Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 31, 2021
NEIL SENTURIA I’m There for You, Baby
The Greeks had a word for it.
“Change is the only constant in life,” said Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who ran a small venture capital operation in the town of Ephesus around 475 BC. If he only knew how true his words were.
Several years ago, Ms. Bry and I visited Ephesus, and of course, today it is an ancient ruin. I imagined for a moment that on a bright Sunday morning in that time, Mr. and Mrs. Heraclitus were walking down the main street to Starbucks to get their after-church latte and they looked around at their bustling, prosperous city of 250,000, at the time the second-largest city in the world, and they were certain that for sure, this would be permanent. They would die, but Ephesus would always live. And they ordered a double mocha espresso with goat milk.
So the issue of change, either imposed upon you by outside forces or made as a personal choice is a topic worthy of consideration. Katy Milkman, Wharton professor, has written a book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”
She says, “I was in a medical school lecture and up pops a graph showing that 40 percent of premature deaths are due to behaviors that are antithetical to a long life — meaning overeating, smoking, lack of exercise, etc.” Obvious of course, but if logically we all want to make good decisions, why don’t we?
Traditionally, one technique for change is to set “big hairy audacious goals” (a concept from author Jim Collins), but while in fact that sounds good, it doesn’t usually work. I want to be a millionaire is a big goal, but perhaps you should start with just getting a job. I want to lose 30 pounds starts with losing one pound. This seems basic, but Milkman’s perspective is “what’s going to work depends on what’s holding you back.” She says that it is not the looking forward goal, but the looking back feelings and behavior that are the blockade.
This is hard stuff, because figuring out the root cause for a behavior means mining old patterns that are ingrained and destructive. Shining a light on them requires a 1,000 kw beam. This is true both at the personal level as well as the corporate, where you could substitute the word “change” for the infamous word “pivot.”
I have a client who does not like conflict. He knows that he needs to fire a senior employee. He doesn’t want to because it causes him discomfort, which he would prefer to avoid. His inability to do what he knows he needs to do comes from what he learned as a child. Like his parents, he hopes that if he ignores it, maybe it will go away. Look, I am not playing psychoanalyst here, but acting irrationally is a default setting; it is not the clearly chosen, reasoned course.
Another client wants to get paid properly for his achievements. The founder of the company has been taking advantage of his skills for four years. My client wants to resolve this; the founder wants to kick the can down the road and deal with it later. The founder needs the young man who drives a majority of the revenue, but the founder does not want to “give in to the kid” because it is a “family” business.
I am not sure how it will end, but I fear the founder will cut off his nose to spite his face, and then have to get a plastic surgeon for a nose repair that will be vastly more expensive that just making a deal.
Milkman focuses on how we can hold ourselves accountable to change. She talks about “temptation bundling” — which is going to the gym and then rewarding yourself with a smoothie after. The other side of this behavior motivation is the “stick.” If I fail to do something, I will penalize myself.
I am somewhat suspicious of this approach since I am doubtful about the ability to apply the stick part. Negotiating with yourself is a fool’s game.
Personally, I come from a long psychoanalytic background, and I know deeply that learning how to act in your own best self-interests (corporate as well as personal) is a lifelong challenge.
Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry are married, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation
and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com.
Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 669
Keep the spare change.