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Change blindness and the all-of-a-sudden syndrome

As human beings, we tend to fall victim to the “all of a sudden” syndrome.

All of a sudden, I’m out of shape.
All of a sudden, my finances are a wreck.
All of a sudden, my product is late.
All of a sudden, a relationship is broken.
All of a sudden, I’m addicted.
All of a sudden, the year is gone.
All of a sudden, my business has failed.
All of a sudden, my kids are grown.

But things rarely happen “all of a sudden.” They happen incrementally, by degrees; slowly, over time.

The problem is, we usually don’t see them happening until “all of a sudden” it’s too late.

The changes are so small, so gradual, that they don’t register on our warning screen. They’re usually too minute to be caught by whatever measurement mechanisms we have in place (see “Do you measure yourself?”), until all of a sudden the change is so great, we can’t NOT notice.

This is called “change blindness,” when we’re so focused on the scene as a whole that we fail to see small (and sometimes not-so-small) but important things that change within the scene.

This happens all of the time in every aspect of our lives. It’s also known as entropy (here).

But this “all of a sudden” effect works both ways. The guy that climbs Everest? That didn’t happen all of a sudden. Successful products don’t just appear out of nowhere. Companies don’t just all of a sudden become successful.

When I run a marathon, I don’t just all of a sudden wake up and run 26 miles. If I’m going to hit my goal of bench pressing 400 pounds, I won’t just all of a sudden go in and load up the bar and try it. I’d kill myself.

If you have a large goal (and you should—see “Are you failing on a regular basis”), you won’t get there all of a sudden. You’ll get there in stages, through a sustained series of gradual, incremental achievements.

“Through small and simple means are great things brought to pass.”

So don’t hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, or all you’ll get are disappointments. Instead, commit yourself to moving forward, just a little every day.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wisely penned the following, in his motivational poem, “A Psalm of Life”:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.

They key to avoiding the negative “all of a sudden” experiences and increasing the positive ones is to reduce the scale of your measurement.

You’ve got to be aware of not just milestones, but DIRECTION. It’s the direction that is the key. It is the direction of your momentum that determines your destination. Because things are always evolving, either for the better, or for the worse.

What you have to do—as an individual, organization, parent, or whatever—is to ask yourself regularly what direction your evolution is taking you.

And be honest in your answers.

-Rusty

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Business and Employment
Rusty Lindquist

Anxiously engaged

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