It’s a natural human tendency to resist change. In his new book, Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing – Including You, Brad Stulberg explores a mindset for change that allows us to not only adapt to change but to thrive. He takes exception to the idea that everything happens for a reason and that practicing gratitude is the way to navigate all forms of adversity. Instead, he suggests establishing core values that remain steadfast and serve as guideposts in adapting to change.

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Brad places change in four different quadrants. “There’s small good changes, small bad changes, big good changes and big bad changes. And for any of the small changes or for the big positive change, there’s almost incontestable research that shows that having a growth mindset, viewing it as a opportunity to learn, as a challenge, practicing gratitude, are really important psychological constructs and they’re skills that are helpful to have and mindsets that are helpful to have. However, for the shitty quadrant, the really big negative changes, oftentimes trying to find meaning or growth or to be grateful for what happened to you just backfires because you take something that sucks already and you make it suck twice as bad because now you’re judging yourself that you can’t even do what the self help books tell you to do.”

When he was suffering from OCD and secondary depression, he tried to tell himself that there was meaning in it and that he would grow from it, but, he says, “It just felt like I was lying to myself. It felt so contrived. It just didn’t feel like that was happening. And my therapist told me, ‘Why can’t this just suck? Why do you have to find meaning in this? Why can’t this just be something that is painful? Why can’t you just be kind to yourself? Why can’t it just be enough to get through?’ And I distinctly remember having existential despair for a week after she said that like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t meaningful. Like it’s even worse if it’s not meaningful. But eventually it was this enormous burden that was lifted off my shoulders, which was, it didn’t have to be meaningful; I didn’t have to find anything good about it. It could just suck. 

“And that’s scary, and it’s a mature thing to realize that sometimes things just suck. Sometimes pain has no meaning. It’s just senseless. Sometimes the world is just random and cruel. 

“Now, what’s fascinating is fast forward five years. And I look back on that experience and I learned and grew so much as a result of it, but you only get that good stuff once you’re on the other side. For the capital T traumas in our life, trying to create meaning when we’re going through it sometimes backfires. So whenever you’re going through any kind of change, if you can find meaning in it, do it. But if you’re trying to find meaning in it and you can’t, instead of judging yourself and spiraling into despair, you could just tell yourself, ‘You know what? This is meaningless right now and that’s okay. I just need to get through it. And when I get to the other side, maybe there’ll be some meaning.’ 

“So what I wanted to address in the book is just this utter bullshit that you see on the internet about gratitude. And it’s like, yeah, gratitude’s great. When things are going well, gratitude’s great. But people also go through such severe significant trauma and loss that telling someone that if you just practice gratitude, that’s what it will take to get through it, is offensive. And I wanted to address that because I haven’t seen it addressed in a book like this.

“And I just feel it’s so important because there are certain things that  we just don’t grow from; nobody grows from getting raped. And I think that there’s this terrible expectation that every trauma should lead to growth. Sometimes things just suck and the greater the insult or the greater the negative change, the longer time it takes to experience growth, if you ever do. And I just don’t want people to judge themselves if they’re going through really hard times and they can’t find meaning in it. I want people to realize that sometimes that’s okay. Now, if everything in your life is meaningless always, that’s a sign of depression and that’s not normal. And I hope that that person gets help for that. But for really hard things, it’s okay for them to be meaningless sometimes.”

What can be helpful in navigating change is to establish your core values. Core values are the attributes and qualities that matter to you the most; examples include authenticity, health, community, spirituality, relationships, and creativity. In the context of change, Brad says, “Core values are especially important because you can bring them with you as you change and as the situation around you changes.

“So when there’s a big life change, you can always ask yourself, ‘How can I respond in a way that aligns with my core values?’ or ‘How can I practice my core values?’ So if a core value is health and you end up really injured or ill and you can’t run, you could say,  ‘Well, what would it mean to be healthy given the context that I’m in right now?’ Is it a walk? Health includes mental health; is it releasing from the need to do anything? The real importance of core values is that nobody can take your core values away from you. So when everything around you changes and you need to adapt and be super flexible and it feels like the ground that you’re on is shaky, you can almost always come back to your core values as a solid anchor and a source of ruggedness.” 

The most important thing to take away about change, Brad believes, is that we don’t have to go to extremes. “We don’t have to think that we can control the world and pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and bend things to our will because that’s bullshit. But we also don’t have to sacrifice all of our agency when change happens.

“We can hold these two ideas at once that we can’t control everything and we can be kind to ourselves and we can show ourselves a lot of grace. But there’s also generally some steps that we can take and some productive actions that we can take that are in alignment with our values. Then we can also be gritty at the same time that we’re graceful. And in the book, I call it ‘rugged flexibility.’ It’s these two diametrically opposed things that when you put them together, I think it gives us the best chance of navigating change.”

Photo credit: Robb Leahy


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