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Change Is Always About Identity

2022 November 20
by Greg Satell

In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt. Today, we are undergoing major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography that will demand that we make changes in how we think and what we do. The last time we saw this much change afoot was during the 1920s and that didn’t end well. The stakes are high.

In a recent speech, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell highlighted the need for Europe to change and adapt to shifts in the geopolitical climate. He also pointed out that change involves far more than interests and incentives, carrots and sticks, but even more importantly, identity.

“Remember this sentence,” he said. “’It is the identity, stupid.’ It is no longer the economy, it is the identity.” What he meant was that human beings build attachments to things they identify with and, when those are threatened, they are apt to behave in a visceral, reactive and violent way. That’s why change and identity are always inextricably intertwined.

The Making Of A Dominant Model

Traditional models come to us with such great authority that we seldom realize that they too once were revolutionary. We are so often told how Einstein is revered for showing that Newton’s mechanics were flawed it is easy to forget that Newton himself was a radical insurgent, who rewrote the laws of nature and ushered in a new era.

Still, once a model becomes established, few question it. We go to school, train for a career and hone our craft. We make great efforts to learn basic principles and gain credentials when we show that we have grasped them. As we strive to become masters of our craft we find that as our proficiency increases, so does our success and status.

The models we use become more than mere tools to get things done, but intrinsic to our identity. Back in the nineteenth century, the miasma theory, the notion that bad air caused disease, was predominant in medicine. Doctors not only relied on it to do their job, they took great pride in their mastery of it. They would discuss its nuances and implications with colleagues, signaling their membership in a tribe as they did.

In the 1840s, when a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis showed that doctors could prevent infections by washing their hands, many in the medical establishment were scandalized. First, the suggestion that they, as men of prominence, could spread something as dirty as disease was insulting. Even more damaging, however, was the suggestion that their professional identity was, at least in part, based on a mistake.

Things didn’t turn out well for Semmelweis. He railed against the establishment, but to no avail. He would eventually die in an insane asylum, ironically of an infection he contracted under care, and the questions he raised about the prevailing miasma paradigm went unanswered.

A Gathering Storm Of Accumulating Evidence

We all know that for every rule, there are exceptions and anomalies that can’t be explained. As the statistician George Box put it, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The miasma theory, while it seems absurd today, was useful in its own way. Long before we had technology to study bacteria, smells could alert us to their presence in unsanitary conditions.

But Semmelweis’s hand-washing regime threatened doctors’ view of themselves and their role. Doctors were men of prominence, who saw disease emanating from the smells of the lower classes. This was more than a theory. It was an attachment to a particular view of the world and their place in it, which is one reason why Semmelweis experienced such backlash.

Yet he raised important questions and, at least in some circles, doubts about the miasma theory continued to grow. In 1854, about a decade after Semmelweis instituted hand washing, a cholera epidemic broke out in London and a miasma theory skeptic named John Snow was able to trace the source of the infection to a single water pump.

Yet once again, the establishment could not accept evidence that contradicted its prevailing theory. William Farr, a prominent medical statistician, questioned Snow’s findings. Besides, Snow couldn’t explain how the water pump was making people sick, only that it seemed to be the source of some pathogen. Farr, not Snow, won the day.

Later it would turn out that a septic pit had been dug too close to the pump and the water had been contaminated with fecal matter. But for the moment, while doubts began to grow about the miasma theory, it remained the dominant model and countless people would die every year because of it.

Breaking Through To A New Paradigm

In the early 1860s, as the Civil War was raging in the US, Louis Pasteur was researching winemaking in France. While studying the fermentation process, he discovered that microorganisms spoiled beverages such as beer and milk. He proposed that they be heated to temperatures between 60 and 100 degrees Celsius to avoid spoiling, a process that came to be called pasteurization

Pasteur guessed that the similar microorganisms made people sick which, in turn, led to the work of Robert Koch and Joseph Lister. Together they would establish the germ theory of disease. This work then led to not only better sanitary practices, but eventually to the work of Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain and development of antibiotics.

To break free of the miasma theory, doctors needed to change the way they saw themselves. The miasma theory had been around since Hippocrates. To forge a new path, they could no longer be the guardians of ancient wisdom, but evidence-based scientists, and that would require that everything about the field be transformed.

None of this occurred in a vacuum. In the late 19th century, a number of long-held truths, from Euclid’s Geometry to Aristotle’s logic, were being discarded, which would pave the way for strange new theories, such as Einstein’s relativity and Turing’s machine. To abandon these old ideas, which were considered gospel for thousands of years, was no doubt difficult. Yet it was what we needed to do to create the modern world.

Moving From Disruption to Resilience 

Today, we stand on the precipice of a new paradigm. We’ve suffered through a global financial crisis, a pandemic and the most deadly conflict in Europe since World War II. The shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography are already underway. The strains and dangers of these shifts are already evident, yet the benefits are still to come.

To successfully navigate the decade ahead, we must make decisions not just about what we want, but who we want to be. Nowhere is this playing out more than in Ukraine right now, where the war being waged is almost solely about identity. Russians want to deny Ukrainian identity and to defy what they see as the US-led world order. Europeans need to take sides. So do the Chinese. Everyone needs to decide who they are and where they stand.

This is not only true in international affairs, but in every facet of society. Different eras make different demands. The generation that came of age after World War II needed to rebuild and they did so magnificently. Yet as things grew, inefficiencies mounted and the Boomer Generation became optimizers. The generations that came after worshiped disruption and renewal. These are, of course, gross generalizations, but the basic narrative holds true.

What should be clear is that where we go from here will depend on who we want to be. My hope is that we become protectors who seek to make the shift from disruption to resilience. We can no longer simply worship market and technological forces and leave our fates up to them as if they were gods. We need to make choices and the ones we make will be greatly influenced by how we see ourselves and our role.

As Josep Borrell so eloquently put it: It is the identity, stupid. It is no longer the economy, it is the identity.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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