Why Changing Times Are Times to Act

There are few songs more epic or era-defining than Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing.” In fact, there are few songs about change in general that are better.

I’m going through a time of great change myself, and I’ve been taking notes. So when Dylan’s song rolled around on my Spotify and this verse played, I paid attention:

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.” 

There’s a lot of great stuff here. Mr. Dylan is right that we should not jump too fast to judgment in times of change. And it’s true that we don’t know now what loser will be later to win. It’s wise to realize how fast things can change and to not build houses on shifting sands.

But with apologies to Dylan, I have to disagree about his advice to “[not] speak too soon / For the wheel’s still in spin.” 

Read a certain way (probably not the way Dylan intended), the words of this verse could seem to like advice to hold back, because you don’t know how things will turn out. That is a sure recipe for being left behind in change, even more than speaking and being wrong.

Sure, some people do speak and act much too soon. But in my experience, the people who most need to be speaking  and acting tend to be most afraid to speak and act in times of great change. For them, the time when the wheel is spinning is EXACTLY the time when it’s most important to take action.

You can only balance on a boat being tossed in the waves by shifting your weight, if not shifting your body. Similarly, surviving and thriving in change requires dynamism. Dynamism requires action, and action implies the possibility of making the wrong action and being one of those poor saps who in Dylan’s song “speak too soon.”

But you know, the fate of people who speak or act too soon is not as bad as the fate of people who wait so long to speak that they never speak at all. It’s probably better to speak in good faith and end up on the wrong side of history than to not speak and end up being a mere historical observer. I’m sure many of the writers and critics who were sympathetic to but confused by Dylan’s generation chose to not speak, for fear of looking foolish to the conservatives and the radicals alike.

Don’t hesitate like them. Don’t let your response to change be a “risk-of-being-wrong-about-it-all” mitigation strategy. In the oft-repeated words of startup advice, “fail fast.” Or, as Dylan says earlier in the song:

“Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone” 

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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