Imposed change is almost reflexively viewed with suspicion, frequently alarm . Yet curiously even desirable change is difficult and often therefore unpleasant also, although stagnation has a bad air about itself as well. So we settle for a middle ground, what has been delicately described as “the collusion of mediocrity,” change lite. Let’s not be naive, change is not always good for you.
Our lives are a web of powerful ambivalences. This is largely inevitable, given the risks in moving off the familiar centre. Yet we must somehow learn to live with the countervailing forces that pull is in so many directions at once. We know this in our guts, but can’t afford to be preoccupied by the fog of surrounding unknowns nor mesmerized by their dangerous attractions. We construct imaginary fictions to save us from fretting. Eventually, with the help of others and our preferred comforts, these fictions stand in for the elusive painful reality we are too stretched out to stay with. The ambivalences gradually blend together to form what we feel might actually be happening and voila: a personal ideology coalesces.
After this tipping point is reached, the dominoes fall swiftly. To keep the strain of the myriad unknowns at bay we simply maintain the facade of the ideology. Check out the Johari window to get a glimpse of all the things we just don’t or can’t linger over. Ideological maintenance becomes a top priority to save scarce energy. We find solace in the familiar, the shared, the comfortable. However, a gap soon appears. Lots of things don’t fit the collusion of mediocrity: Things like other people’s ideologies or the ugly unvarnished orneriness of the day to day. Jonathan Haidt describes what happens backing it with references to properly controlled studies in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Whenever something novel that conforms to nothing recognizable in our value system presents itself, we do not analyze or test it for properties, but instead look for a place on our ideological continuum to put it, then afterwards rationalize the decision.
This approach made sense in environments where most of the dangers were immediate and reaction time was at a premium. Better to assume the movement in the grass is a tiger or that unfamiliar tribesman an enemy if we want to pass on our genes. At some level, we know better today. Life is complicated and most situations definitely do not lend themselves to impulsive responses. Nevertheless, the old sequence prevails. The see, frame, react, rationalize mechanism wants to show up whenever we go on alert.
So here’s the paradox. The emergency for most of us most of the time is that there is no emergency. Our motivation system whether direct or mediated by the myths that reinforce our values needs to be artificially prodded, but that leads to some really stupid errors like excessive destructive competition, incredible waste and distraction from everything that would give long term meaning to our time on earth. Is it any wonder we need to learn how to think strategically? Is it any wonder we could use a coach when we don’t?