English: Descartes idea of perception

English: Descartes idea of perception (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a very interesting conversation today. It was about change and our perception of the normal and every day environment we find ourselves in. I specifically chose the word perception there, and I’ll explain why.

Change is bad

It strikes me that peoples reaction to change is about protecting the so called status quo right? The ‘push back’ against the new way of working or the pain we feel if we suddenly find some other set of our circumstances changing is quite significant.

I recently wrote about this in the change myth, the point being that no one is really very good at handling change at all. Its painful for all of us. And we all follow similar paths in working toward our ‘new’ status quo.

But who decides on what the status quo is anyway? And why are we so enamoured with it in the first place?

Do you even know what is changing? 

What about changes we don’t particularly discern? I mean the ‘little change’ that erodes the way we think and do things on an hourly basis – like age for instance or experience.

I think it’s pretty fair to say I am not as young as I was! A fact of life. But I don’t actually feel any older. Tomorrow is my 43rd Birthday. There I’ve said it! I have to face the fact I’m in my forties, when everything about me is trying to convince me I am still in my twenties! This is not a characteristic unique to me, we all feel it.

When do we stop ‘accepting’ this ‘little change’ as we do on a daily basis, and start to consider ourselves as old? When do we allow ourselves to ‘move’ from the one status quo to another? In this case from young status quo to old status quo.

I would guess we never do? But it is one of the most fundamental changes we can under go. The aging process shapes us, allows us to become all we can be. It allows us to nurture the coming generations with the hard fought experiences we have accumulated throughout our lifetimes. And at the same time it’s the greatest fear most of us will ever face.

But it seems to happen to us without us really noticing, at least on a day to day basis.

Further more plenty of other changes happen to us and go unremarked upon, like the ‘little change’ I’ve talked about above, but there’s also those outright positive changes.

Hang on, some change is good isn’t it? 

What about the changes we under go when our partner takes the step to move in with us? Or the change we under go when ‘upgrading’ from a crappy old car to the new luxury model?

How do we distinguish between these changes we accept or ignore, and those we rail against with all our might?

Is it that we relish positive change and deplore negative change?

I’m not sure that’s right. We can oppose changes that are clearly for the best as much as those that will leave us out of pocket or in some other way inconvenienced or hurt. Finding a new job that provides you with significantly more money at the end of the month will not necessarily help you overcome the wrench of leaving your much valued and highly regarded ‘work family’.

How is it that some changes are acceptable to us and some not, and yet the rules by which we decide are so fluid as well?

Given the status quo is in fact such a ‘changeable’ thing in the first place, where is our reference point? How do we decide upon what to be comfortable about and what to fight?

This ability to roll with the punches can vary day to day, person to person and situation to situation. Surely the only conclusion is that the ‘change’ itself is determined by your perception? And therefore you are literally responsible for your reaction.

The old ‘bait and switch’

Imagine a situation that includes some change or other that you initially perceive as a minor thing? Then perhaps a colleague explains to you what the full implications of the change will be. Suddenly the stakes are much higher and the consequential concerns you have far more pressing.

The situation didn’t change, thats as it was. Your perception of the situation changed, as did your understanding of the situation. The situation itself was as it was. Its only your ‘mind’ that has changed in reality.

So perhaps thats the answer? We need to understand there is no right or wrong, good or bad, up or down. There is only our perception of these things? Only our perspective. A perspective which we can actually change it seems, with enough thought and contemplation.

I have the power! 

Consequently we need to carefully consider our reaction to what essentially becomes our own minds perception and our personal perspective of an event, rather than the event in and of itself?

This ability to control our perceptions and perspectives and therefore reactions is an incredible power it seems to me.

And given that ‘power’, if you will, what would be the limits to what we could then achieve?

Am I on to something here? Or am I just navel gazing as I tend to do when my birthday inevitably rolls around again! Let me know in the comments below.

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14 replies
  1. Mike Bersin
    Mike Bersin says:

    Fantastic! I guess that’s why we like the past – we know what happened next, and not so much the future – we don’t know what’s going to happen. Someone once said; “the only thing you can change is how you feel”, meaning, I think, circumstances occur beyond our control but our attitude is ALWAYS within our command if we choose.

  2. Patrick McFadden
    Patrick McFadden says:

    I always ask my clients: How do you respond to change? Do you see it as providing new opportunities or as a threat to expected security? What is security? Is it a guaranteed future? A company that provides medical benefits, vacation time and a retirement plan? Not anymore. Security today is not likely to come from a job, a company or the government.

    “Security is your ability to produce.” General Douglas MacArthur

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Hi Patrick – The conversation often turns to methods by which we can insulate ourselves from ‘change’ as if its some nefarious force out to get us. I see that from your perspective your idea of insulation comes from being a productive and useful performer, which is an idea I like actually. Coincidentally my own perspective tells me that to insulate myself from change I must continue to be the most adaptable human being I can be, as its those guys that tend to survive.
      In this post I am particularly interested in how we actually perceive change though. When do we decide if its good or bad, and when do we decide to switch on the insulation or be completely accepting of the perceived changes we face
      thanks for the comment, and taking time to take part!

