Evolution Not Revolution

When we’re thinking of making a shift in career we can easily get dismayed by the scale of the change we’re contemplating. We imagine change in dramatic, volcanic terms. We feel we’re looking at a revolution in our lives. Everything will have to be different. And that’s often going to be a very daunting and unwelcome prospect. 

We should recognise that our picture of what change might look like and how it might take place can become a problematic, inhibiting factor. We may stick with what is familiar or take the opposite tack and suddenly and dramatically plunge into a massive revision, resigning and taking off on a journey to another continent. We search for things that are unknown to us; we look to the extremes. That’s because we’re guided by the natural (but mistaken) notion that if change is going to occur at all, it’s going to have to look dramatic. 

This fateful habit of mind crops up around relationships as well. Things are difficult and we know we need to make some move to improve our lives. But instead of engineering a series of smallish changes that could help our current relationship to go a bit better, we take the volcanic option: we have an affair, move out, or get divorced. 

A more helpful approach is to think in terms of smaller steps and gradual alterations: that is, in terms of evolution rather than revolution.

Evolution is a deeply valid process of change, but it is a tricky idea for us to have faith in. One reason we don’t latch onto it is that it’s very hard to see in action – and hence to believe in its existence. When evolution is at work, there is rarely a decisive moment when change looks obvious. It’s like children growing up: we don’t usually observe any alteration day by day, yet over time an 11-month-old infant crawling on the carpet and deeply excited by a plastic orange keyring becomes a six-foot-tall 17-year-old obsessed with mountain biking. We know that a million small changes have been occurring every single day in the intervening years, but they almost never announced themselves as major steps. In the background, bones were growing, ligaments expanding, neural pathways being formed, skills gradually accumulating, attitudes and interests taking shape. 

It’s partly to help us get a better perspective on personal evolution that we’ve made such a big collective commitment to birthdays. They provide regular moments of comparison that are sufficiently far apart that we can recognise the cumulative effects of little changes. That is why it’s moving to mark a growing child’s height on the kitchen door. Week by week, no change is observable to the human eye. But the marks edge upwards every year. It’s an artifice that compensates for a natural frailty: the difficulty we have around believing in processes we can’t see. Our brains are just not very good at tracking evolutions. 

It’s also an issue that historians have long wrestled with. If you want to account for the huge changes in a society across a hundred years, it’s tempting to look mainly at the biggest public events (the election of a new government, the death of a major public figure, a war, a peace treaty). But in reality, it’s often the accumulation of millions of tiny developments that has really made the difference. It’s less exciting to read about, but it’s more accurate in terms of explaining what has actually been going on and why things have ended up as they have. 

So it’s not surprising that we find it hard to take an evolutionary approach to our own lives. We’re not sufficiently practised at seeing the relationship between small steps and large overall alterations. But in order to find a job we can love, we would be wise to try out some modest first moves. It may start with taking a single evening class every week, or spending three days during the holidays exploring an option, or retraining part-time in a process that might be finished in two years. An enormous shift might be set in motion by nothing more outwardly dramatic than volunteering for a new responsibility in one’s existing job. Minor moves can strengthen our courage by giving us a sense of a talent in an area where we as yet have very little experience. They break through the unhelpful but widely prevalent sense that we should either remain as we are or change everything. Oddly, there is a far less glamorous, more neglected third option that we must explore: the careful evolutionary step.

Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to plan and execute a major move, we might try out branching projects or small adventures on the side. What small changes can you make that would help you to see if you have talents in an area, without making the big, revolutionary step of committing to it? 

For instance:

  • Ask to try out a different area of work within your organisation.
  • Take a holiday, not to a place but to a job; ask to follow someone around for a week of observation.
  • Become good friends with someone who has this kind of job already.
  • If you’d have to change where you live, spend time visiting the kind of place you’d move to.
  • Do the people who do this job tend to go to particular bars or pubs? Go there yourself.
  • Imagine you are an actor preparing for a role playing someone in this job. Read what they read, buy what they buy; imagine yourself in character.
  • Do an internship below your pay grade.
  • Do an evening course.

Find out more in our emotional skills workshops Workshops.

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