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Are humans really afraid of change? Maybe not.

by Natalie Conklin, VP Engineering, Guavus, Inc.

There is no shortage of valuable advice on how to embrace change and increase resiliency — numerous articles and even whole books have been written on the subject. But the underlying assumption seems to be that people are afraid of change. This belief is expressed as a universal truth, just accepted on its face as fact. But are humans really afraid of change? Actually, we’re not.

Consider Kane Tanaka of Japan, currently the oldest living person at 115 years of age. She was born on January 2, 1903. That puts the date of her birth, in fact, closer to the presidency of George Washington (1789-1797) than to today.

Photo of Kane Tanaka

This means that all of the US presidencies, from Washington to Trump, can feasibly fit into two long human lifespans — three comfortably, if they smoke or have any other vices!

We often have a skewed perception of events and history, which masks the tremendous amount of change we’ve seen in such a relatively short period of time. For example, Neil Armstrong, the first man to fly to the moon, was already 17 by the time Orville Wright, the first man to fly an airplane, died. And while Orville did not live long enough to see Armstrong walk on the moon, he did live long enough to see Chuck Yeager become the first pilot to break the sound barrier in a jet.

Photo of Orville Wright and Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, who died just 6 years ago, lived long enough to see the space shuttle flights, the Challenger explosion, the launch of the Hubble telescope, and pictures streaming in from the Pathfinder rover on the surface of Mars. In Armstrong’s life, he saw the birth of Microsoft, Apple, the internet, laptops, cellphones, and iPads. He saw the elation as the Berlin wall fell and the devastation of 9/11. That’s a lot of change for one lifetime!

For a species that supposedly fears change, we certainly generate a lot of it!

In just the last decade alone, we’ve invented smart cars, augmented reality, multi-use rockets, smart watches, virtual assistants, drones, 3D-printed organs, and bionic eyes. And this doesn’t even touch on the myriad of changes in the way we interact with the world. Social media has changed how we meet and how we keep in touch. Amazon 2-hour deliveries and automated grocery stores are changing how we shop. And Uber, Lyft, and Ola apps have changed how we commute. For a species that supposedly fears change, we certainly generate a lot of it!

Even when we consider change on a more personal level, we go through plenty of transition. Many of us leave home to attend a university. Studies show most of us will get married, have children, and change jobs 7–10 times over the course of a typical career. We bound fearlessly into changes like marriage and children, despite their requiring adjustments to practically every facet of daily life. In India where arranged marriages are still common, the bride and groom excitedly start a joint household and family, despite knowing very little about one another. People are well-equipped to handle some pretty dramatic life shifts.

So globally, we easily embrace a whole slew of gadgets and technologies that regularly change what we know and how we live. And personally, we look positively toward major life events that forever alter our connections, our homes, and our routines. People do NOT fear change!

But when it comes to changing careers, changing companies, changing roles, even just changing the way we do our current role, surveys show that most of us do become very resistant to change. This distinction is critically important, however, because if humans just fear all change, all the time, then the problem is too big — it’s not approachable, and it’s not solvable. When we zero in and realize that humans resist changes to their work, to how they earn a living, then this becomes a curiosity into which we can probe further.

The next question we need to ask ourselves is why? Why do we fearlessly and enthusiastically embrace change in our personal lives, yet become fearful, cautious, and stagnant around changes in our professional lives? With this more targeted reflection, we’re more likely to find advice and tactics that will help solve the right problem. In the meantime, lets enjoy the freedom of knowing we do not have some species-wide, incurable fear of change — we’re actually incredibly good at it!

Straight road ahead leading through forest

As originally published in Medium November 3, 2018

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