Two Kinds of Change

When people are seeking change, it is often helpful to explain the two types of change we can expect: disruptive and developmental.

Disruptive Change: Those indescribable moments in our lives where our perspective suddenly shifts, usually due to a significant event or realization. It’s the “Eureka!” moment, the “near-death awakening,” or that “rock-bottom” realization, often triggered by moments of crises and/or epiphanies. It can be the result of relationship break-ups, job loss, near death experiences, a “wake-up call,” a newly revived motivation, or some experience of enlightenment.

The biggest thing to note about disruptive change is that it cannot be willed, no matter how hard we try to manufacture it. This kind of learning is talked about in an ancient allegory:

A young learner approached a Zen Master and said “Master, I want to be a Zen Master like you one day. How long will it take me?”

“Ten years” the Master replied.

“Ten years?” the student replied, “That’s a very long time. What if I work twice as hard, work longer days, put in as much effort as I can, and dedicate myself entirely to becoming a Zen Master? How long will it take me then?”

“Twenty years” the Master replied.

Developmental Change: The other, more familiar, kind of change is developmental: a deliberate and habitual process, one day at a time, one lesson at a time, one mistake at time; we often it associate with the words “education” and “hard work.” If disruptive change is the moment you are struck with inspiration while looking at a pale block of marble, then developmental change is the process of learning to chip away one stroke at a time, in just the right places, until you achieve the wondrous sculpture you envisioned. You cannot learn a new language or become a physicist through disruptive change; it cannot help you improve your physical fitness. Those are developmental changes that require consistent effort, focus, intention, and retention.

These different kinds of change help us understand different kinds of expertise. Spirituality often places emphasis on wisdom coming from disruptive moments of awareness and enlightenment, the things that cannot be willed. Whereas scientific communities measure expertise by the amount and calibre of developmental change they have undergone (the most common number I am familiar with is around 10,000 hours of developmental learning on a subject for someone to become an “expert”).

Sometimes we get confused about what is disruptive and what is developmental. Improving your physical fitness is not a matter of disruptive change; people do not improve their physical fitness by having a sudden surge of awareness that they need physical exercise. It is the grueling task of making deliberate and habitual decisions to choose a salad over a burger and taking a walk over watching a TV show. This is an important point because we can deceive ourselves into trying to manufacture disruptive moments and avoid the good hard work of developmental change.

Below are some examples of developmental vs disruptive changes:

Developmental      vs      Disruptive

We can will knowledge, we cannot will wisdom.

We can will honesty, we cannot will authenticity.

We can will habits, we cannot will character.

We can will sacrifice, we cannot will humility.

We can will listening, we cannot will understanding.

We can will adventure, we cannot will inspiration.

We can will effort, we cannot will passion.

We can will kindness, we cannot will empathy.

We can will choices, we cannot will desires.

We can will practice, we cannot will results.

We can will curiosity, we cannot will openness.

We can will perseverance, we cannot will confidence.

We can will novelty, we cannot will creativity.

We can will fear, we cannot will respect.

We can will initiative, we cannot will courage.


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