Self talk – smart vs. adaptable, constructive, and thoughtful

When dealing with ambiguity and change, self-talk that relies on variants of “I’m smart enough and will figure it out” tends to produce significantly worse results than a variant of “Not the smartest tool in the shed – but, can be the most adaptable, constructive, and thoughtful.”

While the former points to a desire to find better answers quickly, the latter leads to better questions.

And, while better questions are more valuable than better answers even in normal circumstances, they’re many times more valuable in periods of change*.

*which, lets face it, is a lot of the time. :-)

Upon our hearts

I came across this Hasidic tale in Jerry Colonna’s book Reboot.

A disciple asks the rabbi: “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”

The Rabbi answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

As I reflected on this story, I thought about how it represented any effort to drive change in ourselves. Even when we know we ought to change, it is hard to break old habits.

So, all we can do is keep reminders of the change we seek to make all around us.. until one day the resistance breaks and the change falls in.

Change and resistance

We cannot effect the change that we seek to make without fighting the inertia that accompanies attempts to break unhelpful habits and destroy existing patterns.

The inertia is universal – it applies just as well to changing how often we exercise to reinventing how our teams do work.

So, if you are trying to effect change and are sensing resistance, that’s just a sign that you are on the right track.

Making the most of the opportunity to reset

The magic of the new year is that it is an opportunity for us to reset. As with other opportunities to reset, this is a magical opportunity filled with possibilities.

And, yet, we often muck it up. After a possibility filled January, we inevitably hit the trough of disappointment in February and let it stay that way till January the following year. We do this to ourselves by attempting to change too much too soon.

Instead of picking 1-3 things we deeply want to change and focusing on creating realistic systems to move the needle, we set transformational goals. Incremental change, after all, is not nearly as glamorous.

And, yet, if all we do is commit to 2 small changes starting January 1 that we stick to till December 31, we’ll actually achieve the transformation we seek.

Incremental change, it turns out, is incremental for the longest time… until it becomes life changing.

Counter productive behavior and perspective

Most infants hate changing clothes. So, they generally cry, kick, and scream when it happens. That is, of course, completely counter productive. It only lengthens the process and makes it worse.

I found myself amused when I observed this counter productive behavior the other day until I realized that we aren’t all that different as adults. We often do our equivalent of crying, kicking, and screaming when we deal with inevitable change, have an unexpected difficult conversation, or worry about something we don’t control.

That’s why taking the time to develop the sort of perspective that leads to equanimity can be very powerful. The sooner we can eliminate the counter productive behavior, the more productive we can be.

And, a great way to develop that sort of perspective is to spend more time with folks who have that perspective.

“Be yourself” can be really bad advice

There’s a category of advice that sounds good in theory but is pretty bad in practice. “Follow your passion” is one example. “Be yourself” is another.

The issue with “be yourself” is that it reeks of the fixed mindset and gets in the way of self improvement. It does so by encouraging the “This is just who I am – take it or leave it” mindset.

That is not to say we can change everything about ourselves. If you are an impatient person (speaking to myself) by nature, you are not going to become the most patient. But, you don’t have to either. Our traits and temperaments are part of a spectrum and we can always put in the work to stretch ourselves to move along that spectrum and learn to be flexible with how we apply ourselves in situations.

Put differently, if who you are is getting in the way of what you’d like to get done, stop being yourself and get better.

Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to ask folks to “become yourself.” It doesn’t just add a necessary air of intrigue to what is a fascinating lifetime journey of discovering our ever expanding capacity for change, it also focuses the journey on growth.

Besides, as Carol Dweck might say, becoming is better than being anyway.

When you are ready

We were scouring blogs on “potty” training for kids recently. A common question around potty training is about the right time to do it. There’s plenty of advice on timing and the recommended range is between 2 and 3 years.

But, one of the wiser pieces of advice we read was from a blogger who said – a parent’s readiness is as important (if not more) than the readiness of her child.

We’ve found this to be true every time we’ve tried to make a significant change as parents (moving baby to her own room for example). Her readiness generally follows our own.

It strikes me that this is applicable for most changes we try to make in our lives. It is easy to look around for the best time to do so.

But, there isn’t a best time. The best time is when we are ready…

Tool problems and clarity of purpose problems

When we’re trying to drive change, we typically run into two types of problems – i) Tool problems or ii) Clarity of purpose problems.

For example, I’ve come to believe I am one true reset away from being a much better version of myself. This is coming from months of observing my desire to ‘seek to understand and then to be understood’ wilt as I move through the day. I kept telling myself the importance of finding a way to reset over the course of the day – but, change never came as I was clear about why it mattered.

I finally got a timer app to remind me to do so every 30 minutes and resetting has worked better since.

Similarly, an organization may want its employees to start entering granular expense reports for compliance reasons. If this isn’t communicated, employees may not get on with the program. Then again, even if they do understand, if their expense recording software is draconian, employees may still be dissuaded from entering expenses.

When we’re looking to drive change, it helps to be clear if we’re trying to solve a problem with the tool or with a clarity of purpose. And, zooming back further, the best solutions are designed for problems that are well understood.

Butterflies and Erosion

When we talk about change, we often talk about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. We’ve all heard a version of this analogy at some point in our lives. It is the ultimate story of dramatic transformation.

We are drawn to dramatic stories – ergo the entertainment industry – because they provide the escapism we crave. But, these stories are the exception and not the rule.

Most change, for example, is akin to erosion. Erosion is the process by which rocks are gradually worn away by flowing water or the wind. You can’t erode a piece of rock in a day and there’s definitely no beautiful transformation story. Instead, a stream might effect the change it desires over a period of months and years. And, it can only do so by showing up and keeping at it every day.

Maybe more of us would stick with our plans for change if we thought of change more like erosion?

Stable self illusion

We tell ourselves a story about the stable self illusion. This illusion involves telling ourselves that our personalities are stable over time. They were formed long before today and won’t change for the rest of our lives. All attempts at change are, thus, useless.

But, that isn’t true. The longest running psychological study (63 years!) just released results that confirm that. Just as our physical traits change over time, our personality becomes virtually unrecognizable.

One study doesn’t a strong conclusion make. So, here’s a different question – how many of your friends behave in exactly the same way they did ten or twenty years ago? What about you?

Everywhere I look, I see change – both conscious and unconscious. Our environments and company constantly shape and mold us. We tend to associate that shaping and molding to kids. But, those of us who enjoy studying human nature know that we don’t really grow up.

Telling ourselves that we can’t change is our way of letting us off the hook. We can, and we do.

The best part of this story is that it isn’t too late to move toward our aspirational self. We can start today.