Transforming for Real: Ten New Rules for Effective Change

(by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D., October 9, 2013)

In the introductory chapter to my new book, Transforming Economy: From Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities, I made this important distinction:

“We have been taught… to understand change as something that happens to us, as something beyond our control… But what if change is something that happens from us, something we choose, initiate, and develop?  What if refusing to initiate and participate in constructive, personal and collaborative change is tantamount to signing a death warrant for future generations?” (Yiamouyiannis, Transforming Economy, pg. 1)

Change has gained an undeserved scary reputation.  In the predict-and-control obsessions of late industrialism, avoiding change has been characterized as desirable, as “common sense.”  Perhaps this is why the craft of proactive, conscious change is so poorly developed. People have been taught that change is brutal, and that change-making is only necessary when crisis levels hit.

Rule #1 of effective change:  Accept and choose a constant reality of change. 

Change cannot be avoided.  Our only real options are to initiate and change consciously (transform and participate in change) or be changed unconsciously (become an object, an effect of change).  Change is inescapable.  Everyone knows this deep inside, yet many still avoid conscious change and let change happen to them as if it were fate.

We do not have to allow this unhealthy aversion to operate as law.  Yes, change is a hearty challenge to the illusion of permanence that so many of us fight to preserve.  “Maintaining the status quo” takes on many forms: individual labels and stereotypes, racial and religious dogmas, social and political privilege, and economic inequality to name a few. And this is the good stuff we are fighting against change to save?  Let’s instead embrace change, identify what we need to change, and strive for positive change.

Rule #2 of effective change: Stability can co-exist with even dramatic change.

Genuine stability means channeling change into constructive forms.  This is not achieved by attempting to “slay” change as a threat to stability.  Change is not a dragon, but a dance partner.  Conscious, applied change actually aids stability by creating an avenue to systematically integrate new information with existing knowledge.  As humans, we either grow in wisdom and address our mistakes or die from our persistent idiocies.

Deluded notions of stability rest upon the fictional pursuit of a permanent formula or final solution. These delusions have created some of the greatest evils ever perpetrated: mass genocide, exploitation, and abuse. Change is not an enemy. Our own resistance to growth, awareness, and maturity is the opponent.

Rule #3 of effective change: Progressives, creatives, and marginalized people are best qualified to lead change.  That’s what they do for a living. 

Those with greater creative or adaptive skill are most qualified to enact effective change.  Progressives, independents, women, youth, techno geeks, gay people, minorities, public intellectuals, artists, cultural creatives, entrepreneurs, spiritualists, healers, community workers, vagabonds, free lancers, etc. are more likely to be qualified simply because they have more robust experience with forward-moving change.

Effective change has a different job description.  It’s not those that “fit in,” but those who don’t fit in, that have a better chance to succeed. These outliers tend to be those who successfully embrace the power of transformation in their work and home lives, or who have learned to adapt to and negotiate frequent change. With rare exceptions, the socially privileged are the worst qualified to lead change for the opposite reason. They tend to have greater interest and experience in keeping things the way they are. How can you move that mountain, if you are sitting on top of it?

This is why institutional so-called reform is such a popular replacement for genuine transformation. You can pretend to change by making a few minor adjustments around the edges while keeping the Titanic going straight toward that iceberg.  “Hey, ho, men. Stiff upper lip, wot!”

Rule #4 of effective change:  In revolutionary moments in history, reform is not sufficient.  Transformation is required.

Off the top of your head, can you name one effective, long-lasting reform that actually did all it was claiming to do?  I bet you’ll struggle to recall a single one.  Even successful reforms are often pale reflections of their original missions.  Why?  They are still operating within the same framework that gave rise to the problem.

I see this constantly in educational reform:  “Let’s give the inner city kids the kind of elite schooling they ‘deserve’ so they too can individually attain the upper middle class American Dream of owning five-bedroom environmentally unsustainable houses in the suburbs.”  These kids aren’t being schooled to go back to their communities and set up alternatives, or taught to link up with other citizens and collaboratively problem-solve comprehensive environmental, political, social, and economic challenges.  They are taught to take advantage of the current system, to take their slice of the pie, not to change the pie (and we need to change the pie).

Rule #5 of effective change: Conservatives and liberals can both assist effective change, depending upon how they contribute.  

Conservatives can be important supporters of effective change.  Effective change requires the best of the past to support an improved future.  True conservatives, those attempting to keep alive the best lessons, tools, and values of the past— practices, traditions, institutional memory, cultural literacy, classical virtues— are allies in effective change if those resources are put at the service of stronger advancement, understanding, and social growth. It is when those resources are used to reinforce bigotry, elitism, or a mindless and meritless status quo that they become foes of enlightened and effective change.

Liberals and liberal institutions can also support growth by providing social safety support through transitions—health care, education, jobs programs, food, shelter, and clothing.  This does not mean a “guaranteed” comfortable life.  Entitlements that insulate people from responsible participation in effective change are counterproductive. Both history’s challenges and benefits need to be constantly shared.  Young people, for instance, should not shoulder the reckless expectations and spending of older generations.

Rule #6 of effective change: Internal change is where you start.  It’s not “them” or “that” but I who must take initial responsibility.

