The prestige of change in the modern world
“It is only very recently – on the scale of human history – that change has been the focus of much enthusiasm.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans often took the view that the whole world was in decline, each generation of people successively worse than those who had come before. A golden age of harmony and justice had, they felt, existed in the past. So change was negative: a step bringing chaos and ruin closer.
And for centuries tradition was the key to life. The aim was to keep on doing things just as they had always been done. Stability and security were the ideals. News spread slowly, technology hardly evolved, few people travelled, trades were handed down from generation to generation.
But today most people regard profound, widespread and frequent change as inescapable. Change is now strongly associated with progress. A dominant picture has evolved of what the properly modern person is supposed to be like: someone who not only accepts change but who seeks it out, embraces it, drives it.
When Steve Jobs wanted to convince John Scully, president of PepsiCo, to become CEO of the (then) much smaller Apple – he is reported as asking:
“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
The word ‘change’, in that famous phrase, has a powerful resonance. To change the world, Jobs seemed to be implying, is the most important, most admirable and most worthwhile thing a person can do with their life. And yet, the logical question – why is this change meant to be so important – does not get much of a look-in.
There’s a hidden, and highly questionable assumption at work. Namely that this kind of change is genuinely beneficial. That it is better, not merely different. We invest more in the word ‘change’ as we lose confidence in the word ‘good’. People get uncomfortable asking why a certain change is meant to be good. So collectively we end up pretending that change itself is the key thing. So Jobs didn’t ask Scully: ‘Do you want to come with me and change the world for the better?’ If he had, it would have sounded quaint and uncool. And yet, if we don’t actually think that a change is better, is good, is deeply worthwhile, then why get excited about it?
We live in a culture that is always encouraging us to change. The fashion industry, for instance, thrives on rapid shifts of preferences. It has to persuade us that what was great last year isn’t much good this year. A car manufacturer wants to get us to change to their latest model. A new restaurant hopes to get us to alter our dining habits. There are many forces at play, encouraging us to feel that change is good and exciting. Not because this is always a major truth but because their business model requires it.
Change may be inevitable. But our relationship to change can be better or worse. We can use change well or we can be baffled and distressed by change.
We can grow or diminish. This essay explores the four key problems that can occur around change – and what we can do about them.
When we expect too much of change
In science and technology, progress can be immensely impressive. The prototype helicopter built by Paul Cornu in 1907 was a hugely gallant contraption of plywood, string and bicycle wheels. But it is much worse at vertical take-off and hovering than the latest Sikorsky Mercedes Benz. There’s no dispute. The direction of change is clear and the sense of progress is obvious. Medicine provides endless instances of the same kind. The compelling nature of such examples can seduce us into supposing that change in general brings marvellous benefits. They encourage an excess of optimism. We extend the hopefulness which is entirely justified in specific areas like rotor blades and antibiotics and extended it to other
areas where its relevance and legitimacy are, in fact, far less secure.
“Such as politics. Think of the people who climbed onto the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The popular uprising had succeeded.”
It was clear that the East German state was collapsing. The mood was buoyant. Their troubles were over. Now they were free. There were huge, euphoric celebrations.
It may well be argued that life is indeed better now in the East than it was in the past, under Communism. But it is far from perfect. Competition has led to unemployment. For many people, life is less secure. Today almost half the population say that the old East Germany was more good than bad.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous, profound change. Yet at the time many people overestimated the benefits it would bring. It is an historic instance of a more general truth.
“That we tend to expect too much of change. We believe it will deliver more than it really does.”
Changes which look as if they must be wholly positive, turn out to have unforeseen drawbacks. This may be a natural bias of the mind. In order to summon the will to action, to rouse ourselves and our society from inertia, it may be that we have to tactically overestimate the advantages that will accrue.
At a personal level, something similar happens when people imagine that making a big change in their lives will solve a lot of problems and make them a lot happier.
The hugely successful Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, recently recounted how he had been working extremely hard for a long stretch, and eventually it started to get him down. He longed to stop. He thought eagerly of retiring. It would be bliss, he imagined. The stress would disappear. No more punishing deadlines, no more back to back promotional trips, no more hectic filming schedules. He already had plenty of money. So, he decided to quit his big career.
The first day – he says – he woke with an immense feeling of relief. He could do whatever he wanted. He lingered in bed. He had a leisurely – and very delicious – breakfast. He went for a walk. He had a little lie down. He thought about lunch. And very soon he realised he was bored. The second day, he could scarcely get out of bed in the morning. And on the third day he was scrambling to reconnect himself with the world of work.
And the same kind of thing might happen around divorce, a marriage, moving countries, inheriting a fortune, changing one’s family lawyers, shifting the children’s schools. It’s not to say that these never bring the results we hope. Sometimes they do. It’s just that we very often forget that there will be new problems – as well as some real gains.
