Can you change course?

February 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

 

Chicago River
 
The Chicago River system drains part of northern Illinois into the Great Lakes and eastward.  As the city of Chicago grew in population during the 1800's, the river received tons of domestic and industrial sewage.  This was a problem because the city relied on Lake Michigan as its source of drinking water.  Cholera outbreaks were common, especially after strong rainstorms that purged the river pollution further out into the lake.
 
Turns out that there is another river, the DesPlaines River, not that far out to the west of the city, and that river drains southward into the Mississippi system.  Actually, this fact is not a matter of serendipity.  Chicago was born in this spot BECAUSE of the proximity to the DesPlaines River.  The native population in the area, and later the fur traders, were well aware of the relationship between these two rivers, and created a portage between them that made the area popular for settlement.
 
Chicago engineers came up with the idea of reversing the flow of the Chicago river in order to divert the sewage away from the lake, and also to use lake water to purge the stench that accumulated along the river.  In fact, at the time, folks didn't understand the bacterial cause of cholera and similar diseases, and they believed the stench itself caused the illness.  They called it "miasma".  Early attempts used pumps to try to turn the river around.  Later, they decided to dig a trench to connect the two rivers, and the project was successfully completed in 1900.  There's more to the story as the improvements were continued over the next century, but that's the miracle of the Chicago River.
 
And that brings me back to the title - can you change course?  One thing I've noticed about people is that they don't change.  Another thing I've noticed about people is that they often think that other people can change - an acquaintance, a loved one, a potential spouse.  Almost always they are wrong.  A typical story: A man and woman get married, and two years later the woman sees things in her husband that she didn't see when they were dating.  He has a temper, and doesn't like to work.  One day they have it out, and he says he will change.  She believes him.  After another year he hasn't changed a bit, so she has a child thinking that will change him.  It doesn't, and they get divorced.  Single mom, trying to cope.
 
Fear is a major roadblock to change.  Fear of failure - I know people who could have been very successful executives, but instead settled for small positions because they were afraid to reach higher, afraid they might fail.  They preferred to stay in their comfort zone, even if it meant no advancement.  Fear of the unknown - I can't count how many folks I've seen put up with a bad situation in their relationship or job because the unknown alternative was so frightening to them.  Yet, when finally forced, almost always say they wished they'd jumped sooner.
 
Human behavior is basically a collection of habits, and there is a neurological basis for habit.  This biological foundation explains how we learn to play a tune on guitar, and why it's so difficult to change behavior that has been habituated.  A 2009 study from the UK Health Behavior Research Centre indicated that it takes 66 days to genuinely make or break a habit, to the point where that new habit becomes your default behavior [source: University College London].  Change does not happen overnight - you have to work at it, and not give up too quickly.
 
So, how do you break patterns of habit and form new ones?  I see two approaches.  Depending on the situation, you might choose to completely eliminate the cues that initiate the old habits.  In other words, if you want to completely change your life, get up and move.  Choose a new city, maybe even a new country.  A totally new career, new people, new relationships.  Something drastic.  Perhaps you don't think this is necessary, and maybe it isn't, but the force of habit will almost certainly draw you back into the old patterns if you just move down the block.
 
If the change you desire is more modest, then break it down into steps, and concentrate on nailing each step before you move on.  Don't try the entire enchilada at once or you may be overwhelmed and disappointed, and give up quickly.  That's how the Chicago River was molded - a step at a time over a century.  
 
Changing the course of the Chicago River may seem like a modern wonder, but the story of Arizona is even more incredible.  When the Chicago River project was completed in 1900, the population of Arizona was a whopping 123,000.  The entire state was nothing more than a collection of small western towns.  Arizona became the last contiguous state in 1912.  Talk about step by step changes....
 

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