In my younger days I was always very angry, being constantly frustrated with the state of the world — wars, poverty, irrational political decisions, greed, materialism, etc.
I didn’t understand why things couldn’t be better or why change couldn’t happen faster. Through my own paradoxical journey where I constantly swing between trying to fit into this convoluted world and trying to do what I feel is right, I began to learn what would be one of the biggest lessons I would learn:
That in most scenarios, sustainable change needs to be created slowly, it needs to have a momentum and it needs to happen at the right time.
It is not an easy lesson to learn, and to be really honest, I have trouble applying this lesson in my day to day life right now. Often when we are passionate about certain issues, it is very challenging not to be upset when we see examples of injustice and unfairness everywhere. But we, as human beings are paradoxically complex and yet simple creatures. To understand why sustainable change needs to be slow, we have to look into ourselves and understand the general psyche of human beings.
Predictably irrational to change
We know what is better but we may not like doing better
Let’s put macro-world issues out of the way for now and talk about our day to day decisions. We know that in order to do great work, we need to have sustained mental clarity, which comes from having a strong physical constitution. Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves that our poor diets or lifestyles have nothing to do with our mental faculties, as though our body chemistry and brain chemistry are two separate entities. If we cannot even apply simple obvious choices to ourselves and one of the most important assets in our lives — our health, would we make better choices on a greater scale?
Better is subjective and has context
We like to apply our own definition on what is better to everyone else. I make the same mistake, failing to understand the complexities of everyone’s unique personalities, personal histories and upbringing. If you have been brought up to believe rice and bread are healthy for you, wouldn’t it be difficult to accept that eating bread may be worse than eating a choclate bar?
Perhaps if we apply this line of thought further, we may seek to understand the choices made by people made in other parts of the world may not seem to look so black and white anymore. If everyday from the first moment of comprehension you are told that violence is the only way to survive, would you ever consider peace as an option?
We are only as true as what we have personally experienced
The cliche goes, if you have only seen white swans in your entire life, you may not believe that there could be a black swan. Even science can be flawed, because scientific proof does not cover unproven theories. This poor guy was put under house arrest for the rest of his life because he tried to make people understand that the world was not flat.
Understanding this may give greater clarity to why we prefer to remain in status quo instead of having our entire belief system uprooted. That may also explain why other people are seemingly illogical to us.
We like fitting in and would rather be wrong
Most people have experienced this in their lives, where they would rather keep their opinions to themselves or even champion an argument contrary to their own beliefs because it is just difficult to be the odd one out.
Why change cannot be forced-fed
Whether we want to admit it or not, we are defensive and do not like to be told that we could be wrong, especially when we are comfortable with our belief systems for our entire lives. We are creatures of comfort and habit. How would we react if someone tells us our precious values and virtues could be causing harm? Our entire story-lines have to change, have we all been living a lie?
We are stubborn people with our own cognitive biases and do not react kindly to imposed restrictions on our choices. There is a huge difference between choosing to eat greens and being force-fed greens. Same objective, different processes, with very contrasting reactions and outcomes.
I once read an interview where Obama tries to explain why he didn’t use his executive powers to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
…not only did we get the law passed, but it’s caused almost no controversy. It’s been almost thoroughly embraced, whereas had I just moved ahead with an executive order, there would have been a huge blowback that might have set back the cause for a long time. source
Regardless of whether you agree with him, it was something which deeply resonated with me. I have observed many situations where hasty revolutions caused more setbacks than frustratingly slow evolutions. People need time to understand and embrace new mindsets. If you had gone through a personal transformation before, you would know how challenging it is to recondition ourselves to let go of our deep-rooted antiquated beliefs. We need shining examples of what can be different to seep into our own experiences, it is not realistic for us to understand what can be better by having other people simply telling us because it is so.
How many times have you encountered someone preaching something to you and you’d found yourself automatically shutting-down?
When there is not enough momentum or if the change has been too quick, too radical, the foundations are weak and not sustainable. On a macro level, it is always easy to assume that people can make obvious decisions which would result in better, or what is in our definition of better. But have we carefully considered the implications, repercussions and tradeoffs we have to make? Often when we hit a single domino, we don’t really consider the actual domino effect.
Why sustainable change is slow
If you are a parent, would you want your kid to really understand why he cannot eat that piece of chocolate ten times a day, or simply let him be unhappy because of your instructions? How did you feel when you were a kid yourself, being told something cannot be done, because it is said so?
If you lead an organization, would you prefer your employees to clock their times religiously because it is a hard rule, or that they spend their time in the office because they love their work?
It is easier to impose rules and restrictions in order to see quick results, but to have people believe in something themselves, requires careful deliberate navigation and time.
But here is why it is important to have people form their own change of perceptions and beliefs. We all know our actions take on a very different quality when we do things from our very core and not simply because we are merely told to do so. It gives us the inner desire and strength to accomplish something, not by external forces and pressure.
It creates new roots in us, in our culture, in our societies, in our world.
It spreads slowly and surely, with people embracing the change rather than resisting it or being apathetic to it because of the frame and context.
Successful revolutions can seem like a quantum leap, an over-night success, it may give the impression that great change is quick, but we neglect to see the actual momentum that has slowly laid the foundation to the tipping point of the curve.
It takes strength, patience and empathy to desire a long-lasting impact. This comes with a more expensive cost — the patience to bear with all the frustrations taking place in the current time slice, with the hope that things will not only get better eventually, but also with the faith that your fellow human beings will share the common vision of what can be better.