When I was 10 years old my family and I moved to a new town. It was school holidays and my brother and I were spending most of our time at home. Which is how we were invited to Aida’s house. Aida was an old Russian woman from across the road that my mother had befriended on one of her walks, and when she found out that my mother had two sons Aida insisted that my brother and I be brought over for tea and crumpets. Being polite boys with nothing better to do we obediently followed our mother across the road one Wednesday afternoon to have tea with the eccentric old lady with an exotic name. It was the first of what became a regular affair: my brother and I looking neat and tidy, slowly working our way through two mountains of crumpets made in our honor as Aida watched on gleefully and told us about her life. Hours later we would stumble out of her little house, bellies full of food and heads full of stories. Aida was born in 1905, her family leaving Russia at the time of the revolution in 1917. What followed was a life of hardship and adventure and joy and family and many different roads, all of which eventually led her to the white house on our street. Aida had seen the birth of commercial flight and the motorcar; she had lived through the Russian Revolution and two world wars; she had been alive when people first listened to radio in their homes, watched television, or used a personal computer.
Looking back, I can still feel the sense of wonder I felt at the change that had occurred in Aida’s lifetime. My children, though, would be unlikely to feel the same way. My oldest daughter is 11 and has never known a world without internet, facebook and smart phones. She believes questions are answered by Google. The amount of technical information in the world is doubling every two years, which means that any student beginning a four-year degree today will have to accept that most of what they learned in their first year will be redundant by the time they graduate. By the time my daughter reaches college age the time to information redundancy will be measured in minutes. How is that possible? Because the pace of technological change is no longer linear, it is exponential. What happened in Aida’s lifetime now happens in a matter of years.
Change is not new. More than 2500 years ago Heraclitus posited that change is constant, that the world is in a permanent state of flux, and that ‘You could not step twice into the same river.’ What is new is the rate of change. For most people born before 1990 it is dizzying. And, because it is exponential, the rate of change is constantly increasing. It is a mistake to see change as something that needs to be lived through in order to reach a new state of balance and equilibrium, as is the approach of many organizations’ change management programs. Though periods of apparent stasis present themselves, these are illusions – change is continuous and when one fights against it, it feels relentless. It is a process of attrition that spawns anxiety and discontent.
And anxiety is on the rise. The World Health Organisation calls it an epidemic, reporting a more-than-50% rise in anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2013. Though these feelings are complex in nature and cause, it is intuitive that the rise in anxiety is fueled by a growing sense of overwhelm in the face of escalating change and complexity. Chip Conley breaks anxiety down into a simple equation:
Anxiety = uncertainty + powerlessness
Uncertainty is one of the defining elements of this age of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), and most of us are consciously aware of the shortening horizons of predictability that define 21stCentury life. Powerlessness is less often considered a contributor to negative mental states, yet powerless is what many of us feel in the face of exponential change. How to prepare for and deal with the future when it is impossible to tell what is around the corner? As always, there is no golden bullet or one-size-fits-all solution, but in order to regain a sense of control we need to be willing to let go of it. Not accidentally, this apparent contradiction reflects the spirit of these ambiguous times. It aligns with, not against, the way of the world. Because, the key to dealing with the challenges of change is to alter one’s approach from conflict to acceptance. Embracing change, rather than pushing against it or running away from it, is a powerful tool in preventing the anxiety that comes from feeling powerless.
This shift opens the doorway to agility – a much-talked about faculty that is defined by a responsive orientation to change. It requires courage and humility: the willingness to accept that you will never have full information, and the courage to make decisions in that space. To be able to sit unflustered in uncertainty is a powerful and empowering skill, one that is consciously or unconsciously practiced by most great leaders. A minority of people have a natural gift for calmness under pressure, but for most it is something that needs to be trained through variations of mindfulness. Ironically, becoming proficient at embracing change usually requires changing, which is where a coach can be invaluable. In business and leadership a coach specialising in agility can be a game changer, while personally a good life coach will help you steer through the sea of change to help you achieve your goals. Now more than ever we occasionally need help to make sense of things – the willingness to recognize that could be your first agile step.