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“The only constant in life is change.”
My father must have quoted that little trope to me about 100 times in my life. Usually, it was at the exact moment that the wisdom of the statement was the least bit useful to me. But, of course, that does not diminish the wisdom of the statement.
Change is inevitable. As we look around us in nature, we see the process of change: the leaves on the trees, thick and green just six weeks ago, now ablaze in color, or brown, thinning and falling to the ground. It doesn’t matter how much the tree liked its foliage this year, nature always wins, and the leaves always fall.
For me, personally, that is always bittersweet. As much as I love the colors and the feel of autumn in Colorado, I wish the season could last about nine months of the year. At the same time, I know this means the beginning of the holiday season, ski season, long, peaceful nights and the promise of Spring Training on the other side.
The worst is when nature decides to strip the trees of their beauty in an unnaturally swift fashion. Early freezes or violent winds—like this weekend’s—rip the leaves from the trees and spread them around too soon for me to really enjoy the season as much as I could. That sort of unnatural change saddens me, throws me off-kilter.
Sometimes, the forces of nature are so violent that the tree loses limbs, or has to be chopped down and scrapped altogether. And, while one would hope such a tree would be replaced by one stronger and just as beautiful, the reality is that the tree’s demise displaces other parts of the small ecosystem that were dependent on it, from a bird’s nest to a rabbit-hole.
And, yes, that’s all one big, tortured, metaphor.
We humans are not wired to deal with change well. Our brains build patterns of associations and familiarities that help us make sense of our worlds, and it is the rare person who copes easily with disruptions to those patterns. Luckily, in most cases, change is a slow process. A student progressing from learning to count to solving differential equations takes time, decades, even. Change that is organic, and natural, is very easy to live with and understand. Nobody questions the caterpillar retreating into its cocoon, because that is a natural step in the cycle of a butterfly’s life.
But, sometimes, change feels unnatural, and causes extraordinary chaos. An athlete who takes steroids to improve their performance will end up constantly injured, because the infrastructure of the body was not designed for the stresses steroid-induced musculature places on it.
That’s not to say that tumultuous change is automatically a bad thing: puberty, for all its anxiety, is necessary and good. But, often, change that feels unnatural signals something deeper, something more troubling or significant.
Organizations and institutions are not immune from this evolution, either. An organization that stands still is an organization being passed up by their competition. But, even there, evolution is supposed to be a gradual process, absent trauma (see: Weinstein; Hollywood). So, when an organization that seems to be properly functioning goes through a season of upheaval, investors get nervous. Sudden, widespread changes in personnel or resource allocation sometime signal something deeper. Managed well, this can be like a strong breeze stripping the leaves from a tree; managed poorly, this can feel like a hurricane ripping the tree up by its roots. Even institutions rooted in the eternal can be damaged by temporal forces, if the change is managed poorly.
Still, something will always fill the void — maybe weeds, maybe something better, more dynamic. And though the rabbits and the birds will be sad, as they seek new shelter from the storms of life, the world will continue to spin about its axis, and joy will come in the morning.
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