The Perks Of Being a ‘Change Native’
Personal reflections on what it means to live in a world that’s nothing but change.
“There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives,” said Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. This quote is from an article on Personal Renewal by John Gardner, which my father would re-read each year.
Written in the 1990s, with its profound insight and eternal wisdom, the article became my annual ritual, too.
For the past five years, I start every year with refreshing my perspective on life with Gardner’s words: “If your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically.”
To me, this quote is not about running from change, but about embracing it.
Similarly to how the young generation is often labeled as “digital natives”, people whose upbringing was continuously bombarded by forces of change are “change natives.”
Through various life experiences, change became an essential part of my life (I know no other — it’s part of my DNA), and I am comfortable in it like fish in the water. Take that away, and I would navigate through life as a digital native without their GPS.
Becoming a ‘Change Native’
I became a change native early in life. Born in a post-Soviet Russia, just six years after the Union collapsed, I grew through the turbulent years of early Putin’s rule.
My parents told me stories about hungry people on Moscow streets in the late 1990s, the ruble collapsing, gangs, and the country struggling to recover from a 70-year-old failed experiment. The former elite ended up on the streets, with just a few lucky ones taking advantage of the changing regime.
The lesson was an early one, and I sucked it with my mother’s milk: to survive, you have to embrace change.
For a change native like me, the greatest fear is that our metaphorical “clocks” would stop — and we would cease to evolve.
The First Wave Of Change
My first experience of personal change came from my childhood’s need to adapt.
When I was 10, my family moved to the States for two years, and I had to learn English to continue my education. I found myself at the epicenter of global change: Palo Alto — the city where my family lived — was booming with startups and new technology behind every corner during those years. I rented
Netflix DVDs, my father, bought the first iPhone from the Cupertino Apple store, and my school friend showed me a new site called “YouTube”. The world was changing globally, and keeping pace, I had to change with it.
What started as merely a pursuit to catch up, ended up being invaluable for my personal and intellectual growth. When my new classmates could enjoy life as is, I had to work extra hard to educate myself and acquire new skills, just to keep up. During those years, I learned English, taught myself to code, and read heaps of books on business and technology. I felt as though I received keys to the door that was hitherto locked, and fell in love forever with learning and personal change.
John Gardener wrote,
“The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually
develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life‘s challenges — and the challenges keep changing,”
“Life pulls things out of you.”
Sometimes, though, it can pull a bit too hard.
Living The Roller Coaster Life
Once I got back to Moscow, my life started to resemble a roller coaster. Trying to find a subject of interest, I switched seven schools and was busy applying to college in the States.
During those teenage years, I witnessed my country go through several political and economic setbacks, my father create, build and lose a large business, my parents file for a divorce, and several close relatives die. But having been brought up in the family of entrepreneurs (all men in my family are business owners), I got used to the fact that life had ups and downs.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Nietzsche preached — my family lived by that motto.
But the roller coaster didn’t end with me applying to college. After seven months of studying business — which I pursued solely to follow my father’s footsteps — I went through my first personal renewal.
I woke up one day, from a sudden realization that hit like an electric shock: I didn’t want to study business anymore.
So — I dropped out and flew back to Moscow. Again.
My First Self-Renewal
The following New Year’s, re-reading Gardener’s article, the following
words stuck with me:
“You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.”
I decided to make those words my mantra — and because I didn’t know who I am — I decided to try everything I thought I could be.
Over the next four years, I built a video production business, day traded, produced movies, wrote books, worked full-time, part-time, as a freelancer, entrepreneur, ‘intrapreneur’, ‘solopreneur’, and many other –eurs, going through self-renewals every few months.
But most change natives soon learn, either you control change, or it controls you.
It’s impossible to achieve meaningful pursuits without keeping at them for prolonged periods. Every self-renewal comes with disruption, and it brings pain as much as value. The key is to know when to persist and when to give in to change.
The Dark Side Of Change
“People go through self-renewal every seven years,” my father would tell me during one of our yearly Gardener reading sessions.
Over the next few years, he would build his other e-commerce business in Russia. His instinct told him it was time for renewal — to switch industries after a first major failed attempt — but instead of listening to it, he pursued a similar business, but in a different niche. Four years later, that business went bankrupt, leaving my father in a dire financial condition, worse than ever.
When we talked to him a few years later, he told me, “The problem was not in the business itself, the problem was in the decision to begin it in the first place.” It’s not the change that killed his business, but rather the refusal to change, to self-renew when the time came, and it was necessary.
As Jeremy Clarkson so eloquently put it,
“Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”
Becoming ‘Change Immigrants’
In the world of constant change, we have no other option but to embrace change, become — if not change natives, then — change immigrants: learn to co-exist with continuous internal and external disruption.
After re-reading Gardener’s speech again this year, marking with it my personal change of 2019, I realized that I don’t agree with my father anymore: we don’t go through self-renewal every seven years.
Instead, we go through it continuously.
We Are Nothing But Change
When the Big Bang exploded, it was followed by a continuous, decelerating expansion.
We live in a world that’s nothing but a never-ending, permanent change, where people are not objects, but long events.
We are not static by default. Change is natural.
If that’s true, self-renewal — the art of forcefully changing yourself — is not something you “learn” to do.
Instead, to make sure your metaphorical “clocks” never stop, you have to unlearn what stands in the way of continuous self-renewal and change.