaviors, we can feel rather uncomfortable in our own skin. To help, consider these personal change perspective questions:

  1. What new behavior would you like to adopt?
  2. What old behaviors are in the way?
  3. What internal (or even external) stories support the old behaviors? ‘We all remember that ONE time we tried something different with the expense reports! Boy, we’ll never do THAT again.’ Is the expression, don’t fix what isn’t broken, hanging in your office anywhere?
  4. How do the old behaviors comfort you? Certain behaviors can act as something of an ‘anxiotic’—an antibiotic against anxiety, or something to mask, hide, or counteract emotions we don’t want to feel.
  5. What is the story you tell yourself will happen without the old behaviors? For example, I personally have wrestled with my weight my entire adult life. One of the key components of that struggle, especially since I stopped drinking 33 years ago, is the role that excess food serves me on nights and weekends. These are times when others might be kicking back and relaxing, or when I’m bored. The story I have carried for much of my life is, if I don’t have a little extra food, I’ll be uncomfortable, bored, anxious, or [insert another uncomfortable emotion here]. I found that a snack, a second helping, or junk food kept me from those feelings…and the other things I could be tempted to do to quell them. I have learned and made a lot of progress with recognizing this story, even as it plays in my mind, which helps me to change my behavior.