When to change, why to change, and who the only person is you actually can change.
Episode III: It’s Always Been You.
I went and saw The Rise of Skywalker the other day. It was awesome. No relevance to this post – I just wanted to say it.
Sidebar: I’m team J.J., so if y’all are The Last Jedi fans you can e-mail some hate to email@example.com.
Back to the task at hand – when, why, and now the who behind making significant change.
The scale of significance is distinct from the scale of magnitude.
They aren’t mutually exclusive, but if we begin to believe that only massive instantaneous changes in our lives will have lasting impact, then we’ll be missing opportunities daily to make small decisions which will accumulate into some of the most notable and apparent areas of maturity and growth.
I got married in April of 2018. That day marked a change which derived much of its significance from its magnitude. I started the day unmarried. I ended the day married. The personal, relational, logistical, and frankly legal ramifications were massive.
My relationship with my now-wife changed more in that day than any other single day in our relationship. Things changed suddenly and drastically. That being said, my relationship with my wife has changed way more in the year and a half since our wedding than it did that day.
Every interaction, conversation, conflict, weekend getaway, misunderstanding, and Saturday afternoon Chick-fil-A run in the middle of doing chores has added to our relationship in small and sometimes big ways. I won’t waste your time explaining the concept of a learning curve, but suffice to say we’re getting better not only at being in a relationship with each other but also at learning and growing more quickly. We don’t stall out so much in conversations as we used to when we weren’t able to understand the nuance of what the other was saying or doing. We’re getting better at being married, and we’re getting better at getting better at it.
Throughout this time of learning and growing one thing I’ve never been able to do is force my wife to change – her behavior, her opinion, her taste in music – anything. The thought of even trying is laughable. I have the opportunity and the platform to encourage and suggest and argue for certain changes, but in the end while I have influence I don’t have control (and that’s a very good thing).
Here’s what I hope is the saddest/scariest part of this post: Many people believe they do have some level of control over their spouse, kids, coworkers/business partners, friends, and strangers. They believe that their assertions and demands catalyze real internal change in the people around them. They feel a level of superiority in intellect and influence, and when challenged they’ll refer to their history of eliciting responses and claim that as being a change catalyst.
What these people are blind to is a tragic truth: they do have control, just not the control they believe they have. They don’t inspire change in the minds and souls of the people around them – they only produce coercion and inspire capitulation. They beat people down until the victim sounds off with their agreement for the sake of reprieve, not because they’ve been convinced by the logic of the argument.
You and I both know the difference between being truly convinced of something and being strong armed into saying something you don’t believe.
“Oh wow you’re right” feels like a touch of embarrassment at having been wrong, added to a massive amount of joyful relief at having landed on the right answer and being on the same page with the person you were in conflict with.
“Ok, you win” feels entirely different. It’s the slightest bit of relief at the settling of the dust, but underneath that relief is the at-times overwhelming shame and helplessness at having been worn down and remanded to your place of inferiority. It feels like a cage you just agreed to walk into for the sake of some quiet.
Did the person “win” the argument and get their way? Yes. In the short term, at least.
Did the person change you in the ways they asserted they wanted to? Did they convince you of some new truth? Did they inspire a new perspective in you with their words and influence?
You still don’t believe anything they’re saying is remotely true. You’re likely more dug into your convictions than you were before they tried to prove to you how wrong you were about them. Moreover you almost certainly resent this person severely for the damage they’ve done to your relationship and the erosion of the trust you may have had in them.
They didn’t change you. They cannot change you.
I mentioned my marriage and how my wife and I have changed as individuals as well as together over the short time we’ve been married. It’s no secret we each have influence on the other and have inspired change in each other in small and large ways. But if I can’t change her and she can’t change me through force of will, then what gives?
Change isn’t asserted. It’s accepted.
At one point in my life I didn’t know what the color “blue” was called. Seeing as it’s my favorite color to this day I probably liked the sight of it, but I didn’t have a name for it. Then whether it was my mom or my preschool teacher or whoever it was, somebody taught me that it had a name. They told me it was “blue”.
