Blame Your Brain for How You Handle Change

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renjith krishnan

renjith krishnan

A few months ago, we moved from one apartment to another in the same building. A move like that is about as easy as it gets. We knew the layout of the building, many residents, and store locations nearby. Not much change there, right?


After several years in our old apartment, I’d stopped thinking about which button to press when I got in the elevator. After the move, I had to pay attention. Otherwise, I’d find myself on my old floor. I had to pay attention, too, when I got out of the elevator. I had to force myself to head left instead of right.

With such minimal change, why did I have to pay nearly the same kind of attention I’d paid when I first moved into the building?

Well, it turns out that even simple repetitive acts, like pressing the same elevator button, result in our brain creating neural networks — “clusters of brain cells connected together and programmed for this behavior” — to support them. The more complex the task, say brushing our teeth versus driving a car, the more complex the neural network associated with it.

On the one hand, neural networks make our lives easier: they prevent us from having to relearn the alphabet every time we want to read. But well-established neural networks also hinder us when it comes to learning new things. For example, take a second to cross your arms in front of your chest. Simple, right? Now reverse arms. Not so easy, I bet. You may have had to stop and think about it. Why? Because we haven’t built that neural network.

That’s the biology of change. It’s why failing fast makes a lot of sense for learning. In order to learn – to construct new neural networks – we have to do that new thing again and again and again. And we won’t be good at it right away. And it won’t feel good to perform so badly over and over again. We’ll want to revert to behaviors associated with an already-established neural network that, once built, made our lives easier.

But once we understand that the fault lies with our brains, we can anticipate that we’ll feel this way and that we’ll resist. We can also talk about this with others, so that we’re in it together.

Let me know if this helps you think differently about change!

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