002 Understanding Change (Part 1 and 2)

Below the video is the transcript. Video part 2 is half way down.

Understanding Change

Change is a constant. We need to factor that in, or we are going to struggle. Even if we factor for change, change can happen differently to how we expected, which can blind side us. We have a very human reaction to change.

Change is a constant.

If nothing changes, no time has passed. 

Side note: How do you know time has passed? Even if nothing that you observed has changed, you noticing that nothing has changed is a change. Time exists because change exists. We live in time, so we live in change. An eternity could exist between the last change and this moment. 

But even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter. Because nothing changed.

While we live, all things change. We get comfortable with a certain amount of change, such as day becomes night, and night becomes day, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, winter to spring and spring to summer again. 

Of course that isn’t always true.

For example, people who have been stationed at Antarctica, or live in some of the far north continents, know that a day is not a day long – it can be 6 months. People who are not used to this find it an interesting experience. 

At first.

The change is exhilarating. Then it is stressful. 

These types of changes are predictable and cyclic, so we call it a normal, the constancy of it is assuring.

I get up, I go to work, I come home ,I do some stuff, I go to bed and then I repeat for about 5 days running. On the weekend I do all the things that I couldn’t do because I was at work. A nice, constant week, a lovely comforting pattern.

We like routine. Routine is really important to our mindless life.

While this sounds bad, mostly it isn’t.

Why waste brain cells on considering the implications of everything we do, when we can fall back on habits formed in our yesterdays to do these bits for us? This frees our mind up for more interesting thoughts – like how long are the moments between moments?

While it is a good idea to sometimes examine our routine and optimise it or turn it upside down, most of the time, routine is comfortable, efficient and good.

Change is a constant, so the patterns of change that we make into a routine will change and break. We don’t like that.

Or do we?

Artists often use predictability to train us into complacency, then they deliberately break that to startle us into exhilaration. Ever had a song stuck in your head? In your head? In yooour heeeeaadddd? 

Annoying, isn’t it? But why? Why don’t we just listen to one song? Especially when it is so catchy? 

Because it becomes too boring. Too predictable is boring.

Artists use our prediction of patterns to their advantage and change the pattern of prediction within a finite level of left field – introducing something that we didn’t expect, but still belongs to the story element of the art to jar us into delight.

Take home messages:

  • Patterns and habits save time and effort when we have mastered certain kinds of cyclic or predictable change.
  • Patterns become boring when nothing seems to change

We are predicting machines. Most of the time, we don’t even notice this. We predict the future so that we can act on what is going to happen now.

A skill to manage the calculations of a predictable outcome is a skill, a series of actions automatically taken to manage a predictable series of tasks is a habit. We achieve most of these skills by practicing them – no one is born with them, but we are born with the ability to acquire them.

Side note – There is a good argument that vertebrate animals evolved their intelligence significantly when they left living in the water – because for the first time we could see things far enough away that we could consider an option to deal with them rather than just blind instinct. To consider an option, though, we had to imagine how that thing could affect us, and that imagination is a thing that hadn’t yet happened. We developed the ability to predict.

When we predict a change, and the options to deal with it and our prediction is accurate, we generally do not struggle with it.

We are jarred into reassessment when our prediction is wrong. In a safe environment this can be exhilarating.

Stage magicians use this trait to amaze us with their cunning magic. They show us a pattern and story, which lul us into a prediction that seems fair, and then create an outcome that messes with our prediction mechanisms. Great magicians take into account the prediction of stage magic and create yet another unexpected but thematically appropriate change, to startle the jaded audience into dealing with the unexpected yet again.

Side note – there are many papers on collaborations between stage magicians, such as James Randy, and psychologists to learn how humans make predictions.

All this has been about predictions of change that are manageable. Either: 

  1. The change can be predicted into a pattern, or 
  2. When the pattern breaks, it is thematically appropriate.

When we don’t like the pattern that we find ourselves in, we can choose to make changes to change that pattern. We will seek to learn about the pattern and form options. Through knowledge we gain the power of efficient change through choice. Generally we will consider the likely consequences of that change and pick the best options. When we make the change, we expect to experience the change and so long as the outcome is close enough to our intention, we are satisfied.

Thinking up new solutions to new problems is hard. It takes effort. This is a form of mental and probably emotional stress.

For short stints, stress is good for us. Whether it is physical, cognitive or emotional.

When stress is too strong, or lasts for too long, it becomes traumatic and we are traumatised.

A quick short sprint is fine for most people, even good for us. But if you have to do it several times in a row, that becomes bad for us. And if we have to maintain sprints every 20 minutes for weeks at a time, that becomes bad for us. This is analogous of cognitive stress and also emotional stress.

We are living in interesting times. Things are changing all of the time. And not because we have chosen it. We can feel very powerless as the governments of the world give us instructions to manage this situation.

Change is happening rapidly and we are going to struggle with it.

