Can We Really Change?

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, American Economist

Change is my only constant. I’m finding the need to start deconstructing how I understand the concept of change.

Fact: we are constantly changing.

I am a firm and passionate proponent of our ability to direct change. Transition is that fine line between Change One and Change Two, and I think that’s where the magic happens. Transition is not change, it leads to change. It’s when we get to decide what the next change will look like.

“Human functioning is facilitated by a personal sense of control.” writes Ralf Schwarzer in the preface of Self-Efficacy: Thought Control of Action. He explains that, “if people believe they can take action to solve a problem instrumentally, they become more inclined to do so and feel more committed to this decision.”

Self-efficacy is a self-confident view of our capability to deal with certain life stressors and also allows us to “select challenging settings, explore [our] environments, or create new environments.”

“A person who believes in being able to cause an event can conduct a more active and self-determined life course.” (Schwarzer)

So why don’t we initiate the necessary steps toward the changes we want to make? The question has never been, “To change or not to change.” The question is always, “How will I change?”

Some people can seem stuck in their ways or stagnant. They’re not, they’re just passively going through their lives accepting the changes as they come and reacting to everything the same way—with fear, denial, and/or indifference.

So who are the agents of change and who are the victims? I think it comes down to our concept of self. People are more accepting of external information that is consistent with their—conscious or unconscious/good or bad—belief of themselves. That means people with an unclear concept of themselves are generally more dependent on and more susceptible to external cues that might carry self-relevant information (Campbell and Lavallee), and this often inhibits their own perceived power of changing.

Here’s an interesting study: Using three different measures of extremity—15 bipolar trait scales such as predictable-unpredictable, tactful-candid, cautious-risky, and unconventional-conventional—researchers showed that people with low self-esteem gave ratings that were, on average, nearer the midpoint of the scales. The study confirmed that, “people with low self-esteem tended to describe themselves in noncommittal, middle-of-the-road terms.”

Stuck in the middle—in this case—is not good. The middle seems safe, but it abuses the magic of transition. We cannot stay in limbo.

With that being said, positive long-term change is a series of small changes. “Many of life’s choices [and changes] fall into two categories,” writes New York Times columnist Carl Richards (a.k.a. Sketch Guy) in an interesting article, The Best Path to Change is Slow, Simple, and Boring:

■ Option A: Exciting and complex and quick, but the action rarely works.

■ Option B: Boring and simple and slow, but it works nearly all the time.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 8.31.47 AM.png

The secret of making lasting change? “Small actions repeated consistently over a very long period of time,” says Richards. “Incremental change is short-term boring, but long-term exciting.” And it works.

Here’s my adaptation to Richards’ sketch:

Looking at Richards’ sketch, we assume that fundamental change starts from the bottom and works its way up. Not always true. If we don’t mindfully participate in the transition phases, change will still happen, but maybe not in the direction we’d prefer.

Even if we find it is hard to define ourselves in extreme terms like the people in the study (and even if the study might have a few variables), we can avoid (1) attempts to neutralize our lives and (2) expectations of radical transformation.

Making conscious incremental steps to slow transformation will permit us to know ourselves and push our limits one vertical transition at a time. Our level of commitment will determine our capacity to not only embrace, but regulate change for ourselves

“Every day, I make it a point to look back and notice how far I have come. Some days, the distance I have come is clear, while other days I see I still have room to improve. But keeping track of this incremental change helps reinforce why I’m making short-term boring choices. Because at some point, I’ll look back and see how far I have come, and short-term boring will become long-term exciting.” (Richards)

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