Quit Complaining and Start Changing

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
— Maya Angelou

One of the best insights that I have heard about complaining was shared by Jack Canfield, author of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Canfield said that all complainers have to have “a reference point of something that they want that they are not willing to risk creating.”

An analysis of this definition reveals two key elements. The first is the idea that we complain when we have reference points that we think we want more than what we have. An example of this would be your car. When there exists a nicer, better, faster, etc. car than the one that you drive (which there does), any problem or deficit with your vehicle (real or imagined) may lead someone to complain about the one that he has. In contrast, something that is rare (such as a tattered keepsake from an event or icon), will not cause us to complain even if it is in far from perfect condition.

Another example of this idea would be a spouse or child. When that person fails to live up to our expectations, whatever they might be, it is likely that we will complain or at the least harbor some form of resentment. But, if our spouse were to happen to be the only person of the opposite gender in the world, or if our children were the only ones available, then our perspective would change immediately.

Similarly, you will never (or at least very seldom) hear an elderly person complain about gravity, even though it causes them to become bent over. While no one wants to experience gravity’s negative effects, we recognize that complaining will do nothing to reduce its impact. There is simply no alternative.

The second component of Canfield’s definition focuses on our response to those things that we want to get or improve. Are we willing to do something, and, in many cases, risk creating a new reality, or do we content ourselves with griping, complaining, and tolerating the status quo?

We all know that changing the current reality can be difficult. Many of us fear change because it takes us out of our comfort zone and leads us down an unknown path. Better the devil that we know.

But we also know that without a willingness to risk that discomfort to change our reality we will be stuck with what we have for the foreseeable future. Time alone will not do it for us.  As Andy Warhol once said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Leaders in particular are known to resist change. According to HBR contributor Rosabeth Ross Kanter, there are many reasons as to why people, most notably leaders, fail to take the action needed to change their current, unwanted realities. These include:

  1. Loss of control. Change can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory and / or processes. Fear sets in and fear is the enemy of progress.
  2. Creatures of habit. From where and how we set out our clothes to our tooth brushing rituals to how we work through our day, we like to follow predictable, familiar routines.
  3. Admission of error. Change is a departure from the past. This may serve as an indictment to those – including the leader herself – who was part of the old way of doing things. Change may invoke resentment and even defensiveness.
  4. More work.  Change cannot happen without real effort, consensus building and continuous two-way communication.  That’s hard work.
  5. The threat is real. When we seek to change there can be real victims of the process, such as fewer jobs when we automate systems, consolidate roles and reporting structures.

These concerns are real and there’s no easy way around them. But that doesn’t mean that we should continue to tolerate the status quo. In the words of Winston Churchill, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

There are certain elements of leadership which, while perhaps not things that we look forward to, are absolutely critical components of the job. Change is certainly one of those. However, not only does avoiding change mean more complaining about and tolerating of things that we don’t want, but it keeps us stagnant. In today’s world, that’s akin to moving backwards. Perhaps JFK said it best: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”