The Tsunami of Change

At the end of this video, the question is asked, rhetorically, what does this exponential rate of change mean. Below is a brief overview of some of my answers.

In the early 1980s I created and implemented a public opinion poll in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area. It’s purpose was ostensibly to gather marketing information for alternative health care practitioners. But I took the opportunity to ask some questions of my own.

In one section of the survey that was administered to hundreds of people (a number that was far in excess of the percapita samples done by Gallop, Harris, and others nationally), I looked at personal motivation. To do this, I identified 20 areas of life that most people consider the most important to them. Here are a few of the more high-profile of them:

  • Personal health
  • Loving relationships
  • Prosperity
  • World Peace
  • Making a difference
  • Adapting to change
  • Achieving personal prestige

Three questions were asked for each of these areas. Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to7 (1=lowest, 7=highest) their attitudes about the importance of, their satisfaction with, and their motivation to improve each topic. So a person might say that their personal health was pretty important (say a 6), were very happy with their own health (7) and not very motivated to improve it (1). Someone else might respond 6 (pretty important), 2 (very dissatisfied) and 6 (very motivated to improve).

When the survey was completed, and the responses put in a computer database, a program was run that analyzed the data. One of the values it calculated was called a Composite Motivational Index (CMI) that combined all three scores for each of these 20 areas. The CMI was a number between 0 and 100 and indicated the overall likelihood that the individual would be interested if someone offered them a way to improve their life in that area. A CMI of 0 would mean that they found that area involved to be of no importance, were totally happy with the way it was, and had no willingness to change. A CMI of 100 would mean that they thought it was extremely important, were totally dissatisfied, and would do anything they could to improve it.

The top two areas are on the partial list above. The highest one received a CMI of around 72 and the second place one a CMI of about 38. Most of the other 18 areas were between 15 and 37. In other words, very much the same. So what was the top scoring topic? The one that was twice as crucial to people as the next most important one? It was “World Peace.”

To put this into perspective, you have to remember that this was done in 1983, so the Cold War had been droning on for decades, and there was no end in sight. And it was the Cold War that was what people meant when they talked about World Peace. Little guerrillas wars and “police actions” were not in the same league.

What happened was that within less than six years, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and soon thereafter the former Soviet Union collapsed without a shot being fired. The Cold War was dead.

That left the throne vacant and waiting for a new king to emerge. So what was the number 2 area of life on the survey? The one that presumably filled the empty spot left after the Cold War was canceled? It was “Adapting to Change.” And now you know why I offered you the video and told you all about the survey. It was all just setting the stage.

One more quick story before I make my real points. I once had some neighbors who had a Siamese cat. Now this breed is well known for often being cross-eyed. It’s said that is because they are so in-bred. Well, theirs, named Iggy, was very cross-eyed.

Iggy was just barely full grown, and still very energetic like a kitten. They let him out routinely without problems. But one day he didn’t come home. He was finally found dead along side of the road that run below our apartments. It was quite twisty, and the visibility was pretty short.

The picture that formed in my mind upon hearing of Iggy’s fate was that he looked up with his crossed eyes, saw two cars coming at him, and dodged out of the way of the wrong one.

Iggy was not born equipped to deal with huge objects that came racing at him at 40 miles an hour just a few feet away. Certainly his agility was up to the challenge, but his eye sight wasn’t. He just wasn’t equipped to handle something that far away from the center of his basic design specifications.

You see an even more simple yet obvious example with an insect trying to get through a car window. There may be another window a few inches away that is wide open, and they will still die trying to get through the window that is closed. Why? They just aren’t equipped to deal with that level of perception.

We humans suffer from similar limitations, though in our case they are usually more a matter of knowledge than physical abilities. I mean for thousand of years we were land bound, until we discovered how to make machines that would allow us to fly. And now we have walked on the Moon.

And now finally, I can make my real point. Since humankind came down out of the trees, or even before, no one has ever had to deal with a rate of change of their fundamental social, cultural, or technical environments that was much different than their great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. The basics of human life just didn’t change that quickly. Most significant changes occurred over centuries, or even millennia, not decades, much less years.

Now that has all changed. If there was one innate hallmark of the Twentieth Century it was the acceleration of the rate at which change routinely occurs. While it is most visible in the technology fields, these have become so intertwined with every other aspect of our lives that you just can’t separate them.

And it shows no sign of letting up. In fact, we have not seen it with all the stops pulled out yet. We’ve been holding it back as best we could all along. But we can’t keep doing that forever. One fine day we will lose our grip, and the wagon will go careening down the hill at whatever rate gravity demands.

So even back in 1983, people were already consciously aware that they had a problem. More important and disturbing and motivating than their families, their careers, or even their own physical health. And they were aware enough of it to say so right out loud when asked directly.

Now we have to wonder, if that was true then, how much more true must it be now, decades later? Look at the factors driving change now that were totally unknown then. And then there are the factors still to come that we are unaware of today.

Yet I don’t know of a single class called “Dealing with Change 101” or anything like it. This is one piece of evidence of just how ill-equipped we are to improve our ability to manage change. We are aware of the problem, but we haven’t lifted a finger to help ourselves prepare for it.

Is it any wonder, then, that the younger generations are heavy into extreme sports? Is it any wonder that they embrace technology like it was the last floating object in a flood? Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they are instinctively taking action that may save their lives, and our world in the process.

So when we talk about the rates of change we are swimming around in, it would be good to keep in mind that no one is so good at it that they can’t use any improvement. For whom doth the bell of change toll? It tolls for thee. It tolls for us all.

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