Why Do We Make Personal Change So Hard?

Over the years I’ve worked with many leaders who say they want to improve their skills and develop as people. Yet, I’ve often watched them struggle when creating, and especially implementing any list of behavioral action steps. Personal change, it seems, suddenly becomes reduced to a set of chores.

We all know about habit, comfort zones and private fears, but those perspectives can add up to one great big message about personal development, that it is always hard work. Always a matter of “accountability,” a forced discipline more than a natural unfolding, in essence a grind it’s hard to put one’s heart into.

Yet, and this has also been the case, especially when I’ve watched clients over a longer period of time — and watched myself in the same way, too, I guess — the shifts people make through their growth over time don’t go against the natural style of their personality so much as they open up or “resolve” those styles. This happens in a way that the person naturally has more capability in exactly the places he or she would most like to grow. I think of one client, for example, who has gradually learned to become better at standing up for his own perspectives and desires. In the beginning, his style turned off people more powerful than himself and also led to some failures in his work and challenges in his family life. But over time he has learned to take a more comfortable, open approach to presenting himself, and he’s become much more successful as a result. He continues to learn what he wants to learn and it helps him move ahead in the arenas he most values.

In a corresponding way, I also think of a client or two whose natural patterns of growth caused them to lose or withdraw from their jobs because their most natural learning curves were directed away from being a good fit in their current roles. These were folks who were told they had to change in some way that wasn’t actually congruent with their inner desires. Issues like sole performer versus manager, aggressive environment versus a politic one were involved.

If we took the perspective that we do have a natural, internal learning curve, then it seems that we ought to pay more attention to that than simply pushing ourselves for adaptation that’s not likely to hold anyway. If I’m not passionate, not excited about the changes, not feeling they somehow complete me or fulfill me in some way, why would I do it? And what chance would the action steps have to actually stick?


We have to go to another level. We have to know how we want to grow, not how we should. If I’m a senior leader, for example, and I’ve gotten a ton of feedback about needing to be a better delegator, but I don’t feel any energy really to learn to delegate other than to avoid losing my job, is that going to be a worthwhile learning effort? If there’s a sense of threat involved, it may not be a question of “Can I learn it?” so much as “Is this really me?” Tough question!

Not too long ago, I learned about a program to help oncologists talk to their seriously ill patients in ways that are more empowering for the patient and more empathic. It’s a great program, and when I asked more about the underlying learning model, what I found out from the principals is that the learning they designed deeply couples specific behavioral protocols to the feedback the doctors themselves ask for and want. And then the program goes a step further, to help the physicians link this learning to more fundamental and personal reasons they personally chose the profession. In other words, what the doctors learn in the program is what they actually wanted to learn not what they have to learn, and they also learn how to anchor it in their sense of personal purpose and passion for the profession they are in. I think that’s a pretty good model that builds on a positive assumption about the learners’ intentions rather than a negative one that builds resistance — for both the learners and those who are “teaching.”

It also calls out a responsibility to be scrupulously honest with ourselves. If the learning we need does not actually correspond with the learning we want, perhaps it’s time to go take a good long look at where our own inner passions really are and to ask ourselves, what am I excited about? If the answer is that it isn’t this learning, then there’s a need to unearth the real curve, the desired one, and perhaps begin to make a shift in circumstances, such as a change to a new job or profession.

That may sound a bit cold or naive, especially in this economy, or at odds with today’s institutional realities, but I’d like to believe it also opens up a question of self-empowerment and choice, things that transform fear of leaving a comfort zone into excitement, the kind that makes a good life — and a good society — truly possible.

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  • As usual, your post has many touchpoints for me.

    I had not heard about the oncologists’ program (and it appears to be currently unavailable), but in the context of your post, it strikes me that the professions requiring larger amount of preparation and training might be more likely to be populated by those who have a deep passion for the work than those professions requiring lesser amounts of effort.

    I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus last night, which resonated with me personally and professionally on many levels, but also aligns nicely with your observations about passion and learning.