Changing history a bit here: what if I just said “Nah that doesn’t sound right to me. I’m going to call it velociraptor.”
First point to be made – if as a child I knew the word “velociraptor” but not “blue” then I would question my parents’ educational priorities for their offspring, but that’s neither here nor there.
Second point to be made – neither real me who knows what “blue” is, nor nega-me who called it “velociraptor” were right or wrong. “Blue” is a string of sounds made up to describe a certain plot along the electromagnetic spectrum which is visible to the human eye and looks something like the midday sky or a patch of columbine flowers or calm water.
As the English language was developing it was determined that the string of sounds produced phonetically by the word “blue” would describe what we know as that stretch of the visible spectrum. It was determined that would be described as “blue”, and seeing as there wasn’t an uprising to have it instead be called “velociraptor”, English-speaking society accepted that as the correct description of that color.
Younger me was given a decision: carry on in ignorance of the name for this spectrum of color, or accept the knowledge of its descriptor as a benefit to me, my education, and my understanding of and ability to describe the world around me. I was a pretty trusting child, so while there could have been much drama and gnashing of teeth I probably in reality just accepted the knowledge and went back to playing with LEGOs (Duplos is a better guess – the LEGOs that are too big for toddlers to eat. Those things saved my parents more than a few hospital visits I’d imagine).
I accepted the change presented to me, and “blue” things have been easier to describe ever since.
Turning up the heat.
I wanted to give a lighthearted example to start getting the wheels turning, but the truth of the matter is that this concept has serious implications. What happened when we got to middle school and started hearing hurtful words others used to describe us? Did we just say “sticks and stones” and keep moving along our day whistling to ourselves?
We let it get under our skin. We believed that we must have been overlooking that flaw and they must be right about us. We accepted their words as truth and did our best then to cover up our imperfections out of fear of being ostracized. It never worked – after all, we were having our insecurities exposed by insecure people who weren’t worried about accuracy so much as feeling powerful – but we tried nonetheless. And though the social panic we felt then has settled quite a bit since we were 13, it’s not fully gone.
The stories we believe about ourselves and the world are all derived from accepted truths. Some of these truths are empirically based – the Earth is roughly spherical (it is), the first generation iPhone had 83x the memory of the original Apple II (it did – 4GB min vs. 48KB max), and at 5′-8″ I’m undersized to be an NBA center (I am).
Other accepted truths, though, aren’t empirically based. They’re subjective, like “Mountains are better for vacations than beaches”, “The Rise of Skywalker was a good movie”, or “My wife loves me.” There’s no way to prove or disprove any of those notions. There is merely evidence for and against each, with the ultimate judgement to be made by the observer. When the asshole 13 year old (whether it’s your own insecurity or a real 13 year old – in which case dude, what an asshole) tells you you’ve got buck teeth and a weird shaped head, you need to understand that it’s up to you whether you accept that information as truth or not. Your reaction is your decision.
This is where I intend to land the plane.
To know where we’re going we need to have a better awareness of where we’re starting from. I haven’t even mentioned our careers yet because we need to start with something more fundamental – our stories. Or, more accurately, the somewhat-correct story we believe about ourselves.
Many of us are in jobs or careers we aren’t meant for not because we changed our dreams and aspirations, but because we changed the value we put on them. Maybe someone told you that we need to get our head out of the clouds and start paying our dues. Maybe they told you that the startup you’ve been itching to launch is too risky and you should take a soulless job with steady pay instead so you can retire comfortably at 70. Maybe they told you the real world is built with bricks, not dreams.
That didn’t change us, though. It may have given us something to consider, but nothing they said had a tangible effect.
Until we let it.
Somewhere in the fray we accepted what they were saying as truth. Or, more likely, we accepted that abiding by their instruction was a less-stressful path than anchoring into our values and visions for our lives and driving forward toward the truth we know and which they just haven’t yet come to understand(which we’re usually wrong about – the constant anxiety of being on a path dissonant to our values and nature far outweighs the spikes of anxiety felt at Thanksgiving dinner knowing you’ve made yourself as the “problem child”. The latter causes some pointed annoyances; the former debilitating depression).