The new house will never be everything we can imagine the perfect house being; the new spouse will still be maddening in some ways; the new school will be wrong for the children in new ways; the new lawyers will still be pedantic about law.
“The antidote is history. That is, the encounter with how hope played out in the past.”
Political history is one place we can study this. In 1997, and again in 2008, newspapers around the world were filled with excitement at the election of Tony Blair and Barack Obama. In each case, it was confidently declared, the tide of the UK or the US was turning, great things would soon be happening. Change was in the air. But a respectful and fair analysis of what happened next is sobering. The results were very mixed – as these men would be the first to admit. There were as many failures as successes. Rather than condemn them, we should draw a lesson from the experience of these leaders. Things rarely work out as well as enthusiasts think they will.
We need to generalise this historical wisdom. It applies not only to presidents and prime ministers but to the lesser – and to us hugely important – changes we make in the running of our own lives.
The lesson of the Berlin Wall is not that change has no benefits. It is, rather, that if we expect too much we end up not appreciating the less dramatic, but actually real, advantages. It’s a question of sensitivity to scale. The intense celebratory atmosphere of late 1989 implied the dawn of a golden age, the radical improvement of everything. By the standard of such expectations, subsequent history is a terrible letdown. If you are expecting fireworks, a lone sparkler is disappointing. A more mature theory of change builds in the idea that quite a lot will – obviously – turn out badly. The benefits will be low-key, but actual. You have to adjust to a more modest scale to appreciate them.
When we underestimate the power of change
For many generations, people in the ancient city of Pompeii lived a prosperous life. The soil was good, the climate was kindly. They built gracious houses. They planted vineyards on the slopes of nearby Mount Vesuvius.
But all the while, the pressure of the magma inside the mountain was building up beneath the crater. No-one realised; they thought all was well. They tended their orchards, gave dinner parties, struggled for status, bought works of art and all the time a cataclysmic change was coming. They just didn’t know how to tell. Occasionally the mountain would rumble, and from time to time a plume of smoke would rise from the cave on the upper slopes. But this had been happening as long as anyone could remember.
And then, on the 24th of August – in the year AD 79 – came the fatal moment. The volcano erupted; the city was buried under metres of ash. And all trace of their once bustling lives was lost.
The story of Pompeii gave rise to a view of change: Vulcanism – named after Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes.
“The story of Pompeii is so moving because we can identify with the victims.”
Like them we go about our ordinary business on the natural assumption that whatever feels secure and solid today will be solid and secure tomorrow. Then a huge change comes along. And because we have not anticipated it we are badly caught out.
In 2007/8 UK financial institutions that had been household names and high-street staples for decades – RBS, Lloyds TSB, Bradford and Bingley – were revealed to be deeply compromised. Only massive government intervention could keep them afloat. The major stock market index dropped dramatically.
When Thomas Edison showed off the first light bulb, it hardly looked like the world was about to change. It was a bizarre looking contraption, utterly unlike anything people would want in their homes. Potential backers were deeply sceptical. But when the great banker Mr. J. P. Morgan saw it he grasped its possibilities. It looked ridiculous, but only in
“Morgan saw past what was odd and off-putting and recognised that the light bulb was actually a very normal idea in a strange guise.”
Morgan wasn’t getting carried away simply because something was new. In fact, in his eyes, the electric light bulb was hardly novel at all. It was simply a more elegant response to a completely classic problem: how to keep on doing things when it’s dark outside. It was in fact the basic similarity to gas lighting and even candles that struck Morgan. Where other people saw a strange new thing, he saw something basically very familiar. He was good at pattern recognition. He had the confidence, and wisdom, to see continuity when other people thought only in terms of disruption. He’d seen it before, with railroads and steel – he’d understood that these were simply new approaches to age-old problems. He established and held a major share in General Electric – one of the most successful corporations in the history of US business enterprise.
Morgan had learned to read the early signs of volcanic eruption. A wisp of smoke from a crater might have been shrugged off by many people – such things are always happening, so what, life goes on just as before, it never leads to anything. But Morgan had – as it were – studied other exploding mountains. He’d been around the railway and steel eruptions. So when the people involved in the gas lighting industry ended up buried under piles of ash, Morgan not only escaped, but was thriving.
“When we underestimate opportunities and fail to see the potential for radical change, we deserve a good deal of sympathy.”
It is usually wiser to stick with what already works. The people who turned down Edison’s proposals were not stupid to do so. (Just as the many editors who rejected the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by a then totally obscure Scottish woman called J. K. Rowling, were not bad editors.) Because there are few reliable signs of momentous futures of a manuscript, an invention or – indeed – of a volcanic eruption.