We have been cooked by our society to externalize change.  It is time we individually own that.  It doesn’t matter what your political or cultural orientation is, or what labels might be used to describe you, you and I have been taught to “work change out” on something or someone else.  That way, “if it goes wrong” it blows up on their watch.

Do you have a risky project? Make your underling take the fall if it goes bust. That’s the game we’ve been taught.  Externalize the liabilities of change and internalize the rewards.  This social disease has reached grotesque proportions in our corrupted banking system, which continues to reap insane profits after trashing the world economy, escaping prosecution and investigation for massive fraud, and gouging citizens for trillions of dollars in bailout money.

Time to turn this dynamic on its head and insist that responsibility (not blame, mind you) starts with us. I may not have created the problem, but I’m going to be one of those who steps up to solve the problem.  I cannot do that until I clean up my habit of placing responsibility elsewhere.  Instead of protesting corruption, I will move decisively to disrupt corruption through organized actions that move energy and resources away from offenders.  “Move your money” was just the start.  There are many other ways.

Rule #7 of effective change: Move from reaction to proaction.

It’s time we move from “Hell no” to “Heck yes”.  Standing up for principles in protest can help others know they are not alone in their outrage, but this is only the start. Protest alone does not produce anything.  Its purpose is to ignite our ability to productively stand up, create, and apply real change beyond discontent.

Symbolic encouragements to change, in general, don’t work.  How can you effectively use satire, or shaming, or other indirect methods when you are attempting to influence those with no shame, little rationality, and zero sense of justice?  Concrete consequences, enforcement, and direct action create impact.  This takes two forms: 1) withdrawing participation from harmful institutions, and 2) creating healthy alternatives.

Direct, persistent involvement, not simple intention, generates results.  Let those who oppose positive change know that you will out-organize and outlast them.

Rule #8 of effective change: Individual lifestyle adjustments won’t do the job.  Powerful collaboration is required for significant transformation.

Who among you thinks that changing your incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs is going to solve global warming?  Will it help to decrease energy use?  Sure, but such lifestyle adjustments only buy us time.  With adjustments we may reduce our usage rate but still continue to increase our overall consumption.  Systemic changes, the kind that can reverse our destruction and produce needed innovation, are a collaborative enterprise.

We need to move substantively and centrally from a material basis of well-being to a non-material basis of well-being in our individual and collective lives.  Bhutan, for instance, has built its national purpose around maximizing “gross national happiness” not gross national product.  The intentional community of Auroville in India is built around “peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.”

Rule #9 of effective change:  Top-down, imposed transformation doesn’t work.  Ultimately we generate non-violent, creative, grass-roots change or we all fail.

Look over the past century.  Where has all the effective, lasting, healthy change come from?  From, non-violent, spiritually-guided, grass-roots, civil movements:  Martin Luther King and the civil rights movements, Gandhi and movements for Indian sovereignty, Cesar Chavez and migrant workers.  The list goes on.  You will notice in each the combination of non-violent resistance and inspired, courageous alternatives.

What has happened every time we introduce top-down “democracy” (read capitalism) at the point of a gun?  Failure, nearly every time.  When are we going to learn? When people are treated like objects, as the brunt of some effort to use them and take from them, their own dignity requires that they resist this exploitative “change.”

When people are empowered to share in a higher human cause, when they participate in creating and experiencing changes, they can rise in dignity and unity to support positive change. Incentives or mere laws may change certain behaviors, but they don’t win hearts and minds.  Respect is what wins hearts and minds.

Rule #10 of effective change: Embracing what you most avoid is the secret to real change.

There is nothing more powerful to the acceleration of positive change than a concerned citizen who takes a leap of faith to tackle something they know little about.  They were “minding their own business,” saw a need, and moved to act, even when they didn’t really know exactly what to do.  They learned, teamed up with others, and before you knew it they “Saved the Bay” or founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving or “took on the medical establishment” and helped develop a successful scientific treatment for a rare nerve disease.

They didn’t have expertise.  They had deep conviction and desire around positive change, and an “irrational” certainty that helped them overcome both their fear and lack of knowledge.  They spoke up, crossed boundaries, formed unorthodox alliances, and struck a chord of deep human commonality to shift possibilities.

Like many, I used to let my ideas roam freely but confined my voice to the background.  Then, I personally challenged myself to start a website (Citizen Zeus), embrace social media technology, author and publish a book, Transforming Economy, and learn to market and sell.  These were very uncomfortable for me, but I awkwardly welcomed them, and I learned I could not only do them but improve them over time.


Empowerment is the craft of positive, effective change— a movement that grows within you until it radiates outside you and catches on with others.  There is no greater empowerment than meeting an ignorance, insecurity, or weakness and turning it into a strength. What was once impossible is now being done.

Vital transformation involves “softening and leaning into the point,” as Buddhists say, and choosing proactive, conscious change in the face of daunting challenges.  It requires turning inside-out old premises and promises of the good life to yield new practices, possibilities, and realities in the world.

With all our pressing problems we are in a time of unprecedented opportunity and need for change.  Our resistance to change has produced greater problems than change itself.

We have nothing left to do but open up, activate wise, courageous change… and see what can happen.

Please share.  What is your change story from insecure foot-dragger to “heck, yes” change-maker?