I Change — The New Book of Changes, Part I

“Do not turn and run, for there is nowhere worthwhile for you to go. Do not attempt to push ahead into the danger… emulate the example of the water: Pause and build up your strength until the obstacle no longer represents a blockage.”

― Thomas F. Cleary, I Ching (Book of Changes)
There is no beginning to this, no start points (other than a starting awareness, perhaps). And no labels either, like teleological or evolutionary. When one decides to create change or toy with it, or when one becomes aware that change might be necessary, those old categories and constraints don’t fall away so much as bleed together like colors in the laundry. And if there is no beginning, then must we not agree that change is constant? When we endeavor to create it, then, we do so against a backdrop of existing change. Change is the way of things, an infinite regression — turtles, all the way down.

Consider that when we say, “One Mississippi …” (or “one Piccadilly” or “one one-thousand”) — in that split second anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 cells in our body perish and are replaced by new ones. Exact replicas, or are they? You’re not the same person you were a second ago, much less when you started reading this article 60 seconds ago. (My, how you’ve changed.) We experience ourselves as unchanged, continuous. But all it takes is a look in the mirror, or in the photo album, to remind us that continuity is an illusion.

But the change we feel in our bones and in our guts, be it a change in the weather or a change in our status, is not so constant. It’s rather episodic, sometimes cyclical, sometimes rhyming with fits and starts.

Putting perception aside for a moment, change is more like a trajectory or a thread being stretched. Change is not the fabric of space-time so much as a tendril running through it, coming around on itself like a spiral orbit. But not an orbit that returns us day after day, year after year, to the same eternal point in the heavens. The earth revolves around the sun but does not return in a year’s time to the same place it once occupied. The sun is on the move, too. The whole solar system is — we forget that. Everything is spiraling, moving. So is change; it’s on the move. And it will happen regardless, if only because the future so desperately wants to emerge. Change isn’t coming so much as it is becoming. And there are so many tendrils: you, me, everything.

This seems clear: In returning home after many years on the road, it’s not only we who’ve changed but so has our home. It, too, was on the move. As such, change is spatial, temporal, variable. It can be both a point in time and a period of time. Change is quantum.

That’s the weirdness of change, like playing with electrons. One second it is in your hand, and the next it is smearing through it. If change obeys a set of laws, we haven’t yet uncovered all of them. But we don’t necessarily have to define every nuance of change to play with it. When it comes to creating change, we have some choices, albeit a modest palette of actions. We can step aside and let change (and the future) come to pass, unbidden and unchecked. In this case, we are not so much resigned to passivity, though that is possible and perhaps favored by some. But we are not such a species; rather, we are like a boxer, slipping change’s jab or rolling with its punches, and sometimes, getting rolled by them. On dark days, change is the overhand right we never saw coming.

We can also lean in gently and push against the arrow of change and, if the surrounding skids have been greased (because people have been encouraged to participate in the change), nudge the change trajectory toward a different, more inviting destination. Like an aikido master, we can effortlessly redirect the trajectory’s aim by tapping on it here and there ever so slightly. Little inputs can have massive effects. Go easy.

More often than not, though, change is not so easy — even when the skids have been greased — and we must put our shoulders and backs against the trajectory’s ingrained path, grit our teeth, and heave. But beware, because trajectories often have minds of their own and seek a return to the old paths and the old ways. All systems seek to return to their lowest energy state, humans included. To change the path and sustain the course thereafter takes energy — in the form of care — applied over time, sometimes a long time.

Lastly, and similarly, we can put our shoulders and backs against the very same path, only this time dig our heels in and absolutely refuse to let that trajectory’s path change even one iota. Inertia is on our side here: While onerous at times, it’s still easier to keep a thing from moving than it is to get it moving. It’s easier to stay the course than it is to change it.

These options are, of course, not mutually exclusive, not really. What barriers that exist between the choices for change, positive or otherwise, are often those that we conjure and create. We like to categorize, we humans. Yet, we can be all these things at once, pushing here, pulling there, bobbing and weaving as required. And when our change efforts are fruitful and the new path is a good one, or when we get lucky and get it right, we tend to say, “I did that (or we did that). I changed that.” But when we get it wrong, we tend to say, “There’s nothing I could have done. It wasn’t my fault. The situation conspired against me. Who would have thought …”

Biases both amplify and diminish our desire for change, as well as our efficacy — our ability to bring it about. The forces for and against change are often one and the same, the gas pedal is the brake pedal, and only the context in which they are applied is different. One day we are an agent of change; the very next we are an agent of the status quo. You’ll get used to the paradoxes after a while.

And when we are heaving and hauling against that trajectory’s path and trying to redirect it, which choice of modestly bright futures and workable solutions is the right choice, which path is the correct one? “There are many roads to Rome,” we say. Better to answer that with more questions: What is our purpose? Or we might ask ourselves, “If we could be any shape, what shape would we like to be? A cube? A sphere? And what shape is our environment? Do we match up?” So much of the microscopic world, like the proteins that comprise us — so much of that world relies on shape for its function. Shape is function and vice versa. Should we not emulate that world and aim for a better fit with our environment? Becoming fit — getting into shape — has new meaning in the world of change.

