Nothing’s Changed

So often, we’re easily convinced that we have an objective view of ourselves.

That thing we’re working on, the new skill we are cultivating, the organizational improvement that we’re spearheading? We believe that we can see where we are today relative to where we’ve been.

And yet our children grow up before our eyes, and, were it not for photos, bigger shoes and the occasional new bike, we’d never see it.

The truth is, real change happens daily, incrementally, often imperceptibly. It also is rarely linear, meaning even a plateau can be the precursor to a leap forward.

Yet when a change requires our sustained effort—as most important change does—our “nothing’s changed” assessment can be an excuse to slow down or even stop.

Find objective measures and use them to mark your progress.

And, when in doubt, keep at it. You’ve already come further than you think.

10 out of 30

Two weeks ago, to address some recurring pain in my knee, I made a 30-day yoga commitment: a minimum of 30 minutes of yoga a day for 30 days. I even have a big ol’ Austin Kleon 30 Day Challenge calendar hanging in my kitchen, with giant red-crayon X’s for each day I’ve completed.

10 days in, I noticed a few things.

The beginning is not the hard part. In fact, beginning big commitments is fun. There’s a bit of fanfare as you tell folks. A sense of self-validation that you’re doing something big and courageous. You spend time imagining the amazing results that will come at the end of 30 days.

This glow remains for a few days. Those first days are a living, breathing validation of all that excitement. They’re still fun.

Then, about a third of the way in, the excitement dies down.

You’re by yourself, alone with your commitment.

There’s no fanfare, no fans.

It’s just you, stuck in the middle. You’re tired and struggling for time and motivation. Maybe you’re noticing that you’ve not made as much progress as you originally imagined.

What a tempting moment to quit.

“Who will notice, really? Maybe I’ll just skip a day.”

I know that my motivation to start on Day 10 was zero. Same for days 11, 12, 13 and 14.

Here’s a dirty little secret about hard work, especially the kind that leads to real and lasting change: the middle bits (and lots of the bits) aren’t all that glamorous.

They’re hard not just because of the actual challenge of doing the hard thing we’ve decided to do. They’re also hard because the act of following through is itself sometimes a grind.

All of us, 3-4 months into this pandemic, find ourselves past the beginning stage of this new world and new life. We’re far from the shore we left, and we’ve got no clear end in sight. No doubt we have felt, or are about to feel, a dip.

Whether or not you’ve specifically made a 30-day commitment, you’re no doubt spending your days doing new things, trying on new approaches, working on new ways (slowly…but also surely) of becoming the person you’re meant to become: a healthier you, a stronger you, a more accepting you, a more confident you, a more grounded you, or maybe a you that’s more at piece with the fact that kid(s) + job(s) = a different calculus on what “productive” really means.

In case you find yourself stuck, I thought it might help to hear this reminder: just because the middle bits are hard doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.

In fact, the middle bits being hard are the best indication that you’re doing something worthwhile, something that will yield important results.

Keep showing up for yourself.

The results will come in time.

 

Right Thought, Right Action

You’d think they go together nearly all the time.

But when we’re trying to change, especially when someone has asked us to change, they rarely do.

Thankfully, right action is always available to us.

We just start, we do this new thing, once, a second time, over and over again.

We might not understand why. But we can choose to start by acting, and in so doing we show our faith in and respect for the person who suggested the change.

If it helps, you can see this right action as an exploration: once we genuinely engage in right action, we will see its results. Often, at this moment, our blinders come off. The limitations of our arguments defending our prior, not-as-right action, get exposed.

Right thoughts will follow, because the actions and their results speak for themselves.

The other path, the one where we only act after we’re convinced it’s right, is a mirage.

Because our mind has this terrible tendency to believe itself.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

 

Perseverate

Perseverate: to repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Put more simply, it’s continuing to react in the same way even though the situation is different.

It’s the narrative that says:

“We need this in order to…”

“I know I’m the kind of person who…”

“I always…”

Not always.

Maybe not even today.

Three Realities

Consider three realities:

  1. Who you are
  2. Who you think you are
  3. Who others think you are

Consider three sources of information:

  1. The actions you take
  2. What you see about the actions you take
  3. What those around you see and hear about the actions you take

It’s nice to think that the stories about us are written all around number 1 type things. It’s nice to believe that who people see us to be is who we really are.

In truth, people form and affirm impressions based on what they see and hear about the actions we take. So, to change minds, we must change what people see and hear.

This starts, every time, by doing great work. Work full of care and love and conviction and joy. If we don’t do that, then there really is no point, is there?

But that is not enough.

A good friend once told me that we should think of ourselves as Sherpas who must scale the mountain twice: once as we do good work, and once as we care for the story that is told about this work.

It might feel challenging, even disingenuous, to consciously think about what people see and hear about us: shouldn’t we just do great work and have that speak for itself?

Yes, and no.

All work arrives with a story wrapper, and part of that story is the story of you.

There’s no harm in directly attending to that story as well, especially if there’s a big gap between what you do and what is directly seen and heard by those whose minds you seek to change.

 

(Related: it’s also the case that “who we are” and “the stories we tell ourselves about who we are” also aren’t one and the same thing. But that’s a post for another day).

A New Algorithm

The definition of the word algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”

We come up against recurrent problems all the time. Here’s a list of things that are decidedly not a process:

. Wishing the problem didn’t keep cropping up

. Continuing to do things in the same way

. Ignoring the problem

. Working on other, smaller issues

. Getting frustrated

. Keeping your best ideas about a better process to yourself

. Talking about a new process, acting like you care a lot about doing things differently, but then continuing to act in the old ways

. Complaining

. Shooting down suggestions about doing things differently

. Blaming the people around you for not solving the problem

Your recurrent problems deserve a new algorithm.

Diagnosis, Effort, and Capability

My six-year old daughter was moving nicely through her 7-minute piano practice session the other day when we opened up the music to a piece called Toy Soldiers. This piece breaks new ground for her by having not one but two Gs in it (up until that point she’d only played between the A and F around Middle C).

She instantly burst into tears, poor thing. “It’s too hard, I can’t do it!”

Needless to say she absolutely can do it, and did do it almost immediately after she calmed down. But even after that, this piece is still resolutely in the “too hard” category in her mind.

It’s more obvious when it’s a six-year-old who’s decided she can’t play a G, but we all do this: decide that we have some sort of limitation of our own capability when really what we’ve gotten wrong is the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of how big the problem is.

Diagnosis of what it will take to overcome it.

And most of all, mis-diagnosis of the fact that what’s keeping us from doing it is the decision that we can’t do it.

Diagnosis is our fundamental leverage point, on problems big and small. It’s the step we rush through too quickly when we think we have the solution, the step we get wrong when we’re comfortable with the way things are, and the step that is the beginning of the breakthrough when we allow ourselves the space to see clearly.

After good diagnosis comes effort, and it’s true that that bit can be hard: sustained effort, emotional effort, these things require both commitment and endurance.

But capability? The actual lack of capacity to do something? That is almost never the real problem.

People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.