Surfing The Winds of Change

Why Do People Fear Change?

What is the greatest fear of human beings?

One of the biggest fears that people have is the fear of change. Inherently, some personalities are more risk adverse than others. In fact, statistically, around 86% of the general population are risk adverse1. They prefer changes that are implemented in stages and are properly managed.

Now I believe that people fear change as a result of natural selection. I remember in one of the jungle survival courses that I took when I was serving in the military, other than teaching us to kill chicken, rabbits and snakes, the instructor taught us not to take risks by eating unknown fruits and plants.

We were taught to meticulously test out the edibility of a plant by systematically rubbing it on the tender parts of our arms, wrists and lips in 15-minute intervals before putting it our mouth (for further testing).

The logic is simple: we do not need to eat something highly toxic to get killed in the jungle. If it just upsets our stomachs and we develop diarrhoea, combined with the lack of drinking water, we could be dead in a matter of a few days.

That is why I believe natural selection taught us to inherently fear change; to stick to the familiar plants and animals that we are used to eating. Thus, the careful people survived and risk-takers died in this aspect.

So there is nothing wrong with being risk adverse, is there?

Actually there is, when the environment is changing and we have no choice but to change with it.

Imagine that the government is developing the jungle that we’ve been living in. They are clearing it to make factories and they need workers to work in the factory. We can either choose to continue to harvest fruits and vegetables that we are used to (which will get lesser and lesser as days pass, and eventually disappear) or we can learn the new skills to work in a factory and be able to continue making a living in a new way.

Les Brown, a great motivational and change speaker once told this story. He was working with a company to downsize and they had selected a group of workers to take the “golden handshake” and receive USD$300,000 as compensation or continue to work for the company but risk being retrenched further down the road and get only 2 weeks’ pay.

Only 50% of those selected took the offer to move on early. The fear of change is even greater than the monetary reward being offered.

Most businesses today are facing unprecedented change. Technology is advancing at such a fast pace that a 5 year-old portable hard disk that I found when doing some house cleaning only had 1G of storage when a 8gb thumb drive is selling at about HK$45 (US$5.73) on eBay.

Today, we cannot afford to NOT change. Here are some things that have to happen before we change. Even though for some cases, these things happen really fast and in other cases they happen slowly.

As a change management speaker, having read many books on the topic of change and conducted several change management workshops in Hong Kong, there are some common ingredients for change those books on change and change gurus teach.

Being more conscious of these things will help us move forward at a faster pace.

1. Change Your Mindset

There is famous saying that goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Human beings are the same.

Our brains operates with a series of shortcuts. Not many (if any) of us will actively look out for house number every time we go home. We just know that it is our home as we walk toward it. Every wondered why? We also do not have to decide which side of our mouth to chew our food.

Because all these functions and many other functions are taken care of by our unconscious mind.

Similarly, when we are used to doing something in a particular manner, we tend to want to continue doing it the same way – on autopilot mode, simply because, it frees up our processing power to think about other things.

If we do not see any need for change, we will unlikely put in any real effort to change, because change takes time, energy and resolve. And human beings are creatures of habit. If my pre-programmed functions are serving me well and there is not reason for me to change any of the functions, I will tend to want to continue using those pre-programmed functions.

When we work with clients on changing some things in their lives, be it losing some weight, quitting a habit, becoming more successful at work or having better relationships, before we start working with them, we always ask them this question – Is it worth it? Is the change you want worth the effort that you will be putting in? If the answer is “No”, we will have to work on their motivation for change.

Having a change mindset means being mentally prepared for changes. If we are mentally prepared for change, then we will be able to change at a faster pace.

2. Believe in Yourself

Humans are one of the most adaptable creatures on earth. We might mostly be risk adverse but given time, we are able to overcome most of the problems that life has thrown at us. We have colonised almost every corner of the earth, other than Antarctica, which by the way, is still visited by scientists and tourists. Scientist are working to colonise other planets now, which I believe will happen in the next 50 years.

In 2003, when I had the idea of venturing out into the training industry, I had zero credentials. I had no idea who will be my clients and how I will be getting bookings. I spoke to a few close friends about the idea to seek their opinion.

Almost all of them asked me questions like, “who is going to be your clients?”, “how are you going to get them?” and “do you know of anyone who can work with you on this?” They were all well-meaning – they wanted to keep me safe they probably knew that it would be easier if I found a job that I was familiar with.

I am eternally grateful to one friend that I had. He told me, “Great! Why don’t you try? If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

Because somebody believed in me, I started to believe more in myself. And as I started to work towards the big change in my life, I started to see some results and began to believe in myself even more.

It is important for us to able to change our mental picture of ‘who we are’ to ‘who we want to be’. A person who suffered abuse as a child may see himself as someone who does not deserve happiness. A person who grew up in a broken family may unconsciously believe that there is no real love on earth. A person who sees himself as wasting food that was supposed to feed hungry children when he does not finish every morsel of food on his plate, will never be able to stop himself from licking his plate clean.