  3. Philippa Davies
    Philippa Davies says:

    God you’re old. Happy birthday for tomorrow. I like a view of human beings that sees us as researchers, constantly matching up our own ideas against what reality throws back at us. Poor mental health might occur when those two things are wide apart. People resist change most in my experience when it threatens aspects of themselves that are very prized in their self-image. Like the ‘expert’ who suddenly has to look silly by learning something quite new…
    When we grapple with it, two things often help – feeling we have control over something, and a sense of perspective.
    Goodness, sorry I seem to have delivered a sermon here. Must be my age…

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Pippa, I love that! Thank you for the insight. We’ve covered everything from the Gestalt to coping mechanisms!
      I also like this idea of the researcher in all of us as well!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Happy Birthday Tony! Hope you are celebrating with some “beaujolais nouveau”? What an opportunity – to have a birthday on Beaujolais Day!!

    Maybe all change is simply what we make of it, how we help shape it and how we adapt to work with it? To me that approach seems applicable on a personal / age level,within work, friendships, health and ill health ………… I could bemoan being older than you or adapt to the freedom and opportunities that my more advanced years offer me? I make a choice to enjoy …………. so perhaps how we perceive change is intrinsically related to the kind of choices we make? If we make a reasoned choice we then a) feel in control and b) have reflected and arrived at a sense of perspective (Pippa’s point above).

    You’ll note from my sentence at the top of the last paragraph that one choice I make is to engage with change and try and influence its shape or impact (on me, on others).

    Another provocative bit of input Tony.

    Enjoy your beaujolais!!

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Hi Barbara, what high quality comments I’ve managed to attract to this post!
      I love the idea of linking change to the choices we make, and how control and perspective help. I have direct experience of how that works, and works well too, with recent challenges at work!
      And thanks for the birthday wishes! I had a nice day thanks very much!

  5. Lynne
    Lynne says:

    Hi Tony,

    Loving your ‘navel gazing’, actually 😉

    Isn’t the proof, of what you’re saying, that different people react differently to the same change (i.e. it must be perception/perspective)? Your blog has prompted me to think about my gran (RIP) with a smile – what I perceived to be the smallest ‘changes’ could be, to her, the biggest disaster of her week. Maybe, that day, the shop didn’t have the cake she always bought for that particular occasion – what a trauma! – we’d all hear about it (at least once, maybe more!)… whereas to me, the same situation probably wouldn’t even have registered, in the context of the experiences I’d had in work that week, or could even represent a pleasant opportunity to buy something I hadn’t tried before. There is something statistical there, about age, and habitual behaviour, for sure – but generically speaking, we should probably add ‘circumstances’ to the list of drivers for reaction (I guess they will influence perception).

    I’m wondering, now, what else influences people’s perception? – maybe that’s what we should be drilling back into, to understand people’s reactions to change? Upbringing? Materiality? Value systems? You said… “We can oppose changes that are clearly for the best as much as those that will leave us out of pocket or in some other way inconvenienced or hurt. Finding a new job that provides you with significantly more money at the end of the month will not necessarily help you overcome the wrench of leaving your much valued and highly regarded ‘work family’.” But maybe the only people that oppose that particular kind of change are the ones that value the old work family more highly than the pay rise – so the move’s maybe not “clearly for the best”, for them, after all?

    The other thing you touch on is “thought and contemplation”. You can react emotionally to a change – or you can react cognitively, at which point you often come up with a different conclusion, for sure. Some people are definitely more capable of/disposed towards cognitive thought than others. Maybe, if cognitive ability enables change management, we should be using questionnaires that look for it when we interview job candidates?

    I am starting to see an equation in my head now:

    Reaction to change = f(circumstances, values, cognitive ability)

    Before all this, I thought that reaction to change was largely a function of control. People don’t like having stuff “done to” them – they like to choose their own path. I still believe that (having had a major life change imposed on me in the past year that I have fought against like hell, quite possibly solely because I don’t like being told what to do. Maybe it’s just me…?). I think, personally, anyway, that the above equation (or a more refined version of it) would only apply where the change is being “done to” someone. Maybe we just add “control” into the variables, and weight them appropriately. There is a PhD in here somewhere, I reckon.

    Kind regards

    Fellow navel gazer (with apologies for falling over your post on a Friday night after a couple of whiskies)

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Wow! Thanks Lynne! I can’t tell you how humbled I am when people like yourself and Barbara and Pippa add such amazing comments to my posts!
      I’m very interested in your thoughts on cognitive ability and how it impacts on the way we handle change.
      I’d always considered an emotional reaction to change comes first, followed by that step back and more careful consideration, but not really thought to much about how some kind of measure of cognition might impact that.
      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad I helped you enjoy your whiskey!
      See you back here again soon I hope!

  6. Bridget Kirsop
    Bridget Kirsop says:

    So I guess we create our own reality by using our perceptions and beliefs to create a picture in our mind. So it follows that, if we are not getting excellence and the results we want, then we can work with an NLP coach to create a different picture and behaviour that gets a better result.
    Thank you for that insight Tony and – I can’t believe you are that age- life begins at 43 I think!
    Dr Bridget

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