Here are a few things that we will notice:

  • This isn’t short term, so holding on for a return to normal isn’t going to work – more on this later
  • The things that we used to think were so important are being shown to not be so important now, which messes with our ability to judge importance
  • The undermining of assumed values is likely to lead to an existential crisis – who am I, what does life mean? Why am I here?
  • Anxiety about the future – an inability to know the factors that affect our future makes it difficult to predict what next year is going to look like
  • A desire to latch onto miracle cures and quick fixes
  • An increase in fear which will lead to an increase in conspiracy thinking – we want someone to blame, and we need them to be evil to do it.

Unexpected change is not that uncommon. We humans are limited in scope and ability so we can’t control that many things around us with predictions. Fortunately we come with a change management mechanism. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross noticed this when she did research on people who had been diagnosed with cancer to see how they would manage this unexpected change, published in her book On Death and Dying. While her initial work was on those expecting to die, her work was expanded upon to encompass those who were dealing with other people’s death, and is actually quite key to understanding how humans deal with unexpected change.

Change Part 2 – Grief and Loss

Change is hard, and when unnecessary, it is a waste of resources. Kübler-Ross describes some very predictable phases that change prompts in humans. 

We will refer to the unexpected change as an event. This event marks the change that affects us – and while it is generally an unexpected change such as job loss, illness or some kind of global phenomenon, it can also be a planned for change that fundamentally changes a background truth that we have built our habitual life on, such as choosing to change jobs, or sell a house.

Prior to the event, maintaining the status quo is the most efficient way to be. You have a rhythm, a set of expectations and known measures for success. It is within your best interests, as a general rule of thumb, to keep things going this way. An advantage of keeping this status quo, even if it isn’t that good for you, is that it is predictable, and even if we don’t like what we are predicting, predictable is comforting. We know what to do.


Phase 0 – Surprise

Generally change events are unexpected. We experience surprise as our predictions for what is supposed to occur fail. Prediction helps us know what to do and when our predictions fail, we need to pause to re-assess – we can’t keep going with the old plan.. .or can we? Consider crossing the road. If the traffic behaves as you predict, then you know when it is safe to cross and when it is not. If the traffic starts doing weird things, then you will freeze as you assess how you are going to get across.

Phase 1 – Denial

We don’t want the change to be real, or if it is real, bad enough that it requires us to change. Often if we just wait a bit, the anomaly that has caused the change in our prediction will go back to normal and we can continue as we have before. There is an efficiency in denial, where it delays us expending resources on change when that change isn’t necessary as the event was a false alarm, or delays us in over committing resources to a thing that only requires a small modification. We usually don’t notice when denial is effective, because things didn’t become a problem.

Phase 2 – Bargaining

If we can do a small thing, pay a small price, make a small deal to get us back to how things use to be, then that is an efficient use of resources. If that doesn’t work, then we will expend more resource on a bigger bargain with someone or something to try to get back to where things use to be. In the cold light of analysis, this expenditure of bargaining resource can be more expensive than making the needed changes, but it feels smarter to do, because we return to the known model – the status quo. When bargaining works, when we can solve the event, then life returns to normal and it was probably the smart way to go. When bargaining works, we often feel like we have overcome a thing and we feel powerful.

Phase 3 – Anger

When we realise that bargaining has failed, we try harder. With more aggression. When that fails, we feel powerless. We push harder, or find someone to blame, or something to blame. When we can’t find someone to blame, or blaming others is not in our nature, then we turn the blame to ourselves. When we try harder, or find the person or thing at fault, we can force it to change the thing we can’t do ourselves. When this works, the status quo is resumed. When it fails we run out of options. We despair.

Phase 4 – Sadness

Sadness, despair, numbness – these are all ways to describe the reassessment phase as you realise this is real and you can’t stop it. The change has happened. At this point going back is not feasible, but you don’t know what going forward looks like. You are lost.

Phase 5 – Acceptance

The change is real and to survive this you must change. An acknowledgement of reality and an assessment of self is common here. Things you use to do that are no longer valid, relevant or effective are discarded and a search for new strategies to go forwards begin. It is important to survive in the moment.

Phase 6 – Planning

We have survived, but we haven’t really grown into our new future. Planning looks forward to what the world now looks like with this new reality begin, amidst a frank assessment of how things need to be. Plans are made for that future and changes in the now are implemented to get there.


It is important to note that resources can be emotions, action, assets, wealth, friends and so on. It is also important to note that people don’t just go through these phases linearly – there is a great deal of jumping about between phases, you can visit phases more than once and not everyone goes through every phase.

Complex grief or change occurs when the event is not a simple thing .Either it has profound consequences to us, or it is ongoing and takes time for the event to unfold. We humans find it difficult in the extended event to figure out what the world is going to look like once it has happened, especially if the extended event is constantly changing.

As I look at the world today, I see a great deal of the first four phases and not much of the last three. Mostly because we just don’t know yet how the world’s changes are actually going to affect us.

It is important to be patient with people who are in denial, who are trying to bargain a way out of this and who express their anger poorly. It is also fair to be patient with people who are sad and between actions. These are all normal. Help people to transition as best you can.

Some people have made it to acceptance and they are making immediate changes to survive the now. We just can’t really do the planning bit as the picture of the world keeps changing every time we look back into it.