When people first invoked the idea of a volcano they were in search of a metaphor of random, capricious, mysterious change on a great scale. Why should the earth suddenly explode? They really did not know.
But the core error is this. It is believing that what is familiar will not change. You get used to gas lamps, so you find it hard to believe that in the space of a few years they could largely disappear. You get used to a particular kind of book doing well and find it hard to imagine something very, very different being a huge hit. You get used to your orchards being on the slopes of the hill.
The error has long fascinated philosophers. The best statement was provided by Bertrand Russell. He imagines a turkey which is used to being fed by the farmer. It hears the tread of the farmer’s boots and feels sure that – of course – it is about to be fed, as always. Then it’s the week before Christmas … . The problem was that the turkey wasn’t a thinker, it relied too much on habit. True, when the farmer came round it was indeed to bring food, until the last day. A philosophical turkey would have wondered why the farmer was doing this. And speculated on the reasons, so far unknown. The presence of a major unknown factor (‘Why on earth does the farmer feed me …?’) would have haunted the imagination of the turkey.
The response to complacency is not so much being continually on edge as the attempt to think more deeply.
Mr. J. P. Morgan was unusually adventurous and alive to the potential for change because he was good at asking the underlying, philosophical questions. He was not fixated on what they happened to be doing – lighting their streets and houses using gas. It was natural to him to wonder why people wanted gas lamps in the first place. And the answer – get light – applied even more directly to the electric bulb than to gas. Hence his accurate prediction that change in this area would be quick and massive.
It’s maddening – but true – that we can underestimate the consequences of change and also overestimate them. We are prone to two kinds of error, which are opposite in character. We think change will solve everything. Then again we shrug it off and think that nothing really changes. It would be so much simpler if human nature had only one way of getting it wrong around change.
When change is frightening
Despite the prestige of change, in reality we are often deeply disturbed by change. It’s not surprising. We learn how to cope – and thrive – in a given order of things. You know how the system works; you feel you have come to understand what works and what doesn’t. Then a big change comes along and your hard-won knowledge no longer seems to work. The rules have changed. You built up good relationships with people, but they no longer run the show. Strategies that proved themselves over many years no longer bring the results you want. There’s a new vocabulary, new buzzwords, new expectations.
Barney Barnato was born in London in 1852. He was a ticket tout, a music hall entertainer and a prize fighter before heading off to Africa. He dug for diamonds, struck lucky and built a business. By his mid-thirties he was seriously rich – with a fortune of something like a billion GBP in today’s terms. He returned to London and to the consternation of existing residents built himself a huge house in Park Lane – the most fashionable address of the period.
Such things had not really happened much before. It had not been possible to come from a background like his and in only a decade or so emerge as rich (or richer) than most of the earls and dukes whose fortunes had been around for generations.
The existing elite reacted in a very defensive way. They used social snobbery to pretend it wasn’t happening. Barnato was an outcast. But it was a profound error.
“They dismissed change as unimportant because they didn’t like its effects. Instead of learning from him they rejected the lessons of his experience.”
They entrenched their views and were eclipsed as the dominant class by entrepreneurs. Instead of learning from his example – and renewing their own financial fortunes – they rejected everything he stood for, because he came from the wrong background.
Ironically, Barnato was not a real threat at all. In fact, his descendants were deeply interested in doing exactly the same things as the traditional elite. His son, Woolf Barnato, was educated at Cambridge, hunted, and became chairman of Bentley Motors Limited. The only difference was that Barnato’s descendants were very much better off.
And today Bentley’s ultra luxurious and chic handbag is named the Barnato, after Barney’s granddaughter.
There's a general point to be drawn from that specific story. Too often our fear gets in the way. It’s been discovered that the early Norwegian settlers in Greenland suffered terrible hardships, and eventually died out, because they refused to adopt the survival skills and strategies known to the Inuit inhabitants. The Norwegians could not believe that such strange-looking – and apparently unsophisticated – people could teach them anything. To their fatal cost they refused to change, because the lesson was coming in a wrapping they didn’t much like.
Likewise, the English elite went into serious decline in the mid-twentieth century in large part because they were so resistant to learning about major economic changes. They refused the message because it came from people like Barney Barnato.
So the key move is to distinguish the fear of what is unfamiliar from what is a real threat. Barnato looked a bit rough but he was not actually hostile. The Inuit had (to the Norwegians) weird things for lunch and odd mating rituals. But these things were merely unfamiliar and not genuinely a danger.
The fear of change is really a way of addressing one of the most basic of all human concerns: establishing a hierarchy of value. We don’t go around every day announcing that we are trying to decide which of our values are primary and which secondary. Nevertheless, deep down this is what we are doing.
