The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By: Shirin Ardakani
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “the only constant is change.” To those passionate about working at the crossroads of sustainability, business, and design, this is not a new idea. Inf fact, it may be basic common sense. We point to systems that resist change as the crux of the problem, and call the heroes among us “change makers.” We may devote our entire professional lives to making change, as intrapreneurs or entrepreneurs. We nod in easy agreement that change is inevitable and to resist is futile.
There is no doubt that passion and the drive to think big and tackle the myriad wicked problems is essential if we are to be successful. But I would argue that there is a danger if we get overly focused on the big external battles. Because fundamentally, before we can make change on a large scale outside, we need to be aware of, and compassionate towards, our own resistance to change inside. And this can potentially be more challenging than any external fight we might come up against.
We are learning more every day from research done in neuroscience about how our brains adapt to change. Evidence of the physiological battle we are up against is mounting.
In the first years of life, our brains build customized neural patterns to interpret the world. Once these patterns are established, several factors give us a natural resistance to change: “…resistance has to do with fear, limiting beliefs, and protective or defensive strategies that have outlived their usefulness, yet remain imprinted in memory cells of the body,” writes Dr. Athena Staik, PhD, LMFT, based on research by famed USC Professor of Neuroscience, Antonio Damasio.
Re-routing these neural patterns is difficult, but not impossible. Scientists are exploring ways to approach this challenge and finding answers in some unexpected places. In Strategy + Business, Research psychiatrist, Jeffrey Schwartz, talks to David Rock, founder of Results Coaching Systems, about the power of meditation. “Constant attention focused on a specific mental experience keeps relevant circuitry in the brain open and alive, which, over time, leads to physical changes in the brain’s structure. Regular sustained attention—which is what meditation is, after all—can change one’s neural circuitry.” The key is to pay attention to the relationship between how we feel and what we do.
Change is nothing new. What is new is a growing understanding around why we resist it and what we can do to begin to soften that resistance.
An example of my own experience with change is fundamental to my profession as a print graphic designer. I give words, images, ideas, tangible life on paper. As a designer, I have a love/hate relationship with change.
The process of creating something from nothing inherently involves constant evolution. Sometimes it is satisfying to be empowered to revise and revise again, cycling through multiple iterations. Other times it can be agony. When designing for print, there is one saving grace: the deadline. The inevitable stopping point. The project is turned over to the printer, it is inked, embossed, etched on to paper, frozen in its final iteration.
There is a mix of relief and anxiety that accompanies this experience. Anxiety because there’s always more I could do to improve it, but relief because I don’t have to wrestle with the choice to. It is fixed in its final form. As I’ve begun to practice remaining aware of, and compassionate towards, my cycles of resistance throughout the process, the resistance has lessened.
Like my fellow classmates in the DMBA program, I want to be a “change maker.” I’m intent on not letting it be at the expense of continued self awareness. It’s a constant practice, but I’m convinced that the more attention and compassion I hold for my own interior struggle, the more potential for success I will have in confronting the big resisters of systemic change in the world outside.