There are two very powerful psychological motivators that keep us from changing. These two aren’t the only ones, but they are powerful. They are identity and fear. I’m going to explain how I see these two forces working in my own mind to keep me where I am. These two forces hate change. They keep us set in our ways.
I call this The Old Man Syndrome. But I don’t want to be the curmudgeon who has decided how the world is and will never accept new ideas. We’ve all seen it. The proverbial cranky get-off-my-lawn guy. And this tends to happen to a greater degree the older we get.
When we’re young, everything is new. We haven’t learned anything. We don’t have the wisdom of experience, so we’ll try it all. Change is exciting… until it’s not.
At some point a change hurts us, which causes us to create a rule or a wall in our mind. Some of these rules and walls are good. Like the rule, Touching fire is painful. Don’t touch fire.”
But we also limit our ability to explore what is on the other side of the decisions we made in those painful moments. We love and get hurt. Then we create rules like, “Never date a person that could hurt me,” forever painting a portion of humanity with attributes of your ex.
So I propose a new question: ask yourself what might be on the other side of some of the rules you’ve made.
We keep doing this as we age and this paints us into a very narrow scope of existence. Most of us accept the rules we make as reality and become content to exist inside those constraints. That might be a perfectly good and happy place. If it is, congratulations, you’ve found your vein of gold. For others, it might be a terrible place but one you have simply accepted. I am always curious about what other paths are out there and if I am capable of breaking free of my own decisions and rules.
In most cases, once we’ve found that identity we protect it at all costs. It is who we are, so naturally we defend it. Even if there is overwhelming evidence that our decisions or rules are wrong, we cannot be convinced to change our point of view because it is part of our identity. To accept defeat would be to commit a sort of suicide. Acknowledging that part of our identity is wrong after a lifetime of acceptance is very hard, if not impossible for most people.
The Oatmeal has an illustration that so clearly describes this phenomenon, that I see it every time I read any debate online. I am tempted to not engage in most debates simply because I know the participants are in their mental fortresses and have fortified them so well that they will simply not change their mind no matter the evidence. This applies to everyone regardless of the side of a debate. If I could get a single concept across to the entire world, it would be to have the self awareness of your own mental models as defined by your experiences. I wouldn’t ask that anyone change their mind, but only to be aware of them so we can all have the awareness to know when we are just defending our model and rejecting rationality purely as a defense mechanism.
We are bathed in fear of the unknown. It is why we spend so much time trying to predict everything we can. We try to model financial markets, where your car is going, where the other car is going, your kids, your friends, what that new person you just met is going to do or say, and just about everything around you. If you can’t predict it, you don’t know how to deal with it. This is why humans love to categorize everything. We simply have to create at least a vague set of rules that tell us how to behave around everything. We don’t have time to create complex models for everything. It would be overwhelming, so instead we make simple rules which are easy to remember. These simple rules are often the genesis of stereotypes.
Naturally any time we consider a drastic change, fear is going to kick in. We’re breaking a long held rule. Moving, changing careers, asking for a raise, asking someone out on a date, or making an investment are all unpredictable. They are all oozing with fear. Yet each of those changes has the potential to improve our lives dramatically. So we must move through fear to get those rewards.
In our careers, businesses, and personal lives we often find ourselves at plateaus. You’ve been at the same position at work for several years. You do the same amount of business each year with very little change. You’re not dating the people you want to, or your relationship has gone stale and is more mechanical than affectionate. These are all pretty normal. I’ve been through all of the above and am always seeking out ways to elevate my abilities. I try to just let myself suck at new things and be ok with it.
Currently I am struggling with #1 and #2. I have a job where I have been doing the same thing for about three years. There is no growth in it. The money is good, but that almost doesn’t matter. I’m not taking on more responsibility or playing a different game. To play a new game is a challenge to my identity, so I have to step out of it and do something new. I’m going to take on a sales position which is completely different than what I have done most of my career. It frightens me because it is not part of my identity.
Identity Drives Performance
I’m doing this because sales is the one area in a business where you can scale your income with your effort. No matter how well you do as a salaried employee, your income is essentially fixed. You may be able to score a bonus or a raise, but you will not fundamentally change your own financial results no matter how well you perform. In sales, you can potentially scale your income based on your effectiveness. It’s performance based. The more results I can create, the more rewards I will reap.
Even sales people identify themselves at a certain level of production. Once they hit their personal goals, they tend to slack off. When they aren’t hitting them, they miraculously pick up the hustle to make the money they need to pay the bills. It’s their identity that drives their behavior and results. So I need to create one that will serve me.
They’re going to reject you
As a tech guy for the last 20 years, going into sales is a big shock. My entire network sees me as a technical programmer or product manager for software. To take on something so different is going to put me in the cross hairs of my friends expectations. I imagine them saying to themselves, why would someone who has been doing something for 20 years and become such an expert at it, throw it all away and become a salesman? This is purely my own irrational fear, but it is a real one. Regardless of the platitudes, we all care what others think, especially our close friends.
Failure means you’re trying
I am opening myself to failure in a big way. However I do have some emotional armor for this decision. I have made drastic attempts at completely new things before and failed at them. No one stopped being my friend for it. In fact, most were impressed that I tried something so radical as to develop a wind farm. I’ve also tried new ventures before and succeeded. So I know it’s possible.
At the end of the day I want to see if I can do it. This will require me to jump out of the identity I have created for myself over the past 43 years and face those fears all over again. It is a requirement to reach new levels of performance in our lives. Each time we aspire to a new level of performance, we have to play a different game that is outside of our ability. I will do my best to succeed, but I am ok with the potential of failure, so I can move forward. Once you are mentally ready for the worst case, you are free to act.