In a previous post I discussed difficulties with getting people to change. I'll briefly summarize here. When you are considering changing there are only two choices, to change or not to. And in either case there are costs and benefits to the choice. So one could create a grid of 4 squares as we see below.
Most people never see the costs of not changing. Those costs are with us every day and become part of the background noise of our lives. We don't think about them. There's an old Cajun saying, "It's the gator you don't see that's gonna get you." And since we don't see the costs of not changing, let's call them alligators.
There are costs to change of course, and, as we consider them, they seem arduous. Our efforts would be great and might fail. The effort might be dangerous in that we risk something. We might lose something. We might break something. It sounds as bad a climbing a mountain, so let's call it that.
Now there are great benefits of changing as well. There has to be some reward for all that work in climbing the mountain. To go to all that trouble the reward must be great and real and not the kind of thing that can be washed away by the next rain. We're looking for something permanent, and there's nothing more permanent than gold. So we'll call these benefits a pot of gold.
Now we've only got one field missing. What's the benefit of not changing? Well it's something we like and like to look at, so it's pretty. Unless everything is perfect, these benefits are also illusionary. Pretty and illusionary, sounds like mermaids. So, mermaids it is. In the rest of this post I'll look at a few common mermaids so we can recognize them when we see them.
The first mermaid was alluded to in the paragraph above. "Things couldn't get any better." It's a pretty good reason not to climb a mountain. All pain and no gain at that point. If things couldn't get any better, why take any risk at all? Good question. Let's ask another. What are the chances that absolutely everything is perfect, that literally nothing could change to make the current situation better in any way to any degree? Given that we live in reality, where nothing is perfect, I'd say those chances are slim to none. It is illusory that things couldn't get any better. If you want an example of that take a look at 10:28 into this.
A related mermaid is "We've always done it this way," which is another way of saying, "This can't be changed." What's the point of thinking of changing when it won't work? Who wants to spend effort on something guaranteed to fail? Nobody, and so this mermaid is particularly good at stopping change in its tracks. It's commonly used by large organizations that have been around a while. In some ways, this mermaid is an appeal to authority. Those that came before us were wiser than we, and they created this to be the way it should be, so why change? We can think of several things that were "always this way" that have changed for the better: human sacrifice, slavery, children dying of polio, etc. Not a good reason to avoid change, but it does give us a segue to another mermaid that is an appeal to authority.
The next mermaid is, "I'm doing what I should be." The hint that this is a mermaid is the word "should." When it comes to change, there's no such word. We live in the reality we are in. The word "should" means that the rule comes from outside, from someone else's reality. It may or may not be valid, and that validity is for us to decide. If we decide it's valid then "should" doesn't matter; it's our choice now. If we decide it isn't valid, then "should" matters even less. "Should" is a complete illusion, but a nice word to hide behind. This brings us to our last, and most formidable mermaid, control.
"I have control here" is a pretty good reason not to move. If we move, we may not have control any longer, so let's stay here where we can have control. It's a siren song, and the most powerful of mermaids. We live in a world of constant change, and it can be no other way. In every moment, everything is changing. The change may be too slow to recognize, but it's happening none the less. This change is so powerful, so distracting, that if we paid attention to it we'd hardly be able to get out of bed in the morning. So, as a mental heuristic we ignore it and believe that things can stay the same, that we can control change. People often say things like, "I've lost control of the situation," when what really happened is that they discovered they didn't have control in the first place. The idea that I can control a situation is a powerful call to stay in that situation and avoid change. In my experience, it is the most commonly used mermaid in everyday life, and, like all these other mermaids, it's a complete fantasy.
I've spent a lifetime learning how to help people change. It isn't hard to show them the pot of gold, or make the climb easier. It isn't even hard to convince them that there's an alligator they didn't see right behind them. But letting go of our mermaids is hard. There's a reason they are such a powerful metaphor in the history of art. They entice us to stay where we don't belong. They give us the feeling that we'll be comfortable and protected, and, in the end, they disappear leaving us to the cold dark realities of the sea.