That’s when the change happened, and not one second before. It was our decision to settle. It was our choice to comply with the well-meaning “voices of reason” whose lives of steady and comfortable lack of risk and fulfillment sounds like a living hell to you and me. We accepted the change, and then and only then did it come. And now we’re living proof of its effect.
We need to accept the responsibility for our actions and decisions – not to beat ourselves up (though that’s a favorite of mine), but to free ourselves to then make new decisions. If we believe that life and other people are entirely responsible for our current circumstances then I’ve got good money to put down that we’re going to stay in those circumstances well into the future.
We need to have our heads up to when we’re receiving good and helpful knowledge. Just like younger me (and you – you learned “blue” once, too) hearing about the color blue and accepting it as truth, not all of the information coming at us is trying to lead us astray. We need to seek out good information, advice, and counsel.
Then we need to act. We need to act in small and deliberate ways which will push us ever so slightly forward, so that I at this moment am a better and more capable version of myself than I was when I was deciding what to write in the previous paragraph (I took a drink of water between, so, you know, I’m at least a more hydrated version of myself. I just took another after writing that.). Small steps will make the biggest difference over time, just like in my relationship with my wife.
And then when we’re approached with an opportunity to dare greatly (thanks Teddy & Brené) we need to seize the damn day. We need to know that fear will come and that it’s only through fear that courage can be displayed. The scale of significance is distinct from the scale of magnitude, but they are not mutually exclusive.
Your life is significant. What you do with your life is significant – not only for you, but all of those around you. You have great worth and a great trajectory, and any time you accept something less than that you are allowing a change to the outcome of not only your life but all those you come into contact with. You can change the world because you can change your world. If you decide not to venture out and do the work you were meant to do, then my life will be lesser for it because I share space in your world and you in mine.
I can’t change you. I don’t have that power. What I do have the power to do is try to get you to change yourself. And by trying to get you to change yourself my ultimate goal is merely to present you with the tools, information, and courage to accept the changes which you know, or will learn, are waiting to be accepted by you. You’re going to be much better at changing your life for the better than I would be anyway, so buckle up and get to work.
Get to Work: Action Items
Retrace Your Steps: This action item can be kind of a downer, but it’s helpful. Take a notepad and backtrack as many of the decisions you can think of which have led you to where you are; in your career, intimate relationships, friend groups, hobbies and activities, and anything else that matters to you. Go back through these decisions and mark where you acted out of the truth that you know and made a change in line with your values and vision, and mark where you accepted someone else’s values and vision as more significant than yours.
Give Credit Where It’s Due: One thing that I notice often when thinking about past decisions I’ve made is that while advice I got was demonstrably wrong based on my values and vision, it was advice given with great intent. One of the worst things you could do with the above exercise is to go through and start labeling other people as the problem. “I wanted to go to school here but my dad made me go to this other school which was less expensive, so my lame career is his fault.” No. You accepted the change. You fought back as hard as you could? No you didn’t. I didn’t either. The decisions I’ve made in the past which got me off-track were my decisions. Go back and try to understand the good intent behind the wrong decisions and influences you’ve received in the past. Then just flat forgive those people for getting it wrong. They were trying to help, and the longer you hold onto those hard feeling the longer you’re going to stay stuck in the rut you’re in.
Move Forward: Now forgive yourself for being human and not getting everything right 100% of the time. Good? Good. Time to start making changes. Consider 1 major change which you want to have accomplished within the next year (it’s January 2nd so that should be easy to track), and consider 3 small changes you want to make within the next month. By big changes I’m talking about quitting your job, proposing to your significant other, or moving to a new city. By small changes I mean dedicating an hour a week to painting again to reawaken the creative side of you, drinking a glass of water every morning as soon as you get up to begin moving toward a more healthy lifestyle, or starting a blog (it’s not that difficult).
Then actually do it.