    Finally, I just heard an interesting NPR interview with Perry Farrell, the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction, who has been through some challenging personal changes, in which he made a relevant observation:

    “Lyrically, Jane’s is always autobiographical,” Farrell says. “As the lyricist, I always make sure it’s true stories. I find that, when listening to other people’s true stories — their testimonies — that’s really where you’ll find the passion, and the insight and the depth of a person’s soul.”

  • Byron Murray wrote:


    The vibrations of the ether net are really in tune tonight. For sometime I have been looking at reinventing myself and my direction. After reading this post tonight I now have a better grasp of my intentions. The path I am taking is not the one I started on but as I look back from BTE to now it has become clearer to how I have arrived at this new “starting point.” Byron

  • @Joe Yes, I’m sorry the OncoTalk website isn’t up right now, but I thought I’d go ahead anyway. For those interested, I’m sure Tony Back would love to get a note. He and his collaborators are just brilliant at what they do. Here’s their book, Mastering Communication with Seriously Ill Patients.

    I love the Farrell quotation!

    @Byron Good luck, great to know you know where that passion’s coming from and where its taking you. Please keep me informed about the journey!

    Best to both of you

  • Dan, I always feel like I am “coming home” when I read your posts because of their resonance in my own life.

    I appreciate the distinction you make about change and growth – its “hard” when it is not a fit with the inner me, or it does not tap into a a personal passion.

    I am getting ready to rotate off of a non-profit Board where I have served as president for the past year. It has been a huge expenditure of time and energy for me because WHO I am does not fit with this organization. At the same time, I am getting ready to step out of my comfort zone and get on the speaking circuit again in another area of my life that I have passion for. So in this latter area, I’m willing to learn and grow as a speaker, in spite of the “discomfort” involved.

  • Deb

    Yes, I think you’ve got it exactly right. There may be discomfort because you are making a change, but you don’t feel blocked. There’s an inner confidence, I think, in knowing where the thread is you want to follow — an affirmation.

    Years ago, before I became an author, consultant and presenter I worked in an HR function doing technical analyses. One year, the HR Director sponsored a retreat with a career development expert who asked all of us in the department to draw a sequential storyboard of our lives and careers thus far — and then project it out a few frames into the future. Without thinking about it, I drew a future picture of some guy standing up in front of an audience making a presentation with people applauding. It turned out to be an accurate prediction of my future. It was the thread revealing itself at that time. It was a shock — and exciting. To that point I’d never verbalized where I thought I was going. I felt nervous about it, but felt the pull very strongly once the picture formed.

    In this sense, one answer to the question about why we make change so difficult is that we simply don’t reveal it to ourselves according to our own best prediction. We rely more on “evaluation” and “strengths” and “weaknesses” than on illuminating those less conscious wishes we privately hold as a sense of personal destiny.

    As always, Deb, thanks so much for dropping by!

  • Great picture, Dan — and I feel it does illustrate the points you make in this blog entry. The path may be narrow and perilous, but if it’s for us … we will make the adaptations and do what we can to keep growing and keep going. If it’s not the right vocational/professional path, sometimes one must step off despite the risks and reroute. I always enjoy your writing and insights.

  • Thank you so much, Maria. I like the connections you’ve made between the photograph and text. Being passionate about a “perilous” path may provide just the meaning and challenge we need for a real and a good life. This is certainly true for many artists, but it can also be the case for most anyone, no matter what they decide to do.

    All the best to you!

  • Mary Allison wrote:

    Oh Dan – once again you are spot on and disturbingly inline with my own reflections at this time. Thanks for the words of encouragement and push. How we react to our life is based on our values and individual “issues.” Too often the action we take is based on what we are trying to avoid. Perhaps we/I spend too much time and energy in avoidance and not enough in embracing and stepping into the conflict, too worried about what the conflict “says” about me and not concerned enough with what I want to say and create within it.

  • Right on, Mary. Your last sentence says it all. If we can focus on the inner end-game, the embracing, then it is so much easier to step into our own unique and positive path forward. We can affirm ourselves and be affirmed — we don’t have to be either selfish or avoidant — but we do have to go through the place where those risks are present.

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