Is anyone afraid of change? Why, what can take place without change? What then is more pleasing to the universal nature? And canst though take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without a change? Dost thou not see then that for thyself also to undergo change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?
This quote from Marcus Aurelius is excerpted from Dee Hock’s Birth of the Chaordic Age and, standing alone in this translation, I found it quite provocative. Translations, however, bear revisiting, and particularly translations of very old texts bear revisiting. To that end, I found the following translation on Gutenberg.org:
XV. Is any man so foolish as to fear change, to which all things that once were not owe their being? And what is it, that is more pleasing and more familiar to the nature of the universe? How couldst thou thyself use thy ordinary hot baths, should not the wood that heateth them first be changed? How couldst thou receive any nourishment from those things that thou hast eaten, if they should not be changed? Can anything else almost (that is useful and profitable) be brought to pass without change? How then dost not thou perceive, that for thee also, by death, to come to change, is a thing of the very same nature, and as necessary for the nature of the universe?
Early last spring while driving to work I found myself again musing about the nature of our so-called resistance to change. My work has come to be more and more about change over time, and I could not have survived my career, much less thriven in it, if I were not constantly, on a daily basis, often, adjusting to change. Therefore, as I noticed the pale green leaves emerging, that the sun was a bit brighter that day, and that the new spring fashions were out on the street, I was struck by how much change we are either habituated to or regularly welcome. In fact, one of the strengths of our governmental system is known to be its ability to regularly and cyclically expect and welcome change. Again, I thought about the irony of how much we fuss about change.
Truly, I think it is change that challenges our identity that we are actually least likely to welcome, however necessary it may be. Businesses must regularly change in order to adjust to market conditions, and there is plenty of press about the instability of markets and increasing difficulty of forecasting trends. Socially, especially in the US, we have evolved a pattern of personal identity encapsulated by work, so changes at work more easily assault our identity as individuals.
Increasingly, it seems that, even the structure of organizations must change, not just in terms of restructuring and re-engineering in the now well known RIF’ing and rightsizing sense, but also the power and authority relationships within these organizations are under pressure in the face of social and marketplace turbulence, let alone an increased rate of change in the natural world. As the second translation of Marcus Aurelius Antonius (above) highlights, death itself is The Big Change, and one that seems to haunt us in the workplace more regularly than former generations in terms of symbolic death or employment termination. We no longer expect to be born into an organization as nascent workers and die out of the same organization at retirement to live a few years and then finally die physically. Increasingly, we see ourselves as being associated with multiple organizations over time and also multiple careers, perhaps living decades past our original professional identity.
As an adolescent, I had a very good poetry teacher. He later went on to run his own small press, and to my knowledge, ironically, he taught English literature, poetry, and Shakespeare at the same high school pretty much his entire career. Some of the odd things he said to us, of course, stuck with me. One of those was “We die each day to live.” How true. There is a continual emerging from the chrysalis in the workplace—and don’t doubt that the butterfly implied here doesn’t find this work of emergence to be work. But not to emerge is to die literally, not figuratively. We die each day to live as we learn new things, take on new roles, and learn to do our work—sometimes even new work—in new ways.
Knowledge workers may have toughest time of all in this way because learning and either teaching or codifying that learning into products is what it’s all about. So, if we do die each day to live—and I believe that, metaphorically, we do—then the welcoming of the new season and its unexpected opportunities, no matter how dark the horizon may be with spring storms, is certainly the more efficacious stance. It’s coming anyway—spring—and who would want to miss it?