Technology & Innovation

Accelerating adaption to change: A conversation with Jason Feifer

January 19, 2023

Jason Feifer is editor in chief at Entrepreneur magazine. He’s also the host of the podcast Build For Tomorrow, which has received funding from Stand Together Trust. Drawing on his work, Jason recently published the book “Build for Tomorrow: An Action Plan For Embracing Change, Adapting Fast, and Future-Proofing your Career.” Stand Together Trust spoke with Jason recently about his book and how the process of change can help people navigate societal changes through continued technological advancement in the wake of the pandemic.

Build for Tomorrow is meant to help people accelerate their adaptation to change. Tell us a little about the phases of this process of change.  

Through my work at Entrepreneur, I have access to the world’s most impressive leaders. And I’ve found that, no matter who you are, or how successful you are, everyone goes through change the same way. 

It is this: First, you panic. Then, you start adapting by finding new ways of moving forward. Then you reach a “new normal,” where you rebuild some comfort and familiarity. And finally, you reach what I call Wouldn’t Go Back — that moment where you have something so new and valuable that you wouldn’t want to go back to a time before you had it. 

So again, everyone goes through this. But there’s a difference: The most successful people are able to move through those earlier phases faster, in part because they have faith in the hidden benefits at the end. 

I wanted to know — what are they doing that other people aren’t? How are they seeing potential where other people see destruction? 

Why was now the moment for you to write this book?  

Because of the pandemic. It created a fascinating experiment: Everyone went through the same change at the same time, and then radically diverged. Some people were able to adapt fast and reinvent their careers or businesses, and others fell very far behind. 

As I watched all this happen — and, of course, experienced it myself! — I realized that I had a big opportunity. I’d spent years learning how the most successful people adapt. I had insights and answers that people needed right now and would continue to. So I spent half of 2020 writing a book proposal, and then most of 2021 writing the book. 

You write about how it’s a hardwired reaction in our brains to focus on what we are losing when something changes or something new and innovative becomes widely available. How can we train ourselves to see the potential gains that come from change?  

That’s right — decades worth of research has confirmed what’s called “loss aversion.” In short, we’re motivated less by gaining something new than we are by protecting against loss. This can lead us to make irrational, short-term decisions. 

It’s not easy to counterprogram against our own instincts, so I think we need to start by respecting them. Why do we worry about loss? Because loss impacts something we already know. We like sure things — or at least, as sure as we can get it. So, if we’re going to train ourselves to see potential gains, then we really need to create a concrete idea of what those gains can be. 

I like to offer people three simple questions, to start: 1. What are we doing differently because of this new thing? 2. What new habits or skills are we learning as a result? And 3. How can that be put to good use? Through these questions, you’ll develop hypotheses about how something new can be beneficial and create value that you don’t currently have. Now you have something concrete to test!   

This is your competitive advantage, after all: If you can see gain before others do, you can move towards it faster. 

So many of the examples you use in the book — the invention of the Teddy Bear, Pinball, and novels — mirror some of the criticism surrounding modern technology, social media, and video games and how they could hurt kids. Why do you think reactions to changes like these are so repetitive throughout different eras?   

When I first started studying these repetitive fears, my assumption was: Humans just don’t have institutional memory! Like, we forget everything that came before us. We don’t study history. And therefore, we’re doomed to repeat mistakes. 

But I don’t think that’s so true anymore. The problem isn’t that we’re ignorant. The problem is that we learn by personal experience. It doesn’t matter if someone says, “This fear you have is exactly like an unfounded fear from 100 years ago” — because that was just someone else’s experience. We’ll just assume that those people from 100 years ago had the wrong ideas (unlike us) or faced a lesser threat (unlike us). They weren’t us, basically. Which means they don’t matter. 

And to go a step further: Our fears about new technologies often aren’t even about the new technologies. They’re really about a larger societal shift that those technologies represent. The 1907 panic over teddy bears was born out of a shift in women becoming educated and entering the workforce. The 1950s panic over pinball was driven by the larger “juvenile delinquency” fears of the time. The decades-long condemnation over the novel was really about controlling the information that women and children have, as they were gaining more access to the world. And today? The loudest opponents of social media are old power brokers — traditional media, politicians — who are losing their grip on the flow of information.  

