The cult of change needs to end

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

It seems we’re living through a time where change is considered not only inevitable, but also unequivocally a good thing. Change is the only constant, we’re told. We can either accept this state of affairs smilingly, or be left behind.

However, not all change is the same. And not all of it is desirable. We must disrupt industries, institutions and structures because they’ve ceased to function as they should, not because we just happen to have the tools of disruption at hand.

One consequence of our unquestioned embrace of change is that we now equate innovation with newness. We seem to think that only the new can beget the new, and as a result chase trends that don’t create any long-term value.

However, progress is often a result of using new tools to service old needs. Jeff Bezos understands this well:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.”

Furthermore, our fascination with change is completely at odds with our own individual propensity to resist even the minutest of changes. While it’s easy to wax philosophical about ‘the winds of change’ when speaking of others, it’s extremely hard to bring any worthwhile change in our own lives.

As humans, we have a need for consistency, and a bias for the familiar. The central thesis of American journalist Derek Thompson’s book Hit Machine is that novelty needs to be tempered with familiarity for something to become a success. The average person despises total change, and need even a new thing to to remind them of what they already know.

This preference for the familiar is embodied in what is called the Lindy effect. Popularised by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile, lindy is the idea that the life expectancy of a non-perishable thing like an idea, technology or a piece of art only increases with every additional period it survives. A book that has been print for a hundred years is more likely to survive another hundred years compared to something published last month.

By this logic, if something has endured for a long time, it most probably serves some essential purpose. So we should be extremely careful before we try to tear it down. As G.K. Chesterton wrote :

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

The simple fact is, most change is incremental and comes about as a side effect of larger, environmental factors. That we no longer subscribe to the discriminatory beliefs of the past are more a result of growing education and economic progress than of people deciding to become more compassionate. Forcing change, on the other hand, causes people to dig in further.

The prospect of change can be appealing, because it allows us to feel the power of human agency, of making things happen. Alternatively, doing good by not changing what already works rarely brings internal satisfaction or external glory.

But that is exactly why it takes real courage to resist change. The decision to change things is often a reaction of those who have not accurately understood reality, or simply do not want to make the effort to do so. In contrast, accepting the status quo can sometimes be the wisest thing to do.

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