That last person was I. I love to eat and I used to live in this dream body that could not put on weight no matter how much food I ate. I was brought up in a low-income family but my mother worked hard to ensure there’s always food on the table and she also made sure that I always finished the food on the table.

I grew up believing that the food on the table that is wasted could have been used to feed many hungry children in another country.

And I held on to that image for a big part of my life and as long as I held on to that image, I could not stop finishing my food, no matter how much food was served to me.

A couple of years ago I was in a fitness programme to lose weight. I trained 3 times a week and was still not seeing results. I did not know that what was holding me back from losing weight, was that mindset that I had.

I just could not stop myself from finishing food, until I let go of that mindset. When I realised that the food that is on the table can never be used to feed someone else in another country, not even in our neighbouring countries, I was able to control my food intake to lose 4 kilogrammes in 3 weeks.

3. Set Big Goals And Break Them Down.

Some people manage to make big changes in their lives in a very short span of time. This takes a tremendous amount of effort and discipline. All change takes discipline but a big change over a short period of time takes more discipline and commitment than one that is gradually implemented. A person who went through a big change over a short period of time may also not be able to maintain the change over a longer period; they may suffer a burnout.

This happens a lot with people who want to lose weight quickly. They go on extensive dieting plans or all protein, no carbs, no sugar diet plans and even though they see big results over a short span of time, their bodies crave for the carbohydrates and sugar that they are suddenly deprived of and eventually they succumb and put on a few more kilograms compared to when they first started dieting.

Work out a plan that has incremental goals and that you are comfortable with and stick to it.

Remember how when we were young and new to taking tests and exams our teachers taught us to complete as many questions as we can, skip those that we cannot solve and come back to them when we reach the end of the test paper?

We can apply the same tactic when working toward our goals.

Start the day with small goals so at least you get something done and you the euphoria of winning push you on toward the tougher goals. As opposed to starting with a huge, daunting task, which you may not be able to accomplish, and the feeling of failing may ruin the day for you.

Find out what you need to get yourself from where you are to where you want to be. Is it some skills that you need to pick up? Or is it some people that you need to convince? Or a number of smaller projects that you need to complete before you can take down the giant?

4. Be Consistent

Make a committed and consistent effort to work toward that goal. There are no short cuts in life. Good things happen to those who are working to find them. Success is an accumulation of the small things that we do every day.

It is difficult to stop a bad habit by thinking about it and using all our energy to control it every day. It is easier to replace it with another habit, for example, picking up an exercise like cycling or jogging. As we channel more of our energy to the new habit, there will be less time and energy for the old one.

Keep yourself on the path to success. When you are making a big change, you are like running long distance; it’s not going to be a short sprint. You will feel yourself getting stretched, you will feel some pain here and there and on sometimes you will feel like life has given you a big punch on your face.

Which is why in order to be consistent in your efforts, you need to keep you spirits up. How we can keep our spirits up is by immersing ourselves in a positive environment. Make it a habit to mix with people who are positive. Make it a habit to listen to positive speeches and read positive materials. Just spend 15 minutes everyday listening to motivational speakers – people like Tony Robbins, Les Brown, Nick Vujicic, Simon Sinek, Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

If you keep listening to these people, you will catch their spirit. it is contagious. You will feel the energy to make the change that you want, it is just not possible to listen to these people for 15 minutes a day for a month and still stay the same way.

The converse is true, if we are trying to make some changes and every day we are mixing with people who do not believe in making those changes and people who speak negative things about changing, sooner or later, we will become like them.

It’s like taking little punches during an MMA fight, to your thighs, to your body and to your face, they are not going to knock you out right away, but they are going to eat into your energy and eventually cause you to make some devastating mistakes.

Instead, we need to guard ourselves against these punches so they won’t eat into us. We should feed ourselves with energy from people who speak positive things.

5. Remember It Is Only Human To Suffer A Relapse

Some people who are working to change their behaviour suffer a relapse. The best way to handle it is to hold on to the mental picture of success and carry on the programme as planned.

We need to understand that we cannot achieve success by doing the right things once, twice or three times. Similarly, we cannot fail by not doing the right things a few times. It takes consistent efforts to get results – whether good or bad ones.

Imagine if you are on a diet to lose weight and you have been reducing the portion carbohydrates that you consume for a month and on the first day of the next month, you ate a 12-inch pizza all by yourself.

2 things can happen now. One, you blame yourself for not having enough will power to stick to the plan, feel lousy about it and continue eating a whole pizza everyday for the rest of the week, or two, you accept that you have slipped, and go back to portion control that you consume the next day. Which do you think is a better option?

If we hold on to the positive mental picture of ourselves, going back on the programme is the obvious choice. It will set us on path to success, even though we may fall along the way.

It is the little things we do every day, on most days, that is going to give us the results that we want. So stick to the programme.



  1. The Personality Workbook by Institute for The Motivational Living, Inc., USA