We might also ask, what matters to us right now? And if we can name it — that which matters most — can we then concentrate on it? The change required might not be external (to our teams, our companies, our communities, our families, and ourselves) but internal. Like a samurai sword, the paragon of annealing, are our atoms — our people and teams and subcultures — are they all aligned and focused, even if only for a time? When it comes to focusing on what matters most, the distractions are legion. Breathe them away.

Or, we might consider what variations in our story, personal, cultural, tribal, or otherwise, do we wish to select and retain, and which do we wish to cut away? Who are we; who do we want to be? And are our narratives pretty things we hang on the wall — core values and what not? Maybe our values make for a nice catchy acronym: Sincerity, Humility, Integrity, Temperance. Sounds nice, but it’s all SHIT. Or perhaps our narratives aren’t merely a script to be read but one to be acted out: All things are known by their behaviors. How are we known — by what behaviors?

Examine your world calmly. Build up your strength. And answers will emerge. But they won’t be elegant. Mostly we muddle through change, but we can still muddle well.

Put that on your t-shirt: Muddle excellently.

Here, read the I Ching, I say. Now you have some understanding of change, if only because you see that the universe is a set, perhaps an infinite set, of patterns — patterns that we can divine from time to time. But never perfectly, never fully. Now you understand change, if only because you have more questions than before reading the ancient text. If only because you’re more confused and uncertain. If only because you understand that change is difficult. It’s hard, and our resistance to it is hardwired.

Smile at it, this resistance. Give it a curt nod and wink at it. But don’t do as some do in the face of change and uncertainty and curl into a rigid ball, accepting no new information unless it conforms to the shape of the old ways, the comfortable ways, the mediocre ways. Instead, breathe, expand, and look straight into your resistance. Is there something you fear in there, some loss perhaps, like status? That’s ok; we all dread it. But courage emerges in spite of fear, even because of it.

On the way to acting courageously, you can perhaps shed the linear — the mindset and the causal models. Shake off the westerner in you — in all of us. I shake my head when I read the change books. For some, change progresses from step to step, neat and tidy-like, in six or eight or ten distinct leaps. We were once atoms, then cells, then tissues, then organs, then systems. That makes me chuckle — we were indeed, but we were, and are, all of those at once. And even if we progressed, it was not in a linear fashion but in a complex one. With each new turn, we found ourselves more interconnected and more interdependent, more diverse and more entangled. “More is different,” we say.

When creating change, concentrate on relationships, not steps. When changing our habits, for instance, we need not return to the atom and start over, progressing linearly. Instead, imagine what it might be like to co-evolve, to start everywhere at once, to expand outward and inward. Generate solutions and test them, explore, get creative. And get help. Linking arms with tough-minded, gritty accomplices is cool. It’s also necessary.

Start your expansion here, perhaps: Practice what you wish to become. Start small; try to embrace the courage to say no (it’s harder than you might think). And for those around you on the practice field, those who are willing to fumble and get back up, reward them mightily, and do so with nothing more than attention — a hug, a slap on the back, or an arm-pumping handshake. They are as free, these rewards, as they are invaluable. Do that, and you’ll see more of those sought-after behaviors (and more people willing to practice, perhaps). But be careful; ignore the wrong behaviors — in yourself, your boss, your peers, your kids — and you’ll see more of them as well. So, don’t ignore the poor behaviors, but do but spend your time resourcing the good ones (and the people who practice them, naturally). To the “practicers” go the spoils. Play with resources like autonomy and choice; lend trust as you would a hand. Let mastery emerge. And tell some stories.

Maybe you can tell the one about that person on your team who took a risk and spoke up. Perhaps they called attention to something uncomfortable but something that needed to be said. Or maybe you tell that story about the person who always seems to listen so intently, like what others are saying is just the most important thing they’ve ever heard — because it is. Maybe you tell the story about how so-and-so responds, never jumps to conclusions, never reacts, never interprets another’s behavior without first trying to understand the other’s intent. Maybe you tell a cool story about that person on the team who shares information just as readily as they share their experiences — the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, the home runs and the strikeouts. Ooh, maybe you tell a story about someone who doesn’t just talk SHIT but actually acts it out every single day (Sincerity, Humility, Integrity, Temperance — in case you forgot). Maybe you tell a story about someone on the team who consistently asks for feedback, who waives away the praise and says, “Give me something I could have done better, something real to try out.” Simple rules might be hip these days, but feedback is still where the magic happens.

These are really just stories about people who create relationships that hold the world together. No biggie. They are also stories about people who can change that world. Ask them to lend you their backs and shoulders.

I’m assuming you can tell these stories, right?