Obviously, those larger cultural anxieties will ripple outward and be felt in different ways by different people, but my point is: Fear of the “new” is never really just about one thing. It’s about anxiety over everything

How do you think our society’s attitudes toward change, entrepreneurship, and innovation have evolved in recent years?   

I think this data point says it all: After 2020, we saw a decade-high spike in new business applications in America. Why? Because a lot of people stepped back and said, “Whoa, the only person who can truly take care of me is me.” They didn’t want to rely upon large institutions anymore. 

But that recognition doesn’t happen on its own. People were primed to think that way, because the very concept of an “entrepreneur” has evolved in the past decade. It used to just mean “a person who started a business.” Now it’s an identity and mindset. People equate entrepreneurship with self-sufficiency, with problem-solving, with dream-chasing. That’s incredible. And I see it every day as editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine. And I especially see it when I travel the country speaking to young people, who have grown up in this entrepreneur-driven culture and are eager to jump in. 

Entrepreneurs identify existing problems and then develop new solutions to solve them. Now, look — does that mean they’re always lionized? No. Does it mean everything they make will be beloved? No. After all, people don’t like new things. What they like is better versions of old things

For that reason, we’ll always have cultural anxiety over change. Some innovation will feel exciting (Uber!) and some will feel terrifying (artificial intelligence!). But we will also always want improved ways of doing the things we love, and entrepreneurs are the source of that. As we look towards what comes next — for solving our biggest problems, for reimagining work — I think entrepreneurs are going to take the lead.  

So often we accept things as normal simply because it’s the way it’s always been done. You have a simple question that challenges assumptions and can help define a “new normal.” Can you tell us about that question and how to use it?   

Whenever we’re evaluating something new, we often ask ourselves the wrong question. We ask: Is this perfect? 

I’ll tell you the answer to that: It’s no! Nothing is perfect. So, if you’re evaluating something new based on whether it is perfect, you will discard absolutely everything. That’s not practical. 

Instead, here’s the question I think we need to ask ourselves —  Is our new problem better than our old problem? With that, we’re making room for the reality of problems and imperfection. We’re able to track progress more realistically. And we’re able to identify realistic ways to improve going forward. 

Sometimes, especially in this era of rapid innovation, it can feel like change is happening to us, instead of something we’re choosing for ourselves. Could you talk about how those among us who fear some of the rapid innovation and change happening today — things like self-driving cars or hybrid workplace norms —  can become more adaptable and open to change?   

First, know that it’s a process. You cannot read some magic words here and then suddenly feel better about everything. 

But here’s where to start: Don’t focus on what’s changing around you. Instead, focus on what will not change inside you

What do I mean? Well, here’s the thing — change isn’t just scary because we hate new things. Change is scary because it often feels like an affront to our identities. It’ll challenge some stability we’ve found, or force us to change jobs, or to rethink the way we do things. That feels destabilizing, because we start to wonder: Will I be good at whatever comes next? Will I lose my status? My competency? My value to others? 

You’re feeling that way because your identity is far too tied up in changeable things. If you define yourself by the job you hold, for example, then you’ll feel lost when that job disappears. Instead, we need to dig deeper — and identify the things about us that do not change in times of change. I recommend doing it in a simple sentence, where every word is selected because it is not anchored to something easily changeable. 

For example, I don’t think of myself as a magazine editor, podcast host, book author, or anything else. I think: I tell stories in my own voice. Take a medium away from me, and I can still tell stories! I often run people through this exercise, and I hear the most amazing answers. People say things like, “I help people achieve great things.” Or, “I help bring ideas to life.” I was recently talking about this with Gary Vaynerchuk, and he said he has a two-word definition of himself: “practical optimism.” 

Spend time thinking about this. Find the answer for yourself. And when you do, you’ll unlock a lot of potential — because you’ll start to see how your core value doesn’t change, even during turbulent times. If you help bring ideas to life, for example, then you’ll start to look at new technologies and think: Can that be useful? Can I use that to bring ideas to life? Now you’re thinking more proactively and productively — because you always have something to build, no matter what around you changes.