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Getting Life: Life, rising — whether revamping a city or a life, change is complicated

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Downtown Salt Lake City has gone through a major revitalization in recent years, with old buildings and roadways disappearing and new ones climbing out of the dust. Unseen infrastructures have laid down roots as stores and structures have blossomed. The opening of the City Creek Center marks a major milestone in this undertaking that will change how people live, work, shop and travel. The new developments are both functional and beautiful.

But before we got to functional and beautiful we endured many, many months of disruptive and ugly. People navigated nonsensical paths through construction zones and abandoned buildings to get to work or find familiar businesses. Construction workers rattled around in gaping pits to lay adequate foundations for the high-rises. Motorists limped around new underground parking structures, flustered at closed bridges, and stopped thinking of Main Street as a main street.

Life is like that. Change is like that. It usually gets worse before it gets better.

That’s why some of us put up with barely functional parts of our lives for a long time before reluctantly taking a stab at change. What if I try something new and fall flat on my face? What if I make a change and then I hate it? What if I have no idea where to go next? Creating a life, like creating anything of worth, requires putting up with some chaos before we get to beauty and function.

Chaos is unsettling. Chaos is frightening. Chaos makes us feel stupid. But as psychologist Gregory Bateson reminds us, “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” This is another way of saying we’ll never get to somewhere we’ve never been by taking the paths we’ve always taken. Sometimes we have to increase our tolerance for uncertainty and disruption and the anxiety they create in order to revitalize and grow.

While some of us fear change, others fear stability. It’s the tried and true that makes us nervous. What if we’re stuck here forever? What if we’re missing out on something better? We don’t bother to decide what we want to build before we start tearing things up, or consider just how much change might cost us. But if that rotting pile of lumber that has got to come down is the roof over your head, it’s wise to think twice before getting out the chainsaw.

And if the lumber isn’t rotting but just needs a new paint job, is the problem that we can’t find the paint brush, or decide on a color we like, or just don’t like painting? Sometimes we have to increase our tolerance for boredom or frustration in order to solve a problem that can’t be fixed in 10 minutes (or 10 years).

Ask people who know you best if you live most of your life holding on to what is, or looking for a change. Studies of infant temperament find such preferences even in newborns — we seem to come prewired for one style or the other. If you have a clear predisposition for either change or stability, it might be wise to lean a bit to the other side when considering an important decision. It won’t feel as comfortable, but you’ll probably be happier with the final outcome. The more expensive the revamp in money, relationships, energy or lost opportunity, the more important to be willing to do what doesn’t come naturally.

Sometimes we really do need a whole new foundation with a new parking structure and a new traffic flow to make our lives finally work well. Sometimes we can get every roadway under construction and every building down only to realize we’ve taken down vital bridges to meaning and relationship, or replaced our home and workspace with a gaping hole. It’s worth taking the time to think carefully about what needs to stay amid what needs to change.

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth, online at sixteenstones.net. Most recently, she co-authored the New York Times best-seller "The Why of Work."

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