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Why we’re afraid of change (and what to do about it)

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development

When I first started teaching at my law school, it struck me as odd that the students were required to take Criminal Procedure–ordinarily an upper-level class–in their first year.

When I asked a senior colleague to explain, he lowered the newspaper he’d been studying and dismissively remarked, “We’ve always done it this way.”

In other words, decades ago, someone had made a decision to structure the curriculum in this way and that was a good enough reason to stick to it. Since then, no one had raised their hand and asked, “Why this?” or “Why not that?”

There may be a perfectly valid pedagogical reason for the status quo. But “we’ve always done it this way” struck me as a lousy excuse to stay the course.

The status quo is a super magnet, even in enlightened intellectual institutions like law schools.

We’ve been brainwashed from an early age to toe the line, use # 2 pencils, and color between the lines.

Our public school system was designed to churn out compliant industrial workers, not to inspire individuals to dream big and challenge the way things are.

If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, you ended up in the principal’s office. If you didn’t conform, we held you back for a year. You recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, lockstep with your fellow factory workers-in-training, hand over heart.

School taught us obedience, compliance, and fitting in, so we could properly operate the assembly line in a dingy factory for six days a week at a lousy wage.

Well, the Industrial Age is long gone. This is the Information Age, but our school system is lagging far behind. The workers we’re still producing to thrive in the Industrial Age wither in the Information Age.

It’s no wonder that the status quo bias, engrained in our formative minds, only gets exacerbated with age.

When we travel to a foreign land, we seek refuge in a foreign Starbucks and comfort in a caramel macchiato.

We do things not because they’re superior, but because they happen to be the default.

In The Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant shows how employees who don’t use the default email and browser settings on a computer are more likely to succeed. It’s not because using Chrome instead of Safari magically transforms you into a far more effective worker. It’s because someone who doesn’t settle for the default in computer software carries that mindset to other areas.

High-level executives at Fortune 500 companies shun innovation because their compensation package is tied to short-term quarterly outcomes that may be temporarily disrupted by forging a new path. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The keyboard layout in front of you was designed to be inefficient. Before the current arrangement, typewriters would jam if you typed too quickly. The current QWERTY layout (named after the first six letters on the keyboard) was created specifically to slow down typing speed to prevent mechanical key blockage. In addition, for marketing purposes, the letters that make up the word “TYPEWRITER” were placed on the top line to allow salespersons to demonstrate how the machine operates by quickly typing the brand name (try it out!).

Of course, mechanical key blockage is no longer a problem. Nor is there a need to type “TYPEWRITER” as quickly as possible. Yet despite the availability of far more efficient and far more ergonomic layouts, the QWERTY arrangement still dominates.

I get it.

Change can be costly. Abandoning the QWERTY layout for an alternative arrangement, for example, would require us to learn to type from scratch (though there’s a tribe of people who have made the switch and who argue, rather persuasively, that it’s worth the effort).

And sometimes things change for the worse.

More often though, we stick with the status quo even when the benefits of innovation far exceed the costs.

In the face of tension and uncertainty–which are prerequisites to intellectual growth–we retreat to the comforting embrace of the status quo.

What if this doesn’t work? What if others point and laugh? What if I make a fool out of myself? Better stick with the default.

Here’s the problem.

The status quo can be a straitjacket. It can hide nuances and obscure possibilities.

You can’t get ahead if you’re simply following.

Remember: The status quo was created by people no smarter than you.

The rules are not set in stone.

The default can be altered.

A new path can be forged.

What could you become if you weren’t afraid of change?

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