make change

Open-Source Learning represents a significant change in education. Gone are the syllabi. Gone are the textbooks. Gone are the days when teachers had to act like all-knowing content experts and sergeants-at-arms.

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. -Plato

One of my favorite things about working as a management consultant was that it gave me professional license to act like a five-year-old. No matter what a client said or did, I always got to ask: “Why?”

The most common examples occurred when executives explained their routines and meetings.

Client: “Our team meets every Thursday morning at 10.”

Me: “Why?”

Almost every single time, the answer was, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”


Is the practice important to someone? Does the routine serve a purpose? Do participants get the same meaning and value from the experience as they once did?

When the ‘why’ question is received as an information-seeking expression of genuine curiosity, the ensuing conversation can become informative and even collaborative. But when a person interprets ‘why’ as a challenge to authority, defensiveness can escalate into conflict.

I think that’s fantastic. Conflict can be very productive, especially when it’s a catalyst for change.

The Illusion of Comfort

Everything is changing. Some things are growing. Others are falling apart.

Things that seem permanent are, in point of fact, not. Institutions, cultural norms, and even natural resources require diligent stewardship. Just a few years ago, Americans thought very differently about things previous generations took for granted: school, religion, the Supreme Court, and the Office of the President. Just a few years ago, every American city had enough potable water.

Given the facts facing us today – especially the ones threatening our survival – you’d think that more people would be interested in honest conversations about facts. Our democracy is being tested. Our planet is becoming less habitable.

So why do so many of us still consider the truth inconvenient?

Because changing our minds and habits offends the part of our brain that loves efficiency.

The same mechanism that makes our brain efficient at achieving short-term outcomes (“I’m really good at brushing my teeth!”) can create long-term deficiencies (“I practice brushing my teeth every day with my dominant hand. When I try to brush my teeth with my non-dominant hand, I look like I should be wearing a helmet in my own bathroom.”).

Demanding more from our brains is actually good for us. Challenging our minds and bodies sharpens our thinking skills.

But most of us don’t seek out opportunities to sharpen our thinking skills on our own. Many of us avoid it. We’d rather maintain the illusion of comfort. We indulge in confirmation bias and we take every opportunity to stay the same, even as the world around us changes. We rationalize. We procrastinate. We say stupid shit like, “I can quit at any time,” or, “Man, I really need to lose 15 pounds” while driving around the parking lot eight times, spending an extra $3.92 on gasoline, and arguing with motorists to get a spot closer to the entrance of the gym.

Right now there is something in your life worth doing differently to improve. Will change be comfortable? Who cares? You’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable when you’ve done something worth doing.

Scaling Change

Sometimes change is easier when it’s implemented at a systemic level (i.e., when someone else tells you to).

On September 3, 1967, Högertrafikomläggningen Day, Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. Just ten years before that, 83% of the population voted against the change. But the facts were in: other nearby countries all drove on the right, and most of Sweden’s cars were designed to drive on the right.

So, at 5:00 on September 3, all the traffic in Sweden was ordered to stop and move to the opposite side of the road. The signs had been posted, the traffic lights reversed, and – this is important – the expectation had been set.

It worked.

Traffic resumed, and for the next two years there were actually less accidents on the roads.

My doctoral research focused on change in organizations. I studied how schools and learning communities considered changing traditional agrarian school calendars (the ones you’re used to, with summer vacations) to year-round calendars. Year-round calendars offered higher compensation, more efficient use of campus resources, and a variety of other benefits. But teachers and parents rejected every proposal.

Make Change

Don’t let the game come to you. The Earth will not open and swallow you whole if you do something different today.

Newton’s first law also applies to the psychology of change. It takes force. Force can come in the form of gentle nudges or pandemics, but they are always a call to adventure.

Yoda was right: Use the Force. Start a habit. Break a habit. Take a different route home. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Wear a helmet in your bathroom.

And when you create change in an organization, expect a ripple – maybe even a backlash. This isn’t worth fearing, but it’s important to account for. Interdependence doesn’t require conformity. You may not get everyone on the right side of the road, but at least you’ll know where you’re going.

The difference between leadership and management is that leaders are going somewhere. Somewhere new, somewhere else.

Take a look around. We can’t stay here.

Make change.