Challenges and Changes
February 9th, 2011

Do we need change even when we don’t want it?  If we avoid change now do we pay for it later?  How big does the potential payoff have to be before we will abandon a known quantity for the promise of something better?

I got to thinking about change and its repercussions yesterday in response to Aidan’s post.  Aidan wrote about being stuck; about how we all reach moments in our lives when we feel as though we are spinning our wheels to no avail; about the scarcity of change in the moments we seem to need it most.  Her post wasn’t about change exclusively, but that was the direction I went with the comment I left on her site.  By the time I finished typing my lengthy response I realized that perhaps this topic was worth exploring further on my own turf.

I wrote:

As children, teens, and young adults life provides us with near constant changes and opportunities for growth and evolution. We learn to walk and talk. We learn to ride a bike and play sports. We learn to write in cursive and to multiply. We learn to drive and to think critically. We vote. We go to college. We graduate. We get jobs. We get married. We have kids.

Then, for many of us, we get to our mid-thirties and realize that nothing big has changed in a while. Career is plugging along. Kids are plugging along. We look around and things are much the same as they were five years ago. And we think, “I’m stuck.”

The fact of the matter (I think, anyway) is not that we are stuck, but that we have arrived in a place where life is not doling out big changes all the time. It is now incumbant upon us to make those changes for ourselves. On one hand, this can be very empowering because we are in more control of the changes we experience. On the other hand, it is very easy to stick with the safety of what we know, continue to spin our wheels, and then deal with the frustration of a life that, in rare moments of real truth, perhaps doesn’t live up to its potential.

All change is stressful.  Obviously, bad change is stressful.  But good change is too.  I’m not quoting specific studies, but any good psychologist will tell you this is true.  Given this, I wonder if we are all hardwired with some base level of disinclination toward change.  This doesn’t necessarily ring true to me – that we are all change averse – because I’ve known people who always seem to be looking for change.  But I’ve never met a teenager or a 20-something with these same complaints; that life has stagnated, or that they feel stuck.  It strikes me as a problem unique to adults.

When we are young change is foisted upon us all the time.  And, for the most part, we embrace it.  The responsibility of a drivers license is welcomed because of the freedom it brings.  We may experience nerves and jitters before moving into our freshman dorm, but I think for most of us those nerves are outweighed by the excitement of a new place, new people, and new experiences.  The same holds true for marriage and the happy eagerness we feel awaiting the arrival of a first child.

So why, once life’s big changes have come and gone, do we settle into adulthood without stirring the proverbial pot every so often?  Aidan’s post indicates to me that this wheels-spinning frustration is something that many adults experience.  Why don’t we just make changes then?  If we are able to embrace change when it is barreling toward us regardless of how we might dodge or cower, why can’t we do the same when it is our choice?

I think the easy answer is that by the time we are older, settled into careers, with spouses and children depending on us, the aftershocks of our decisions reach much further.  We have to consider how big changes will affect our families.  But I also think it is easy to lean too heavily on that rationale, transforming it from a consideration into an excuse.

I wrestle with this conundrum too.  I get itchy and twitchy and feel a need to shake things up.  It’s hard.  Sometimes I chicken out.  But in none of the instances when I’ve been brave and made a change that was hard or intimidating, have I ever regretted it.  I need to bear this in mind the next time I want to let change pass me by.

8 Responses to “Challenges and Changes”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Gale – Thank you very much for your exceedingly thoughtful and nuanced comment on my post yesterday and for continuing the conversation here today. You raise so many good points, particularly the one about how change is foisted upon us when we are younger and that we have no real choice but to continually evolve. I guess the question remains: How do we continue to contemplate and embrace change within the confines of our adult lives without feeling like we are risking in some important the very stability and safety we have always longed for? I don’t pretend to know.

  2. Gale Says:

    Aidan – You’re quite welcome. And thank you for the inspiration. I response to your question, I think Gretchen Rubin did a good job of exploring this question of changing ourselves within the confines of our existing lives. The book I’m reading now (The Not So Big Life) does also. Of course changing careers, moving abroad, and other sweeping changes may fill our need to get unstuck. But I suspect that for most people it will be more challenging but also ultimately more rewarding to make the needed changes within our adult lives.

  3. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Change? I think I’m going to run upstairs, climb back in bed, and cower under the covers. Change scares the bejeezus out of me.

  4. Gale Says:

    Kitch – You’re not alone. I think it scares most of us and it’s never easy. But sometimes “hard” and “good” aren’t mutually exclusive. Figuring out when to take the leap and when to stay put is a huge challenge.

  5. Anne Says:

    I think Aidan hits on something important. change doesn’t have to be huge and sweeping to make a difference. i say that, even on the cusp of big sweeping changes that feel both daunting and exciting. the kicker in your post, which I love, is that change is under our control. It doesn’t happen TO us. Sometimes it’s hard to embrace that, but I find when I DO make a decision and follow through with it that results in change? I feel pretty empowered.

  6. Gale Says:

    Anne – Yes and yes! I mentioned in my response to Aidan that I thought Gretchen Rubin (in “The Happiness Project”) did a great job of this. Making big changes without making “big changes.” All of her small changes added up to something big, and without dropping everything for an “Eat Pray Love” style identity crisis. As for the control piece, you are right. We can control it. However, as I think about it more, I wonder if that’s part of the problem. All of the changes we experience earlier in life happen to us. Does that make us comfortable being the recipients of change, but not the initiators of it?

  7. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Very thoughtful post. This must be the week for thinking about change! (I had my run at it on Monday, from a different angle.)

    Two thoughts come to mind. The first is – the sorts of routine that we get used to in our 30s is part of what drives some people to their “midlife crisis” in the 40s. I am a fan of change of all sorts – “tweaking” – so we keep learning and don’t get bored with ourselves or our lives. (It tends to make the midlife crisis a little less likely.)

    The other thought that comes to mind is that in our 30s with all the responsibilities and fatigue of jobs and families, we (understandably) lose some of our spontaneity and ability to recover from change that goes wrong. So we stay the course, don’t rock the boat, etc. etc. etc.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s understandable – and you add in health issues that may kick in – and change is the last thing you seek.

    But the cool thing is – even if we have a lull for a decade or longer, the nature of the changes we may undertake older might be less spectacular, but they in fact be more meaningful. It’s never too late to change – for the better.

  8. Cathy Says:

    If I stop to consider major milestones in a person’s life, they are numerous until the first kid arrives. Becoming a teenager, driver’s license, graduating high school and then going to college, marriage and then kids. But, at that point, what is left for major milestones – retirement?

    I think you are on to something when you said, “the aftershocks of our decisions reach much further”. I contemplated going to law school but factoring in two small children and a lean income made that change seem impossible. I get itchy though. I long for change. My changes have come in terms of growing my career, my ever changing career. I wanted to pack up the family and move overseas. It almost worked out. Next time.