What does the history of the teddy bear teach us about change?
Most people don’t know this, but the teddy bear was the subject of a national moral crisis in 1907. It had been created just a few years earlier in Germany, and originally when it was sold in America, it was a toy for boys. It was stuffed with chips instead of cotton, so it had a rougher feel to it. But once it made its way into the home, girls started playing with it, and that was very concerning to people of the time. A preacher in Michigan actually delivered a sermon in which he described the teddy bear as a trigger for the downfall of humanity. The reason, as he explained it, was because when girls play with teddy bears, they set aside dolls; and when they play with dolls, they develop a maternal instinct so they can grow up to be mothers — which at the time was one of few options for girls.
This sounds crazy, but it was taken very seriously by many people. The sermon was transcribed and parts of it were run in newspapers around the country, sparking fierce debate. Schools started banning teddy bears and other preachers picked up the cause. Ultimately, it all amounted to nothing, but I think this is a very instructive story because it shows how people often believe that new wholesale replaces old. That as soon as we have something new in our world, it will radically alter everything that we ever did before. And we fear this, because we like old. Old is comfortable, it’s familiar.
Change often feels like we’re losing something — when in fact we’re actually gaining something.
What actually happens over and over again throughout history (and in our own individual lives) is that we integrate new with old. We take the best of the old and the best of the new and combine them together. We can have a world with both — not just one or the other. Children can play with teddy bears and dolls. We often make this mistake and blow things way out of proportion because change often feels like we’re losing something — when in fact, we’re actually gaining something.
You have developed a framework for adapting to change. Please describe it.
During the pandemic shutdowns, it was really interesting to watch some incredibly smart entrepreneurs use that time to pivot and adjust their business models, while others were completely lost. In talking to people I realized that the ones who were adapting didn’t feel totally comfortable doing it. In fact, they were terrified too. It was just that they had more faith that something valuable could be on the other end.
I realized that everyone goes through change in the same four phases: panic, adaptation, new normal and ‘wouldn’t go back.’ Panic is very familiar, obviously. It is that sense when we see nothing but loss and we have no idea if, or how, we will ever gain something again. Then we move to adaptation, where we start looking at the new things that are available to us and start pushing ourselves to meet the new needs of the time. Then we find a new normal and gain a new sense of comfort and familiarity. And then finally, we get to the wouldn’t go back phase, which is the moment where we say, ‘I have something so new and valuable here that I never want to go back to the time before it.’
If you are highly adaptable, what you have over other people is the faith that the ‘wouldn’t go back’ moment is going to arrive. That doesn’t mean you will know when you’re going to find it, but you can move through the most uncomfortable phases of change because you realize they are simply the price to pay. They’re the admission fee for getting to ‘wouldn’t go back.’
Why are crises such a great source of opportunity?
I’ve asked a lot of people that question, and my favourite answer came from Brian Berkeley, a legal ethics professor. He said something along the lines of, ‘a crisis forces us to shift what we do and what we’re collectively willing to take seriously.’ Put simply, we all create a filter in our minds to filter-out bad ideas and only allow good, possible and realistic ideas in. And that is reasonable. We all need to do that. We can’t spend all day engaging with every single possible possibility.
The problem is that our filters are imperfect, so we will inevitably leave out some great ideas and then focus only on the things that we thought at the time were the strongest. When any moment of mass disruption comes along, it starts to invalidate some of the things inside our filter. Some of these things no longer work, so we are forced to look outside of it. And when we do that, we can discover that some of the greatest opportunities and ideas were ones that we left outside.
People like comfort, so most will not do this exercise without being forced into it. And that is why moments of great disruption and crisis can lead to great opportunities. Number one, we’re being pushed to expand what we consider to be possible and number two, as we do that we are also existing in a world in which people’s needs are new. Some of the largest incumbents are no longer able to serve people as well as they could before, and that creates massive opportunity for anyone who’s able to step up and say, ‘let me figure out what people need now and how I can adapt to meet those needs.’
You advise entrepreneurs (and basically everyone) not to cling to tightly to the goals they’ve set. Why do you give that advice?
This is something I learned myself fairly early on in my career. I had very specific ideas of what I wanted to do with my career: I wanted to be a columnist for the New York Times or the Washington Post. That never happened; and the place that I ended up has actually come to define my career. I didn’t know that Entrepreneur magazine existed in the beginning of my career. Hell, I didn’t know it existed in the middle of my career.
