It’s a typical New York weekday. The well-dressed businessman, passing a sidewalk lunch cart, says to himself:
Is today the day I’ll break down and try a knish? No….not today.
A sign of strength
I’m struck by the businessman’s choice of words: break down. Is it really breaking down — is it really an act of weakness — to try new things? Of course not. Changing, and welcoming change, can be a sign of strength.
Professionally, we have to be open to change. While I fully understand the impulse to play it safe, to avoid risk, I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t welcomed change during my career in technical communication. Well, I can try to imagine: I’d still be writing print manuals for large-systems software, using command-line authoring tools. And I’d be pretty much unemployable.
I knew a programmer who insisted he was a “mainframe guy” and steadfastly refused to learn new operating systems or programming languages. He stayed employed up through the Y2K scare — and I don’t think he’s worked in the field since.
For him, weakness was in not being willing to change.
A sign of even greater strength
If welcoming change is an act of strength, I’ve recently come to appreciate that resisting change, when the change would undermine your values or compromise your principles, is an act of even greater strength.
We now live in a world where people in authority can lie and not be held to account. Where falsehood is presented as truth and truth as falsehood. Where people unabashedly engage in bigoted behavior. In a remarkably short time, the world has changed. These changes, rather than being welcomed, need to be resisted.
Paradoxically, it’s often by refusing to welcome healthy change (a Muslim family moves in next door, for example) that people end up changing in much bigger ways — letting go of their core values, compromising their principles. They become liars, to protect what they believe is being threatened. They become complicit at hiding or distorting the truth. They become bigots, lashing out at anyone who’s different.
The strong person is the one whose moral compass holds steady, who sees change and doesn’t react in fear.
You’ve probably heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
To help me navigate today’s world, I’ve updated it:
God, grant me the enthusiasm to accept change that will enrich me,
Strength to resist change that will diminish me,
And self-awareness to know the difference.
Go ahead. Try one.
Was it a matter of principle for my friend to insist he was a “mainframe guy”? It doesn’t look that way to me. It looks like fear, or stubbornness, or a combination of the two. I’ve tried to learn from his experience, because like most people I’m prone to staying with what’s comfortable.
Strong people don’t do that, though.
It boils down to knowing who you are — knowing your core values and your ethical principles.
Then, when you’re tempted to change in a way that compromises your values and your principles, you recognize the temptation and you summon the strength to resist.
And when you’re presented with something new, and you know that it doesn’t compromise your values and your principles, you can try the knish. And become better for having done so.
Postscript: One of the best changes in my life was moving from the Northeast to North Carolina in my mid-twenties. I have one lingering regret, though: it’s darned near impossible to find knishes here.
Cartoon: Warren Miller, The New Yorker
Photo: Mostly Foodstuffs