"Change is the only constant in life." - Heraclitus
Many of us feel stuck at some time in our career. We've worked hard to get where we are, but now we can't see the road ahead. We've lost our sense of direction. We might be looking around and asking, "is this it? Is this all there is?"
Perhaps things have changed and the job, the organisation, the industry that we work in isn't what we at first signed up for. We live in a fast-moving world where it's hard to keep up with the pace of technological change; jobs that were once secure are no longer so, for a whole host of reasons.
One way or another, something has to change.
It's been my experience that if I don't embrace change, get in the driving seat and become an agent of change, then change will be forced upon me. I have a choice: I can be intimidated by that and try to pretend it's not really happening, in which case I will get pushed and pulled this way and that and become a helpless victim, or I can take responsibility for my own destiny and steer my own course into, through, and beyond the change.
Change can be scary for several psychological, emotional and practical reasons.
Change often brings a level of uncertainty and the unknown. Expect the unexpected! Humans are creatures of habit and we feel more comfortable when we can predict outcomes and understand our environment. Change forces us to confront the unfamiliar, which often triggers feelings of anxiety and fear.
When things change we can feel as though we're losing control over our lives. Our routines and familiar patterns are disrupted, leading to a sense of vulnerability and unease. It's like the rug is being pulled out from beneath our feet and we feel powerless to do anything about it.
The unknown can be intimidating. Our minds tend to fill gaps in knowledge with worst-case scenarios, making the future appear scarier than it might actually be. We forget that most of what we worry about will probably never happen, and that of the things that might happen it's only a small minority that actually do occur. Even then, the impact is usually less than our fear initially made it out to be.
We naturally gravitate toward our comfort zones because they provide a sense of security and familiarity. Change often requires stepping out of this comfort zone, which can be uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. We become attached to what we're familiar with, whether it's a job, a routine or a relationship. Change can mean letting go of these familiar elements, leading to a sense of loss and sadness. It's interesting to note that although we may feel secure in the familiarity of our comfort zone, it doesn't necessarily follow that we're happy there. Sometimes we say, "better the devil you know than the one you don't," and we stay put even though the situation isn't serving us particularly well.
Change often involves taking risks. There's a fear of failure and of making mistakes, especially if the change is significant, like switching careers or moving to a new place. The flip side of that is that if we're not prepared to take a risk then we'll remain stuck where we are, at least until change is forced upon us. Willingness to take a risk must be balanced against going too far and becoming reckless. We must observe the situation, assess it rationally, and make an informed decision before we act.
People fear how others might perceive them during times of change. Whether it's the fear of being judged, ridiculed or misunderstood, the opinions of others can contribute to the fear of making changes. Too many people allow their lives to be dominated by FOPO - Fear of Other People's Opinions. We must remember that what other people think of us is none of our business; they can think what they like, judge us as they like, and we have no need to be influenced by their opinions.
Change can create a conflict between our existing beliefs and the new information or situation. This cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable and lead to resistance against change. We like certainty; we love to believe that what we know is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so that when our belief is challenged we're pre-disposed to resist. As an example, consider the resistance Copernicus experienced when he introduced the concept of a heliocentric universe: "The Earth goes around the Sun?! Preposterous!"
Change often brings about a range of emotions, including anxiety, stress and sadness. Dealing with these intense emotions can be overwhelming and contribute to the fear of change. That is another reason why a little emotional intelligence goes a long way.
Our identities are often tied to our roles, jobs and relationships. Change might challenge these identities, leading to a sense of insecurity about who we are becoming. This is particularly an issue when the role we currently occupy is either coming to an end, as when we reach retirement, or is to change so radically as to be almost unrecognisable. It's also particularly difficult if the role has had some title, and thereby some social status, associated with it. If I'm no longer Professor this or Doctor that or Colonel the other, who am I? Sure, I can become "Professor Emeritus" but really, who am I fooling?
Change requires effort — whether it's learning new skills, adapting to a new environment or building new relationships. The perceived effort can feel daunting and discourage us from embracing change, particularly if we've been free-wheeling in a less than challenging role. But if the role we're in isn't challenging us, one might observe that a robust kick up the backside, administered by a good old-fashioned bout of change, could only be a good thing!
