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How transformation/change could be hard - an analogy from Life

The illusion of steady change

Most changes are gradual. Or it appears to be, as you read stories and narratives about successful people. Be it successful CEOs, scientists, artists, startup founders, you name it -- almost every one who has reached a state of success, it seems, has had a steady run of successes.

We want to believe that these fine folks transformed their lives because they worked hard,  had talent, or had help, or many other things -- and it was simply effort and reward.

But we all know this is not true. Otherwise, we'd be doing more of what we do best, every day.

What is it that can explain great changes? It is a transformation. Yes, it has gradual bits and habits thrown in. But in the end, they were ready to transform themselves. They were ready to re-work their brains, bodies and life into a new combination.

Example from the chemistry of Life

There is an example in Life that may shed some light. Treat this as an analogy, but it has some lessons.

To illustrate, we start with a picture. Not any picture, but a specific simple diagram.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, this one's worth 1000 pictures:

What is This?

It is a simple diagram showing the energy thresholds of an isomer in transition from one stable state (1) to another (2). This is explained in the book "What is Life?" by Erwin Schrodinger. The book was seminal in many ways. In this context, I want to focus on this one diagram.

A little background:

An "isomer" is a name for all the 3-D arrangement of the same atoms, of the same molecule. Isomers are the norm in complex organic chemicals that compose Life.

This diagram shows the energy required for some class of isomers to go from one stable arrangement of atoms(1), to another stable arrangement(2). The substances may sometimes have different chemical properties. The key is that they don't get from here to there by a steady climb. There is an intermediate hill (3) that needs to be crossed before they go from (1) to (2) or the other way around.

This is important and worth repeating -- they need to get to a very unstable, and high energy state, before they click into a new form.

Why Isomers? What does it have to do with me?

Stable, lasting change is hard because it is not linear. There is an energy wall. We need to put in way more effort to get to the next stable configuration than simply getting from here to there.

This, to me, is a metaphor for many efforts in various forms. Learning, breaking old habits, projects, team building, transformation, integration of new ideas, migrations of organizations, changes in infrastructures, moving to a higher performing plateau - there are are all simple and linear in concept.

But they need an extraordinary hill climb. Not the steady climb, not the sisyphean repetitive climb. Here, the climb is much higher than what is necessary. The goal is to reach a point where you get downhill to the better tomorrow and a better normal.

This image has transformed the way I think about work and change. It is always the hardest times when we have to push a little harder.

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