Why Adapting to Change Is All About Self-image
We’re used to singing the praises of the human mind and body: these are, from many perspectives, two of nature’s greatest feats of engineering. We have brains capable of doing fractal equations and translating Finnish into Bengali. Our bodies can scale the Matterhorn and send balls over a tennis net at 120mph.
And yet for all that, we are still often left facing the inescapable reality that the machines we’re trying to live through are riddled with flaws. Many of them making themselves known between 9am and five in the afternoon.
Wisdom teeth and flawed minds
We are the outcome of evolutionary processes that have left us less than ideally adapted to many of the tasks of modern life. Just as our anatomy is filled with redundant or vestigial organs (our wisdom teeth and appendixes are a medical liability, at best), so too our minds are not especially well-suited to hour after hour of staring at spreadsheets or having to change task suddenly, with little preparation.
Our species is rather good at adapting in certain ways, but not in others. Human beings tend to be very resourceful and creative (thousands of years spent in small hunter-gatherer groups, roaming the plains in search of food is testament to this), but we also tend to thrive within a given order of things.
No wonder then, if we struggle, when so little certainty can be found.
Fluidity and change
For much of history, humans have lived with many gradual changes in circumstances (migrations from one place to another, experimenting with different crops, etc.). These generally took place while the structure of society itself remained constant.
We lived in relatively small groups and communities where our role was clear. There was likely a stable hierarchy, a simple code of behaviour that everyone (bar the extremely rebellious) could follow with ease.
In the last few hundred years, the opposite has been the case. New technologies and a rapid mixing of populations makes everything far more fluid. Not only might we change jobs every couple of years, we might change the country or city we live in on a semi-regular basis.
The certainty of centuries ago is long gone. If people generally take such things in their stride, this is cause for celebration, evidence of how resilient we generally are. But when we also find adaptation difficult, this should be cause for even greater sympathy.
We are, after all, signing on for a big undertaking with brilliant, but flawed equipment.
Adaptation in the workplace
We all know our brains don’t always function as smoothly as we’d like them to. They are prone to get distracted, indulge in semi-romantic daydreams or start thinking about an idiotic comment we made last week.
For all these reasons and more, getting things done can be challenging enough. But when we add to this the fact that, as of 2020, the average person in the UK will hold 12 jobs over their lifetime (changing role roughly every four years) – and that, even within those roles, there are any number of restructuring efforts, new systems and changes of manager to worry about, it’s little surprise that the stress of work is just as readily found in actual day-to-day tasks as it is the business of handling such frequently shifting circumstances and expectations.
For Sarah Stein Lubrano, a Faculty Member at The School of Life, the difficulty with these fluctuations is that they put a great strain on how we see ourselves. How we understand our role in the social world of work, and life more generally.
“To adapt to change,” she says, “we often have to alter our sense of self, or what Freud termed the ego. For example, if we’re asked to take on a different role at work, it might mean that we have to stop being the ‘fun colleague’ and start being the ‘task-setter’. Or if the company changes its direction, then we might have to think about ourselves as belonging to a rather different type of organisation, which in turn makes us a different sort of person.”
“It can be useful to think about how much of our resistance to change is also about a resistance to a changing sense of self.”
Clearing the path
Work helps to give us a sense of identity, but because our jobs can change so frequently this same fact can also play havoc with our sense of self.
There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to how to make adaptation easier. Different people struggle for different reasons. But it can be said that questions of identity, self-worth and fulfilment all have answers that fall outside the realms of Gannt charts.
In order to deal with our troublesome ill-adapted bodies (and the strain we put them under), we invented medicine, nutrition and exercise. To help us cope with our equally wonky minds, we need to lean just as heavily on philosophy, therapy and psychology.
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