While change can be scary, it's also a natural and inevitable part of life. Many positive outcomes can result from embracing change, including personal growth, new opportunities and increased resilience. Building a mindset that focuses on adaptability, learning and open-mindedness can help mitigate the fear of change and make the transition smoother. Additionally, seeking support from friends, family or a professional Coach or Mentor can provide a valuable network to help navigate the challenges of change.
Personally, I have in my lifetime changed my career seven times, moved to live in a different country three times, and have lost count of the number of different roles I've had. Whilst I value loyalty and have done my best to give it to the organisations for which I've worked, I've never lost sight of the truism that an organisation must always do whatever it sees as being in its own best interests, regardless of whether that brings benefit or harm to any of its employees. Therefore I have always taken the same approach: I've worked hard and done my best for my employer, but I've always had an eye open both for opportunities and for threats, and I have never failed to act when it was in my best interest to do so.
My guiding principle has always been to have a sense of who I am and what that means in terms of how I want to show up in the world and what I want to be, to do, and to have in my life. I would not say that in my earlier life I had any concept of a great vision for where I wanted my life to take me, but I always had a sense of direction that led me towards things that helped me to learn, to grow both personally and professionally, and to achieve a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment in my life.
I've embraced change primarily because I chose to. Certainly, change has been forced upon me more than once but I can say honestly that I've never been taken by surprise by a change that came "out of the blue." Philosophical arguments about death and taxes aside, I've always understood that Heraclitus was right and that there's never a question of whether change will occur. The only question is when.
In my life, change has happened for many reasons. The list includes:
Technological change led to the end of the role in which I was employed.
I spotted an opportunity to move in a new direction and take on a new challenge.
The culture of the organisation in which I worked became toxic.
I was offered a promotion.
I reached a "certain age" and decided to retire and pursue new interests.
There are probably more, but that will do for now. Those are work and career-related, but change affects our private lives, too:
I got married.
I had children.
I moved to a new country, wife and children in tow.
I got divorced.
I married again.
And so on.
Whenever I spotted a change coming that would result in an outcome that wasn't so good for me, I never once ran away. Nor did I fight the change; trying to stop change from occurring is exactly what King Canute tried to do when he famously ordered the tide not to come in. It's futile. When neither fight nor flight are options, what does one do?
What I did was to observe the situation and carefully assess what was occurring. Frequently, I saw opportunities that the change would bring to anyone astute enough and willing enough to take a risk to exploit them. Other times I saw that moving on, out of the organisation and into something new, was the only acceptable solution and so I took stock of what other opportunities either existed or could be manufactured. I never jumped ship until I had a plan: "look before you leap," as my grandmother often admonished me, and I never sat around waiting for the change to roll over me.
This strategy has served me well. Distilling it down to a few important points, it becomes:
Never run away. If you must run, run towards.
Look for the opportunities. There are almost always more opportunities than threats arising from change, for those astute enough and courageous enough to exploit them.
Know thyself. Understanding yourself leads you to knowing what you want - and what you need - to be, to have and to do in your life. This gives you an unerring sense of direction whenever you need to change course.
Get in the driving seat of your life and stay there. This is your life, no one else's, and it's up to you to make the best of it.
Never freewheel. Staying still, unchallenged, in one place, is stultifying no matter how good the pay may be.
Don't be afraid to take a risk. Just be sure it's a prudent risk. There is no excuse for recklessness.
Never make the mistake of locking yourself in to a particular objective. Things change. You change. Be prepared to change direction.
No matter how good your situation seems to be, always have one eye open for new opportunities. You never know when something even better might come along. Always ask, "what's new? What's better? What's next?"
But, do not get drawn into chasing the "next shiny thing." Don't jump until you've assessed the opportunity and confirmed that it takes you in a direction in which you want to go.
Don't be afraid to poke the bear. Challenge the status quo. Provoke, initiate, enable and welcome change. Be a leader, dammit!
Have patience! Rome wasn't built in a day.
Relax. Don't worry. Be happy. Seriously!
When change is in the air we're often exhorted to "get on the bus." In other words, get with the action, join in with everyone else and help make it so, number one. That's good, but I maintain that it would be better to be driving the bus rather than be a passenger. Wouldn't you agree?