Resposted from Assaf’s original post on Medium.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell them about your plans.” — Woody Allen
When it rains, it pours.
Life events aren’t evenly distributed. Changes seem to bombard us in clusters as if they conspired on timing, prying us from the calm of everyday life, and distracting us from getting on with our plans.
The last few years have taught me differently. Adventures in life and entrepreneurship have been a field course in Murphy’s Law. They’ve allowed (forced) me to zoom in on the volatility bubbling beneath the normal progression of life. Planning is a helpful exercise, but our plans will always be wrong because they are based on a version of the world that exists only in our heads and not in reality. We depend on logical extrapolations for planning but reality has no such allegiance to rational outcomes. Things unfold probabilistically, and as a result, once in a while, low probability things do happen (see: Trump).
No surprise then that we aspire to levels of stability in our own life that nobody actually has, and let change sneak up on us.
Here are a few principles that may help you navigate changes in your life:
Bet on Change — Writing in 500BC, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously noted that “change is the only constant”. And so it is. We have grown up with an expectation that life is rooted in stability, and volatile events distract us or unmoor us from it. The reverse is true. Volatility is the normal condition, interrupted by fleeting periods of stability.
In other words, if things seem stable now, make the most of the lull — rest, build your reserves of energy, focus on your health and build a buffer of good habits to weather the turbulence down the road.
The Source of Change is Entropy — Change is ubiquitous because all systems are constantly falling into disorder. This is as true of the human, social, civilized world as it is of the physical world. All matter in the universe tends towards disorder. The only thing that can stave off the effects of entropy is an infusion of new energy, and since we never have infinite amounts of new energy, change of some kind is inevitable in every realm.
Energy comes in many currencies. In the physical world, energy comes in the form of sunlight (photosynthetic, or fossil fuel (stored sunlight), or wind (sunlight converted to kinetic energy), etc.). In the social world the currencies of energy are things like attention, inspiration, social capital, financial capital, and others that describe how important something is to us. Many forms of energy are convertible to eachother (though not always — you can’t ‘buy’ your own inspiration, though you may be able to increase your chances of it with certain experiences, and you can most definitely purchase the inspired works of others).
Sidenote: The physical and social world are not separate realms, they just appear to be. It’s why the best medicine for mental stress is physical activity, and why a good night’s sleep can significantly change your outlook on a situation. The laws of physics have analogs in our social experience. We are physical creatures.
Balance is Dynamic, Not Stagnant — Sometimes we find equilibriums. We call them stability. Things stay relatively the same for a while, the world makes logical, dependable sense, day in, day out.
Equilibriums emerge from a balance of opposing forces. This balance is created by tension — the opposing forces pushing on eachother.
We tend to think about balance as a frozen state of tranquility. It is not. Imagine yourself standing on a basketball. You aren’t still. Your feet and your core muscles and your hands are dancing furiously to keep you upright. You are at war with gravity, vibration, and kinetic energy. Balancing is about rebalancing — a constant recalculation over time. It is the thousand minor adjustments we make in response to constant imbalances in one direction or another. Balance means embracing certain tensions.
We want space to make decisions at work, and our work needs us to fit into a specialized role. So long as our need for creative freedom and our company’s need for reliant role fulfillment are in balance, things are fine. We want independence in our relationship, but our partners need us to be reliably dependable and predictable for their own sense of security. When fulfilling one need means ignoring the other one too much, conflict arises.
Some Tensions are Necessary: This means that tension is not necessarily bad. All communities have tensions between what’s shared publicly vs privately. All knowledge organizations have tensions between scalable repetition and creative customization/invention. All relationships have tensions between freedom and dependence. Kids that only ever obey the parents won’t learn to advocate for themselves. Parents that only ever obey their kids won’t teach them about boundaries.
Yet tensions wear on us. It may be a nice thought to see tension as a necessary part of the grand puzzle, but it doesn’t necessarily feel nice in practice. Tensions cause cortisol spikes and frustrated exhales. When opposing forces meet, friction is present. When we can’t fully wash ourselves of tensions from work before the next day’s round, they mount and fester. At a certain point, no amount of meditation or exercise or walks in the park will squeegee away the fog of stress.
And therein lies the mechanism for the balance’s self-destruction. Baked into stability is the seed of its own undoing. As stress levels grow, and the determinations of opposing forces to outdo eachother clash, our balance becomes wobbly. Stand for long enough on a basketball and a gust of wind or your own muscle fatigue will knock you over eventually. Gravity will win. In life we may delay change with infusions of new energy (money, inspiration, support, etc.), but it looms in the future nonetheless.
So we find ways to balance for a while, but not forever. Tensions between forces must be resolved somehow, at some point.
Life, in Chapters: …which is why life tends to unfold in chapters, tumbling from equilibrium to equilibrium, with each bookended by periods of transition. In my own life, I’ve noticed that chapters seem to last about every two to three years. In each, I have assumed a central narrative about what I’m doing in life, which friendships I’m closest to, where I live, what I aspire to, etc.
Life experienced in chapters happens on S-curves of mastery:
The beginning of a chapter feels daunting, unfamiliar, scary. Think about your first day at school, or work. Colleagues may be new, the road ahead may seem treacherous, we are bombarded with new information we don’t yet know how to apply. When here, focus on the fact that things will get easier, and do what you can to orient yourself to your new surroundings.
The middle of a chapter feels like growth, increasing familiarity, learning the ropes, generating insights, making connections. The rate of applicable learning is high, self-esteem usually grows, and satisfaction can be high. When here, use your energy to maximize your situation.
The end of a chapter feels like diminishing returns. Balances you defined your life by no longer suit, and you may feel fatigued, frustrated, or restless, in search of new playgrounds. Your situation is getting wobbly. It’s when you begin to daydream about other possibilities. Sometimes it requires a change of environment altogether (leaving work, leaving your spouse, moving cities, etc.), but sometimes it just requires a shift within your existing settings (promotion, redefining or adding something new to your relationship, finding a different neighbourhood or rearranging your room). When you’re here, consider what adjustments are needed, and how your prior efforts set you up for the next S-curve. The next adventure is already taking shape whether your are aware of it or not.
Self-Care Amidst the Storm — Since external circumstances are ever-shifting sands, attaching happiness or self-worth to them is a recipe for eventual depression. Instead, invest in the independent variables, or the things that change on much slower cycles: your mindset, systems for coping with stress, creative endeavours that put you in a state of ‘flow’ (art, running, music, reading, etc.), and sources of enduring happiness such as meaningful relationships and helping others. Shape yourself into a more resilient adaptor so that you can surf the procession of waves looming over the horizon.
Assaf is a member of Founder’s Only and occasionally guest-posts here.