What I learned along the way is that a goal is a really great thing to have to move towards, because what we all need is some momentum — somewhere to go. If you’re stuck in the middle of a forest, you have to pick a direction and start walking. But that doesn’t mean that the goal is actually where you should end up. You might discover great new things along the way that are actually much more valuable and fulfilling than whatever you thought your initial goal was. I’ve seen lots of people narrow their focus so much that they turn down every opportunity except ones that seem to advance them towards the very specific thing they have in mind. Sometimes it works out, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they get where they thought they wanted to be and discover that it isn’t what they imagined. Then they get really disoriented because they’ve never really entertained another idea.
Malcolm Gladwell once told me that “self perceptions are powerfully limiting.” I wrote this down and stuck it on my wall, because it’s so powerful and true. If we define ourselves too narrowly, we will turn down lots of great opportunities along the way, and that can be the biggest missed opportunity of all.
In the case of ‘quiet quitting’, what we have is a new phrase for a very old problem.
You also believe it’s important for us to recognize the things in our lives that will never change, despite all the change around us. Why is that important?
That is the first piece of advice I give people when they’re asking how to navigate a big moment of change. We have to identify the things that won’t change in times of change, because we need an orientation point. During moments of significant change it feels like everything around us is changing, including ourselves and possibly our identities, and that’s scary. You need to look around and see how you can be an asset as things shift. The deeper we can go in understanding our core value to the world, the more we can feel steady and recognize that we will always have something to offer, no matter the circumstances.
You’ve spoken to lots of successful entrepreneurs who didn’t experience success right away. Do you have a favourite story of someone who turned things around?
I do. A woman name Lena Fleminger founded a wig store in Baltimore called Lena’s Wigs. She ran it as a store front because she understood that to be the only way to run her business. People would come in off the street and they could shop for wigs. But when the pandemic arrived, she couldn’t operate that way anymore. The only thing she could think of is something that she had already discarded because it seemed like a bad idea, and that was to do appointment-only viewing. She always thought that was a terrible way to run a business, because why would she want to add friction for her customers?
Suddenly, she had no choice. And what she found was remarkable. Number one, consumer happiness went up and number two, sales rose. Why? Because as it turns out, you know who doesn’t buy wigs? People who walk in off the street. They like to browse, but they’re not actually Lena’s consumer. Her actual customer is shopping for a very personal reason — usually either religious or medical — and those people actually don’t want random people coming in off the street while they’re trying wigs on. They much prefer a private experience. But because Lena had been operating the business the way the way that she thought she had to operate, she was actually creating a worse experience for the people who do buy wigs and catering to people who don’t buy wigs.
I love that story because it’s so simple. Once she was on the verge of losing this business, she was forced to make a radical gamble, and she discovered that actually there was a significantly better way to run this business all along. And now that she knows that, she can lean into it and benefit from it.
I know that you’ve had some choice words for the phenomenon of quiet quitting and/or quiet firing. I just wonder could you encapsulate your take on quiet quitting and quiet firing?
It drives me crazy when people treat old problems like they’re new. When they do this, they assume ‘there must be a new cause for this.’ In the case of ‘quiet quitting’, what we have is a new phrase for a very old problem. We’re in a situation like where we were with selfies in 2013, where just because the word ‘selfie’ was new, everyone acted like it was the first time anyone had ever taken a photo of themselves.
The problem with quiet quitting is that number one, it is treated as if something just happened that made people dissatisfied at work, which is not the case. And also, it puts too much emphasis on the person who is quiet quitting and lets the manager and organization that they work for off the hook. The fact is, not everyone is happy at work, and those people should seek happiness. A company needs to be alert to the needs of its employees. People don’t just want to show up and do the job they’re asked to do. What they want to do is build their lives and careers, and if they don’t see a pathway forward, they’re not going to show up—or they’ll show up in the smallest way possible. That has always been true.
The other annoying term that’s being used is ‘quiet firing,’ where managers are just giving up on people and waiting for them to quit. That’s just bad management. We’re treating sophisticated businesses like they’re half-baked high school romances, where people are just going to continue seeing each other but treating the person badly until they go away. That’s no way to run a business.
Fortunately, I talk to plenty of leaders who understand that a focus on meaningful work and creating supportive environments is the way forward. Focusing on these things is actually good for business because you’re creating a loyal workforce that is going to stay and help you build a great company culture. All of that gets missed when a situation gets boiled down to a phrase like quiet quitting or quiet firing. I hope I never hear those terms again.
Jason Feifer is Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur magazine and author of the book Build For Tomorrow: An Action Plan for Embracing Change, Adapting Fast, and Future-Proofing Your Career (Harmony, 2022). He hosts two podcasts: Problem Solvers, which is about entrepreneurs solving unexpected problems in their business; and Build For Tomorrow, based on his book.
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