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why do we change?
Dana Schutz, Assembling an Octopus, 2013,
I quit my job. I told the company a month ago, but I left on May 18. Last week I went to New York to see S. It was a good visit, though I was puffy from allergies and got sick halfway through. We went upstate for the weekend, to a farmhouse halfway between Cold Spring and Beacon, and it was hot and green and immensely charming. When I came back I was surprised by how much dust had accumulated in my apartment.
I quit my job because I make money from my writing, and I wanted more time to write, and I have non-writing projects I want to work on. Also, my friends all thought I should quit. I tend to do whatever my friends tell me.
I’ve been thinking about when people make big changes and why. I like this John C. Maxwell quote: People change in four seasons: when they hurt enough they have to, when they see enough they are inspired to, when they learn enough that they want to, and when they receive enough that they are able to. I know it’s too simplistic, but there’s something about the idea of experience (positive or negative) accumulating until you hit a breaking point that feels right to me. After all, most people convert to religion in periods of crisis (pain). People leave bad relationships when they meet someone who makes them believe they can be happy (joy). You’ve endured enough, or you’ve seen something new, or you understand finally why it’s all not working, or you’re loved deeply enough that it feels safe.
Most people who make big life changes are happier for it, according to the data. We tend to overweigh risk, underweigh reward. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make us more logical.
Late in “Farsighted,” he recounts his own use of decision-scientific strategies to persuade his wife to move, with their two children, from New York City to the Bay Area. Johnson starts with intuitions—redwoods are beautiful; the tech scene is cool—but quickly moves beyond them. He conducts a “full-spectrum analysis,” arriving at various conclusions about what moving might mean financially, psychologically (will moving to a new city make him feel younger?), and existentially (will he want to have been “the kind of person who lived in one place for most of his adult life”?). Johnson summarizes his findings in a PowerPoint deck, then shows it to his wife, who raises objections that he hasn’t foreseen (all her friends live in Brooklyn). Eventually, they make a contract. They’ll move, but if after two years she wants to return to New York they’ll do so, “no questions asked”—a rewind.
I have a lot of strategies for evaluating potential changes. I map it all out, like Johnson, analyzing every possibility. But I don’t really believe that my analysis helps. Fundamentally the decision is always emotional, prompted by the dam breaking.
That’s a funny admission from someone who’s addicted to analysis, who reads theory about change in order to soothe myself. I’ve read L.A. Paul’s book about the impossibility of your present self truly understanding how something like having a baby will change you. I’ve read Agnes Callard’s book Aspiration, in which she claims that aspirants “are motivated by proleptic reasons, acknowledged defective versions of the reasons they expect to eventually grasp.” Today I’m realizing that maybe I’m less interested in the philosophical conundrum of whether we truly control change, and more interested in the conditions that seem to precipitate it. I want to hear about the moment right before.
We often contemplate change for a long time before we act on it. Sleepless nights, waffling. Sometimes this persists for years. We all know people who’ve been contemplating a big change for way too long, but are consistently unable to pull the trigger. They’re paralyzed, caught on something within themselves, always blaming external circumstances: it’s the wrong time. Sometimes we give up on them. But then one day they actually make the change. And you’re like: well, that took you way too long. But I’m glad.
For me, personally, the feelings that seem to precipitate change: boredom. Dissatisfaction. Disappointment. The visceral sense that an equilibrium is unsustainable, that the center will not hold. Hope for the future—the sudden realization of what I’m missing.
Confidence seems to help a lot—the belief that the future can be better, that by committing to a change I can make it better.
The right words, at the right time, from the right person.
The right omen (I’m big into signs from God).
Realizing how much conflict I’m in—that how I’m acting is not how I want to act, that how I’m living is not how I live. Feeling, even for a brief moment, the ease of being fully aligned.
What I recommend to friends who want to change: psychedelics, talking to their best friends about it, therapy. These things might not help at all. But they seem to help more than anything else.
Sometimes when you talk to someone your own reaction betrays you. You realize, through conflict, what you actually want to do.
Lately I’ve been struck a sense of unusual clarity. It feels like a fever breaking. It’s not clarity in the sense that I’ve been hit by a big revelation—more just that I feel newly equipped to assess my reality. I see what’s working and what isn’t.
In April I moved, as I explained, from New York to California. S and I are living apart for a little while. And now I’ve quit my job. That’s a lot of change.
I am reeling in the wake of it. I keep waking up extremely early, no matter when I sleep. I read and write frenetically. Am learning the names of flowers I see on walks: antherium, Chinese dogwood. Am going on lots of long walks to nowhere in particular. The word on my mind is insular—my life increasingly seems to be structured in pacts, promises, intuitions that are hard to unpack for others. But just because something is difficult to decipher from the outside doesn’t mean it’s not clear from the inside.
For a while I’d been feeling the low background thrum of anxiety. I kept asking myself: have I made the right choices? Am I happy? Followed by: of course you have, you are. This continued for some time. But now: the seesawing, the constant going back and forth, has stopped. My mind is quiet.