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January 14th, 2022
Parents are replete with suggestions about what to do. Be a doctor, a lawyer, you’d be a good engineer, and on and on. This is perhaps is the one relationship where a push actually works. Many children grow up trying to fulfill their parents’ dreams for them - and often grudgingly. All other human relationships seem immune to this kind of push. Urging a friend to start a business, for example is often wasted breath.
People generally don’t want genuine suggestions. Even if those suggestions promise to greatly improve life, people are more interested in reassurance and validation about the path they’re already on. For the empathetic and the prescient who feel like they see friends and family making the same old mistake over and over, and easily see better direction for such people, this can be a painful fact to grapple with. Much energy is wasted trying to nudge people in better directions.
Our habits also ossify as we get older. We wander less and less as the days flit past. And this fact makes it even more difficult to help someone move in a better direction, simply because moving in any different direction is just less and less likely as a person gets older. As it’s said, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This might seem cynical but stereotypes exist for a reason: that being in general, they hold some truth. It doesn’t mean that people growing older can’t wander and learn, just as stereotypes don’t apply to every single instance of the stereotypical. Every stereotype has exceptions and outliers. It’s just that the odds for wandering, learning, and changing are against a person as time goes on.
One might think, ok, so it’s the children we should focus on. This is why we place so much ethereal hope in ‘future generations’, as though this isn’t a bit of a Ponzi scheme that simply kicks the can down the road. Certainly, life has gotten enormously better since medieval Europe and prehistoric times, so yes, we do seem to have something right when we hope that the children will make the world better, but this shouldn’t in anyway relieve the obligation for the current generations in power to give it a darn good shot. And a big part of that is being able to adapt, change and iterate toward better outcomes. And most importantly, constantly assume that you are always wrong to some significant degree.
A large part of that is the help we extend to others. So if it’s so hard to get someone to change, why try and help at all? As with anything it’s not a matter of to do or to not do, it’s a subtler matter of when and how. Attempting to help someone who has absolutely no interest in changing is likely not the right time, and given that, there’s likely no viable ‘how’. The timing is right when someone is wandering or willing to wander. When someone takes that first step in the direction of a new venture, a new habit, that’s when help can be most effective. Stepping in to provide something they need that can increase the possibility of taking the next step. It’s not a matter of changing someone’s direction, but waiting and watching for that moment when they naturally change direction -even slightly and often only briefly. That’s the moment to look for a way to help. Such novel efforts often sputter and stall, and people fall back into their old routine. A helping hand right at the beginning can go a long way and help a person touch a new horizon, but the effort is often wasted if that person isn’t already pointing in a better direction.