FORMER AUSTRALIAN COMIC of the Year turned bestselling author Marty Wilson takes a shrewd look at our instinctive reaction to change and why we shouldn’t let our fears stop us from stepping outside the cave.
CHARLES DARWIN, the father of the theory of evolution, said, “It’s not the strongest of the species who survive, not the most intelligent, but those who are the most adaptive to change.”
Change is hard for all of us. I’m a pharmacist turned copywriter turned stand-up comic turned wine writer turned author and speaker, and I still find change incredibly challenging.
Ironically, it’s evolution that has made change hard for us. Survival of the fittest has hardwired our brains to seek patterns and avoid change.
When something is familiar we feel relaxed and confident. When we’re trying something different, a part of our brain called the amygdalae, situated deep down in the basal ganglia – one of the oldest parts of our brain – stimulates a surge of adrenaline that gives us sweaty palms and a tight feeling in our abdomen.
We go into our favourite restaurant and think, ‘Ah, nice.’ Then we find they’ve changed their whole menu. Our feelings change to ‘Eeek, not nice.’ I come home to my wife of 10 years; I relax. But I come home to my wife and her new personal trainer, Sven, and tense up.
This is our body taking part in the classic ‘fight or flight’ response. We all know how this adrenaline feels. Some of us call it fear or nerves or butterflies; some call it knots in the stomach; sadly some of us call it ‘that thing that stops me learning a language, starting a business, or phoning that special someone.’
It’s such a shame we’re all brought up to call this feeling something bad, because it doesn’t have to be. We only feel it at all because our physiology hasn’t caught up with civilised society. Emotionally and intellectually we’re not primitive any more, but we still have this Neanderthal part of our brain that sets off alarm bells if we move too far away from the cave.
Ten thousand years ago this was a great survival mechanism. Back then life was physically dangerous and people who explored were people who died.
However, these days it’s almost never life or death. We still get the same big hit of adrenaline but we’re just out of our comfort zone; fight or flight just isn’t appropriate any more. In a new business pitch it’s not considered good form to run away from your client screaming like your hair’s on fire, or lean over the desk and punch them in the face.
Because we’ve grown up calling this adrenaline surge ‘fear’, that’s how we react to it. We all try to build a little bubble of sameness around ourselves to avoid it.
We choose new friends just like our old friends and new systems just like our old systems. We go into a pizza place, look at the menu and go, ‘Hmm, Sicilian… Capricciosa looks nice… Ham and Pineapple, please.’
Life is a short, precious gift. We can’t let that underdeveloped, Neanderthal part of our brain persuade us to spend our life safely tucked up inside our cave. To use a more Australian metaphor, don’t live between the flags. Sure, on the beach swim between the flags. But don’t live between the flags.
If happiness has a motto, it’s not ‘Same again, thanks.’ If a life well-lived has a soundtrack, it’s not a nonstop block of Classic Rock. If success has a flavour, it’s not Ham and Pineapple.