The grand people who didn’t invite Barnato to dinner were in effect saying that background is more important than achievement. This was the moral error that lay behind their anxiety about change. The same with the Norwegian settlers in Greenland. In their hierarchy of values it (unfortunately) mattered more where an idea came from than whether it was any good. They would have coped much more successfully with change had they had a more accurate, better thought out, set of values.
“The philosophical challenge around change is to reassess the rankings of what we value.”
When change is slow and messy
In 1989 there was a photoshoot of Margaret Thatcher taken in the tiny kitchen of her flat in 10 Downing Street. The Iron Lady, then in her last year as prime minister, can be seen, smartly dressed, squeezed between the sink and the stove. She’s just boiled the kettle and brewed a pot of tea.
It is the kind of photo opportunity we take completely for granted today. We understand that Mrs Thatcher and her advisers were carefully exploring options for brushing up her credentials as an ordinary, likeable woman in touch with day-to-day reality. She puts the kettle on and makes everyone tea.
And yet, in previous ages this sort of moment would have been deeply disturbing.
“If William Gladstone, when he was PM in 1893, had offered to go into a kitchen, find the tea and personally boil some water for the editor of The Times, his sanity would have been called into question.”
The events leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s foray by the kitchen sink didn’t start on that particular day in 1989. They actually began about sixty-five years before with the Bloomsbury Group. A few young friends, mostly living in and around Gordon Square in North London, repudiated what they saw as the fussy, pompous attitudes of their parents’ generation. At the time their habits and attitudes were laughably eccentric. But gradually they spread.
World War II put an end to domestic servants for the middle-class and from the late 1960s feminism started to challenge the idea that the kitchen was the woman’s realm. These successive waves of change eventually washed us towards the moment when the most powerful woman the nation had would prove her ease by the kitchen sink. Far from seeming odd, it feels reassuring.
So a huge number of diverse concerns overlapped and reinforced one another. And gradually the assumptions about what a trustworthy leader might look like changed.
In contrast to the dramatic, volcano idea of change, the prime-ministerial tea-making shows the Neptunist vision of change – named after Neptune, the god of the sea – in action. Year on year the waves gradually eat into the rocks; they shift the sand.
“Change occurs through little, imperceptible actions, day by day.”
We can’t believe that waves could win against the huge edifice of rock and turn it into sand.
The causal force is weak. It’s only water lapping. But repeated often enough the effect is monumental. This is deeply counter-intuitive. We find it hard to really grasp that such events can add up to great change. We know they do in theory – but we are often caught out. In fact if you spend only a few hours at the beach, when the tide is going out, you might imagine that the sea itself is in retreat. But this, seen properly, is only a minor episode. It’s always ebbing and flowing, but overall, decade by decade, the cumulative effect is huge.
Of course, we understand about tides. So we don’t panic when the water recedes and get terrified at the thought that the oceans are about to dry up. But in longer and more complex cycles we do indeed get very jittery. People new to the equity market often get overexcited by a sudden rise or unduly depressed by a steep decline. Judged hour by hour it is wildly unstable.
There are moments where the direction of movement is uncertain. Yet in the long-run – despite all the huge number of small variations – the overall trend is clear.
People tend to be adept at recognising and responding to small, short-term changes. It’s not surprising. That’s what comes naturally. We have evolved to be good at it. Yet, in order to deal well with the big challenges of life we need to be able to grasp and deal with long-term changes. And the tricky thing is that often the pattern is far from obvious close up.
So, in 1989 the situation was much less obvious than it is now. At that crucial moment political aides were trying to assess where the nation was, psychologically, on the idea of a leader pouring tea in a pokey kitchen. Was this going to come across as homely, or as fake? As impressive, or as a distraction. Might not voters worry that the prime minister should be attending to more weighty matters?
However much the external world changes, it is put in the shade by the alterations that occur at an intimate and personal level. The shift from being a child of eight to a youth of eighteen is utterly momentous. The change from being younger than most people to older than most can be profoundly unsettling. The person you got swept away by in a magical romance might turn into an annoying, cold-hearted spouse. Someone you admired from a distance, eventually becomes your friend and confidant. The child who was in awe of you and deeply impressed by everything is, a few years on, at loggerheads with your attitude to the politics of developing nations. The body that raced across the tennis court to return a treacherous backhand volley is (five minutes later – or so it feels) cautious going down stairs or beset by strange pains. Personal change is along our own path to mortality.
It may be because we are so exposed to change in ourselves that – ultimately – we seek to make or protect things that will outlast ourselves. We have to learn to cope with change but often find ourselves deeply interested in things that resist change, that survive. The discussion of change leads to an intimate, and perhaps deeply important, question – what does one hope will not change?