Saturday, 25 September 2010

On preferring Second Best to Change

This is really autobiography.

Human beings cannot be other than creatures of habit. They are obliged to create futures which are pretty much like their pasts.

Habits can be changed, but only a few at a time and against a background of habits which remain intact. Changing a habit involves some kind of emotional and intellectual challenge, however minimal. You have to go outside your comfort zone and you have to learn something new.

Most of the time, human beings prefer their comfort zones and the absence of mental challenge to the work involved in change. Some human beings prefer to be comfortable and idle all the time.

Inevitably, this often means settling for second best. Or worse. So people end up for very long - sometimes lifelong - periods in bad marriages and bad jobs, living in fuel inefficient homes, driving fuel inefficient cars, with their money going in and out of an account with a second-rate bank, taking a break from it all on cold and wet public holidays.

I opened my first bank account in 1965 in order to pay in my University grant cheques. (My mother, who died in 1978, never had a bank account. She had nothing more than a Post Office Savings Bank account until the end of her life. When I sent her cheques by way of financial support, she asked her butcher to cash them. She was humiliated when one bounced).

I opened my first account with Lloyds in Oxford and I stayed with Lloyds until the mid 1990s - let's say, thirty years. Lloyds was all right but not more than that. I found it hard to keep track of my finances and cheques did bounce. Their rates of interest were almost certainly higher than ones I could have obtained elsewhere.

A friend spent several years pointing out to me that I could change for the better. Eventually I moved to First Direct and I have never regretted it. Here was a bank where I could check the state of my account 24/7. I am never in trouble now.

But there is something shocking about the way I resisted making a fairly simple change from one bank to another. And there are plenty of people about who would never have done it. They would have stuck to their bank as if it was written into their marriage vows that they should do so.

Elected politicians have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, nothing will persuade them to change the way business is conducted in the House of Commons - that is to say, submerged under rituals designed to stop as much change as possible.

But politicians open to change have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry Shan't, Can't, Won't!

As a result, for example, the United Kingdom now has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. Even Going Decimal would have been a start. But TEACHERS had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas), and market traders saw the chance to become METRIC MARTYRS, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our TRADITION and HERITAGE to have three feet to a yard and (what is it?) 1760 yards to the mile.... and so eventually the European Union gave up. Go into your supermarket and see the result: some foodstuffs are now sold in Metric measures and some in Imperial ones. What is a child supposed to make of it all?

I once asked myself what was my most deeply embedded habit among habits which could be easily changed.

My mother used Persil, I have always used Persil, and I have never experimented with anything else. In contrast, my mother bought Lux toilet soap. I buy Occitane and (on trips to France) Le Petit Marseillais. I think the difference may be simply this: that fifty years on from my childhood, the range of freely available soaps has expanded enormously. You aren't stuck with Lux or Fabulous Pink Camay.But there are people who act as if they are, whose brand loyalty to some soap is as strong as mine to Persil.

It's a bit scary. Isn't life for the living and living about trying new things?

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