An aeroplane – according to popular metaphor, at least – is off-course 90% of the time. But its destination is set, so by making constant tiny adjustments it ends up where it’s supposed to be.

This metaphor often gets trotted out in relation to making changes to your life.

The argument goes, let’s be real: you’re going to overeat sometimes, you’re not going to nail every workout, you’re going to make mistakes in your business and you won’t always treat people how you’d want to. But if you know where you’re going, you can keep making small adjustments whenever you falter and you’ll end up getting there.

This is similar to another popular piece of advice when it comes to making positive changes: take it easy, and do it gradually.

Most efforts at change fail because people try to change too much, too drastically, all at once. Instead, start running 0.1 miles further each time and you’ll eventually be running a marathon. Learn 1 new Japanese character per day, and you’ll soon be reading fluently.

Both of these popular pieces of advice make an important presupposition: that you actually know where you want to end up. You know you want to run a marathon, or learn Japanese.

But what if you don’t know where you want to be – all you know is that you’re not happy with where you are now?

In that situation, screw tiny adjustments – it’s time to yank the wheel violently.

Local maxima

There’s a mathematical concept called “local maxima”, which I don’t fully understand but highly recommend mentioning in passing if you ever want to appear smarter than you are.

The gist is: imagine you get dropped into a totally new landscape. Over time you walk around, climb some small hills to get a better vantage point, and gradually settle on the best place you can find to set up camp. It’s not great – you’re not totally sheltered from the wind, and you have to walk a long way to get wood for the fire – but it’s fine, and you’re convinced from your explorations there’s nowhere better.

You set up camp, and stay there for good…unaware that if you just climbed that really big hill over there, the absolutely ideal place to set up camp is on the other side.

This is a position it’s easy to fall into when it comes to your life in general. Things are “fine” – not great, not terrible. You make whatever little tweaks you can to make yourself a bit happier and more fulfilled…but unbeknownst to you, if you made one big change there would be a far better life waiting for you on the other side.

Foundational changes

Putting aside the fear of making a big change and ending up with something worse, there’s anther big problem: how do you know what to change if you don’t even know what you want?

This is where I recommend making a foundational change: changing one central component that has the knock-on effect of changing everything else too.

The wonderful thing about foundational changes is you only have to make one decision – and it doesn’t even have to be a good one! Yet it sets in motion all kinds of potentially positive changes downstream that you never would have thought of.

For example, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs in London and be unemployed in New York for six months. There was no particular logic to this decision, other than being vaguely dissatisfied and really liking New York. But it changed everything: what we did all day, who we interacted with, the type of place we lived, our routines, what we read and listened to, the ideas we were exposed to, our opinions about ourselves…everything.

Eventually, via a long series of circumstances we never could have predicted, we ended up somewhere vastly better (for us): travelling the world, working for ourselves, with a whole new set of skills and connections.

Could we have got there by staying in our jobs in London and making tiny incremental changes over time? I very much doubt it.

Here’s the thing: it’s not like we imagined a new life in New York, then went there, then our new life was perfect. Instead, making that one big change had the effect of picking us up and dropping us on a totally different path – which led to great things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

What to change

To make a foundational change, you need to look at decisions with leverage: what one change can you make that has the maximum impact on multiple areas of your life?

The obvious one is the change we made: where you live. Living somewhere different changes your routines, your social circle, your attitudes, probably your work, the opportunities you’re exposed to…just about everything.

Another contender is what you do. Moving from one employer to another changes your routines, your connections and what you experience for about a third of every day. Changing from one job role or line of work to another has an even bigger impact, because you’ll learn more new things and be exposed to new ideas. Changing from being an employee to self-employed (or the reverse) is an even bigger change again.

And then there’s who you spend time with. This could involve making new friendships and ditching old ones, starting a new relationship with a totally different type of person, or splitting up from a long-term partner (just don’t tell them I gave you the idea).

There will be others too, but these are good contenders to start with.

Words of warning

Two important warnings.

Firstly, it’s your responsibility to make the change positive. A foundational change opens up new possibilities and forces you to re-consider wide areas of your life, and it’s your job to evaluate your new options and find those that work for you. You don’t get to just keep rolling the dice by making big, random changes until you land on something that’s perfect from the outset.

Secondly, remember this: wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with…you’re still you.

This concept of “you” is malleable: big life changes can open up new aspects of your personality, and give you new possibilities to grow. But if you’ve been shy for the last 20 years, don’t imagine you’ll suddenly be chatting to every stranger you meet just because you’re living in a different place. If you tend towards being angry and hot-headed, becoming your own boss rather than an employee won’t change that.

This is where small adjustments and big yanks of the wheel dovetail nicely together. To change “you”, you need to know what type of person you want to be and keep making small adjustments and improvements towards that ideal. But to put yourself in a situation that’s better suited to the person you are and give you more opportunities to work on those small adjustments, you might want to make a foundational change.

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