‘Everything flows, nothing stays still.’
Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 500BC.
In this article, we will look at how this idea of constant change applies to, and can improve, our professional work.
Many philosophers from all periods of history have gone about stating this principle in different ways.
In Buddhism, this idea is called ‘impermanence’, and it says that nothing in reality is fixed or permanent in any way. Even if you pick up a rock, it’s not a static, unchanging object; it is, on a molecular level, constantly changing and eroding as it comes into contact with the air and with your hand.
The Roman Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius stated this bluntly when he wrote
‘Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.’
We hear of this principle today in phrases like ‘Change is inevitable’, and with a common theme in psychology and business being that people generally resist change.
COVID-19 has hit home just how fast, unpredictable, and wide-reaching change can be.
In general, those who recognised this change, then adapted and changed themselves, were able to thrive or at least survive. Those who remained unchanged, static, and tried to stick to their plans in the face of this crisis, or who failed to try and turn it into an opportunity, did not thrive, and some did not survive.
By reflecting on this concept, we can take some principles from it that can help us to be adaptable, proactive, and to better deal with unexpected changes that turn our plans on their head.
Plans are static, reality is not; don’t hold on too tight
Plans are unchanging roadmaps in a world where nothing is certain; not even roads and maps. They lose their value the further into the future they try to peak, and are seductive to create as they give us the illusion of control, when in reality we have a lot less control than we think.
In his book ReWork, Jason Fried suggests that ‘we just call plans what they really are: guesses.’
Plans can play an important role in business, but they can become a disadvantage if they play too big of a role. Plans can become redundant overnight, and sometimes it’s best to do what makes sense in light of how things are right now.
Do write plans as a way to tackle challenges, think about the future and the past, and try to steer your ship through these stormy waters. But also learn to abandon a plan, or at least update it, when the terrain has changed too much to follow your existing map. Everything flows; try to flow with it.
Stay lean and maneuverable to navigate choppy waters
Life and business are like meandering rivers that we can’t see more than a couple of hundred meters ahead of. We can’t get out and we can’t slow down, but what we can do is try to stay light and lean in order to change course as needed.
The more rules, processes, bills, subscriptions, leases, contracts, long-term plans, and so on that you lock yourself or your business into, the harder it becomes to adapt to change. Leaner businesses were often better able to adapt to the changes brought about by COVID-19 than businesses that were weighed down with commitments and fixed strategies and plans.
In his book ReWork, Jason Fried calls this ‘accumulating mass’, and states ‘the more massive an object, the more energy required to change its direction. It’s as true in the business world as it is in the physical world.’
Roads and rivers are rarely straight, so make sure you can navigate the bends and turns without capsizing.
Factor change into your estimates
Most of us are all-too familiar with estimates that go awry; budgets doubling or tripling, month-long projects dragging on for most of the year, late nights and weekend work being crammed in to hit a deadline that seemed realistic a few weeks ago and is now haunting you from dawn to dusk.
One reason for this is simply the amount of change that will occur once the plan and deadline have been set in stone. Setting things in stone in a world where everything flows and nothing stays still is usually going to cause problems. When expectations don’t meet reality, tempers start to rise and relationships can get tense as people struggle to adapt to their changing environment while sticking to their original plan and deadline.
A solid piece of advice is to always overestimate; if you think a project will take 6 weeks, make it 8. A good way of remembering to do this is recalling this principle of constant change, and to factor it into your plans by allowing buffer time. Expect the unexpected and allow for it with extra time.
Embrace new roles and throw old ones overboard
A common problem for someone who takes on a new role, or new responsibilities, is that they are often dragged back into their old role. Sometimes this is due to the person missing their old role and feeling comfortable doing what they were good at – resisting the new change. Sometimes it is caused by work colleagues who know this person for being good at X, and they come for help with X even though this person’s new role involves focusing on Y.
When you change ship, you need to look after your new crew. Having your feet in two boats will quickly drain you. Embrace your new crew; look back on the old one with a warm feeling of nostalgia, but don’t fall back into your old role. You, your role, and the business you are in are subject to change like everything else; learn to adapt to this change and bring new skills and talents to new problems and challenges.
Don’t train yourself; educate yourself
In his book ‘Finite and Infinite Games’, James Carse argues that ‘to be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.’ Surprise is the same as change here, and the premise is that it is better to be educated in how to change, adapt, and improvise instead of being trained into rigid, fixed ways of thinking and operating.
The river of life is full of bends, and will punish those who are trained in fixed mindsets. Those who are educated in basic principles and learn how to adapt to and embrace change can better navigate the river, conserving time and energy that would otherwise be spent resisting inevitable change and fighting against the flow.
The exception: focus on that which (probably) won’t change
All sorts of trends and fashions come and go in life, both in the personal and the professional.
If you get caught up in these, you will waste time and resources trying to keep up with the latest trends, which, by definition, don’t stick around for long.
So it is important to identify what the unchanging core of your business or profession is, and to focus your efforts on it. Amazon spend huge amounts of money on customer support as they know this is something their customers will always want.
Even though everything does ultimately change, we humans do need to settle on something to focus our efforts into, something that, while not permanent in the grand scheme of things, is permanent enough for now that we can build a great business or profession on it.
But always be aware that the world might change so much that even this core area may change; producing and selling records was at the core of the music industry for years, but the internet changed the rules of the game so much that only the companies who adapted and changed survived. Sometimes change is so grand and pervasive that we are swept into a new river entirely; only those who learn to adapt to their new environment will survive and thrive.
In summary: go with the flow
Resisting change will drain out mental and physical reserves, and can take us down a dead end that is difficult to fight our way out of.
If you can practice letting go of what you were used to in the past, can leave your comfort zone in order to keep up with the times, and can comfortably let go of the human compulsion to attempt to control our reality, you will be better off for it.
This lesson applies to our lives in their entirety, not just the business world, and by bringing an awareness of this into one, we can take it across to the other, and live a life that has more peace and contentment in it.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite books, ‘Principles’ by Ray Dalio, founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds, Bridgewater Associates:
‘Evolution is the single greatest force in the universe; it is the only thing that is permanent and it drives everything.’
Evolution built us, drives us, and defines us. It will change whether we like it or not – better to surrender to this change and work within its parameters, than to fight against its ebbs and flows.