Making plans and following them is important. We need to know where we are going and keep this destination in mind. The psychologist Fitzurgh Dodson echoed many other writers when he said, ‘Without goals and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination.’
While this is certainly good advice, we also need to ensure we sail with the wind, not against it, and this requires a sensitivity to the current situation and how it is changing. Sometimes we need to take down the sails to avoid getting blown off course, but at other times, an unexpected wind can take us on wonderful new adventures, and bring success and fulfillment. Some of the most useful things have come about accidentally – penicillin, Viagra, X-rays, brandy, to name but a few. None of these things would have been developed if people had refused to follow a new and unanticipated direction. Indeed, creativity usually requires a willingness to be open to novelty and innovation.
Change is inevitable. Everyone knows this – winds change direction, circumstances shift unexpectedly. It’s a normal and predictable part of life. The nature of the changes we inevitably experience are less predictable, however. We know far less than we sometimes like to think. People are very, very bad at predicting the future, and things almost never work out the way we expect. Try as you might to imagine all the possible future scenarios, and the one that unfolds will not have occurred to you.
Because of this unpredictability, change can be frightening. But it is also one of the things that make life so exciting and interesting. If life is like a long walk in the countryside, detours can be the most fruitful and interesting parts of the journey.
Benefiting from change requires a certain state of mind, openness and a flexibility which can be characterized in several ways.
Be open minded to new experiences and changes of direction
Since we are so bad at predicting the future, and since we know that things can – and usually do – change easily and quickly, it is important to keep an open mind and be ready to experience new things. Who knows what the future will be like? At each new bend of the road a different perspective comes into view.
Before we turn the corner, we are often afraid – all kinds of frightening images can crowd into our head. And yet when we steal ourselves, turn the corner and face those fears, we usually find nothing substantial. Indeed, we often find treasure where we thought a monster was lurking.
Recognize that change is uncomfortable
We all know what it feels like to get out of bed on a cold winter’s morning. We’re comfortable and content dozing away under the covers. But we can’t learn and grow and experience all the richness life has to offer unless we get out of bed and go out into the cold. If you want to be stronger, you have to subject your muscle to stress – you have to go through a certain degree of effort – pain, even – in order that your muscles will respond and adapt. If you want to do well in an exam, you need to put yourself through the mental strain of working through problems and struggling with academic material.
Growth usually comes with some pain – this is natural and normal. But so long as we have the right attitude, the pain and the challenge can actually be invigorating and refreshing. I have recently stepped up my exercise programme and have been working a lot harder in the gym several times a week. It’s a struggle – by the end of each session, I’m exhausted. But it’s energizing and I can see and feel the results.
We’re all the same – growth hurts, but with the right attitude, the pain can, in a sense, feel good. And without the pain, how could we know the joy of what it is to have grown?
Don’t let your natural resistance to change get in the way
We all have a natural tendency to resist change. I am myself involved in the management of change, and if there’s one thing I can say about change, it’s that it is almost always difficult. People don’t like it, they feel uncomfortable about it and they complain about it. This resistance may be some kind of survival mechanism – when you are stable and static, you know that you are alive and OK, and change could be a threat to this survival.
But only by changing can we grow and develop. Someone wrote that the only unchanging state is death, and this implies that a life lived to the full is one of constant change – vibrant, growing, always ready for and even reaching out to new experiences, open to the transformations they can bring.
A famous Taoist analogy of the best way to approach life is to be like a bamboo stalk – supple and ready to bend low in the wind, taking on the storm by accommodating to it, never resisting.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
What’s around the next corner? When we move on, embrace change and face the fears that haunt us, we usually find that wonderful new experiences open up, and we are transformed. This is how we grow. This is how we learn. This is why we are here.