Question 1 — How many of your values would change in the next 10 years?
Question 2 — How many of your values had changed in the last 10 years?
Think about it for a moment.
Did the Covid 19 pandemic changed your answers?
The above two questions were at the center of a research project conducted by Psychology Professor dan Gilbert of Harvard University.
I came across his Ted talk several years ago as I worked on my last book about embracing change Next Is Now! Professor Gilbert was attempting to understand our readiness to change and adapt as we go along. The operating assumption was that the willingness or ability to predict change will decline over the years and we will consider the future change resistant as we will grow older. The results were very different. Gilbert discovered that the readiness to change of 18 years old is equal to that of 50 years old. We are treating future change with a great deal of resistance while we overestimate the amount of change, we have experienced to date. He describes these phenomena as the End of History Illusion.
While the questions related to the change in values, the results indicate a much larger underestimation in life of what the future brings and most importantly our ability to absorb it while adapting to it as opposed to resisting it. The end of History illusion, as Gilbert concludes in his Ted talk illustrates that we as human beings act as if we are a finished product while we are still work in progress. And probably will be in such a state until the day we die.
I was fascinated by the study as it did reaffirm many of my own qualitative research work around people’s readiness to change and adapt. Working with employees in diverse companies I often found the reluctance to change and evolve rooted deeply in their belief that the past is the most accurate representation of the present. Employees act as if they have maximized their capacity to change and none was left for the future.
The result was often one of several predictable paths. The first path was active resistance of refusal to change which resulted with dismissal from the organization. Companies refused to allow those employees to hijack the future in the name of their nostalgic past. These active resisters ended up frustrated, bitter, unemployed, and often irrelevant in the marketplace.
The other path was that of the reluctant to change employees. They did change but did so very reluctantly while continuing to complain about it all the way through. Their change was often too little too late and represented the bare minimum required. As a result, the organizations they worked at failed to capture the potential that the change represented and suffered financially and strategically. The reluctant to change employees, eventually ended up departing the organization. Because they acted in a way that became an obstacle to the organization’s future. Again, an outcome the organization could not afford.
In all those cases the listening lens of the past clouded the employees’ judgment. The facts that supported the change’s scope and speed morphed in their story into big threats to be protected from or fight against. What others saw as a beautiful future they saw as a story of destruction of the past achievements. It resulted with those employees living according to the end of history illusion. The problem was it was just that an illusion directed by the listening lens of historical perspective. Again, same facts, different stories.
Our love affair with our past seem to control our perspective of the future. Despite mountain of books about the importance of adapting to change and the classic bestseller book “what got you here will not get you there,” it seems that we continue to ignore this wisdom. We hold onto the past and turn it into the beacon of our future. This dangerous listening lens place us in an increasingly growing irrelevant position and risk our future.
When it comes to facing the facts, we twist them to conform with our past experiences and refuse to allow the facts to be freely examined and evaluated on their own merit. This history-tinted view force the facts into a preconceived story and force the story of your life to stand still and refuse to evolve.
It is the Story not history
I was once approached by an academic institution that was suffering from a decline in donations. They asked me to advise them about how to increase their engagement with their donors. Throughout the years they have produced tens of thousands of alumni who were spread all over the country. Their request focused on new marketing techniques to engage and retain donors. Many of whom used to donate to the university but now left it to concentrate their support in other institutions.
I started with the following question:
One a scale of 1–10 how would you estimate the change that your alumni have experienced in their profession in the last ten years?
They aggregate result was 9 out of 10.
On a scale of 1–10 how much change would your alumni face in the next 10 years?
They responded half-jokingly 12.
On a scale of 1–10 how much did your curricula evolved in the last 10 years or will evolve in the next 10 years?
Three — they embarrassingly responded.
Here lies the answer to your question. I declared.
“You don’t have donors decline issue. You are facing relevance issue.” I explained to the board members. You are losing relevance as you story refuse to shift considering major changes your alumni are facing. You insist on teaching concepts and skills that are losing relevance in the marketplace at a fast pace. As a result, your donors see no reason to support your academic institution. It is not that your donors left you, I concluded. It is that you left your donors by sticking your past and effuse to adapt to the future.
Once upon a time your story was fresh and relevant. Your donors were excited and interested in being part of that story. As time changed and relevance evolved you let your story remain history-tied and therefore future-irrelevant. In an academic institution this is a common practice especially with the concept of tenure built into the system. Older, once accomplished professors become stagnant in their thinking and repeat their old formula for success. The tenure process prevents new fresh perspective from penetrating the academia’s walls. Respect of the elders take precedence, and they lead the way forward with ever growing old tools and concepts.
Marketing techniques are not the solution in such a case. You need to reinvent the story, the core value, of the institution. Future-embracing story delivered by professors who are excited about guiding their students through the future is the way to regain relevance and eventually donors. And to achieve that you ought to shed the history listening lens and let the facts presented by the evolving change stand on their own and responded to with a fresh future-ready way.
Such suggestions in academic institutions, and for that matter, successful organizations are nothing short of heresy. You will be considered disrespectful of the past achievements of the organization and therefore lacking the right to suggest future paths. The protection of the past is so ingrained that it clouds the facts and cause many to ignore them or subject them to old way of thinking.
The predictable past and the unknown future
What is beautiful about the past is that we know it. We know how it feels and what does it hold. We know how to handle it. We did it once before and we gained all the hindsight wisdom. We are ready for the past to repeat itself. If we can only ensure that history will repeat itself, we will be all good. But it doesn’t. Not in the way we hope it to be.
That is why we are inclined to look for shreds of history in the future. Seek to bend the future into our historical perspective and hope that it will equip us with better ways to handle it, manage it, survive it, whatever term you will apply to it.
Nd while history does come with lessons, it does not indicate the future.
History makes us resilient. History makes us smarter. History makes us more confident as we handled challenge sin the past.
But history does not make the unknown more known.
History does not make the future less different or distinct.
History does not make the butterflies in the stomach as we face new and exciting challenges disappear.
We need to learn to apply the historical wisdom to strengthen our character but not to distort our evaluation of the future opportunities. We ought to not view our life as an end of history and stop all futter evolution.
Let history strengthen our identity but not rob us of the excitement of the future.