Can People Change?

Hear me read this post.

Because I teach oth­ers coach­ing skills, I am often asked, “Do you think peo­ple real­ly can change?” If there is time for a dis­cus­sion, I may reply with my own ques­tion, “Well, do you think you can change?” Par­tic­i­pants are com­mon­ly unde­cid­ed, and even if they see them­selves as able to do so, may not see that same poten­tial in oth­ers. “Yes and no,” they often answer hon­est­ly. A com­mon response is: “Well, I’ve made some changes, but fun­da­men­tal­ly I am who I am.” 

Psy­che, the Greek word for soul, is also the word for “but­ter­fly.” And but­ter­flies, of course, don’t just change; they trans­form. They become a new kind of crea­ture. So I want to alter the ques­tion. It’s not, “Can peo­ple change?” It’s “Do peo­ple trans­form?” Is there a sim­i­lar human expe­ri­ence like that of the but­ter­fly­’s? I would say not one but many. We are trans­formed con­stant­ly sim­ply by growth and the things hap­pen­ing to us. We are always deal­ing with new life sit­u­a­tions while we are los­ing oth­ers. New jobs, new loca­tions, pro­mo­tions to more exposed lead­er­ship roles, big assign­ments, big fail­ures — all these expe­ri­ences can be trans­form­ing. Like mar­riage, divorce, chil­dren, ill­ness or death of a loved one, these are expe­ri­ences that cre­ate new exter­nal real­i­ties, in turn forc­ing us out of com­fort­able pat­terns, shift­ing how we think about our­selves and our world. 

And it is these expe­ri­ences col­lec­tive­ly, that may be cat­a­lysts for the over­all trans­for­ma­tion of an indi­vid­ual into the per­son he or she is meant to be. Bill Bridges, a famous writer on help­ing peo­ple in orga­ni­za­tions deal with imposed change, makes the valu­able point that change is dif­fer­ent from tran­si­tion. Change, says Bridges, is the event: the new com­put­er sys­tem, the lay­offs, the merg­er. Tran­si­tion, by com­par­i­son, is the psy­cho­log­i­cal process of adapt­ing to the change, a process that occurs in pre­dictable emo­tion­al stages. 

What I want to do is add anoth­er whole lay­er, cre­at­ing the notion that there are real­ly three pieces: change, tran­si­tion, and trans­for­ma­tion, with trans­for­ma­tion being the way a per­son unfolds and becomes him-or her­self over time as a result of going through tran­si­tions of all kinds. And I would say it is the nature of the trans­for­ma­tion that is real­ly cru­cial, espe­cial­ly in con­texts where there is a call to lead others.

What is this transformation?

There are many ways to describe it. Some see it as a search for per­son­al whole­ness or heal­ing. Some as a hero­ic quest. Psy­cho­log­i­cal thinkers such as James Hill­man describ­ing love’s tor­tures, see the chal­lenge as one of soul-mak­ing. Talk­ing about trans­for­ma­tion requires us to give up lit­er­al­ism in favor of poetic/symbolic words and images. A pic­ture of a water­fall may say more about what tran­for­ma­tion is than any lan­guage can do justice. 


The water­fall is appro­pri­ate because trans­for­ma­tion is more about sur­ren­der than achieve­ment, an expe­ri­ence of “going over the falls.” Nick Smith at Life 2.0, recent­ly described tran­scen­dence in just this way, as a gift to be received rather than a project. 

The ques­tion is whether we can actu­al­ly allow our­selves to be trans­formed by our expe­ri­ences, both the good ones and bad ones. And whether that tran­for­ma­tive process allows us to see more of who we are or less, whether it opens our eyes to our own real pos­si­bil­i­ties and the pos­si­bil­i­ties held by oth­ers. When the chal­lenges are great, when we burn with frus­tra­tion and big ques­tions of “why me?” or feel we are on the edge of los­ing every­thing impor­tant, can that moment lead to deep­er under­stand­ing and new kinds of respons­es? Lead­ing well, I believe, depends on it. Joe McCarthy at Gump­tion defines lead­er­ship as “mod­el­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to an inspir­ing goal, prin­ci­ple or path.” That very com­mit­ment would seem to demand exact­ly an essen­tial sur­ren­der by the leader to how she or he will be trans­formed. And this sur­ren­der will be vast­ly more impor­tant that any attempt by the leader to change oth­ers. The trans­form­ing leader lets go of that desire in favor of sup­port­ing oth­ers’ own transformations. 

The but­ter­fly image is apt. It’s been apt for thou­sands of years. Trans­for­ma­tion in one aspect is the chem­i­cal change from cater­pil­lar to but­ter­fly. But in anoth­er it is hold­ing out your palm and allow­ing the but­ter­fly to land. If you try to grab it, sure­ly it will be gone. To grab it, smoth­er it, pos­sess it means that you can no longer fol­low it. It means that open­ing up to your own authen­tic­i­ty, your own Self can no longer occur. We don’t become con­scious co-cre­ators of the world (as Jean Hous­ton would say) with­out greater capac­i­ties for love and greater con­nec­tions to our own courage, strength, and wis­dom. And that, to me, all depends on not try­ing to trap and final­ize the trans­for­ma­tion any more than we can own anoth­er person.

I have been priv­i­leged to watch peo­ple go through trans­for­ma­tive moments. I recall a very good man­ag­er decid­ing to leave her orga­ni­za­tion in order to go do the work that is her true Voca­tion. She was a lit­tle scared about com­ing out of that cocoon, let­ting her wings dry. It was a holy moment, real­ly, and a priv­i­lege to be with her as she crossed the line from cater­pil­lar to but­ter­fly. She asked me, “Do you think the but­ter­fly remem­bers being the caterpillar?” 

What a won­der­ful ques­tion because to answer it I had to remem­ber my own trans­for­ma­tions! And yes, I think the answer is yes, the but­ter­fly does remem­ber. At least just for a moment before she takes flight.

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  • Dan —

    I still owe you the update. But what I real­ly want to know is how you seem to write about the very thing that is on my “unfold­ing” ledger at the moment. But then our fam­i­lies go back quite a ways as I under­stand it and per­haps there is some cos­mic con­nec­tion under­ly­ing these events. 

    I agree whole­heart­ed­ly with your assess­ment. What I am real­ly curi­ous about is how do I know whether I am see­ing real­i­ty or some­thing of my own con­coc­tion. Find­ing that things will unfold well enough with­out always striv­ing toward them, leads me to believe (and as many through the ages have writ­ten about) that sit­ting with real­i­ty, I sup­pose as we know it, can real­ly bring about the tran­si­tions you speak about. 

    Thanks again for the great post. Hope all is going well. 


  • ”What I am real­ly curi­ous about is how do I know whether I am see­ing real­i­ty or some­thing of my own concoction.”

    Is a guardian angel real or a fig­ment of your imag­i­na­tion? It is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion because we are prone to con­fuse self with Self. And yet there are times when our expe­ri­ences con­tain some­thing that is indis­putably sacred, that presents itself as giv­en, not self-cre­at­ed. Sure, based on our empiric/rational accul­tur­a­tion process we could dis­count it all. Many of us were edu­cat­ed exact­ly to do that. To find doubt every­where. But I believe that’s ulti­mate­ly anoth­er form of ”grabbing the butterfly.” I think: unless I can pin it down behind glass, it’s not real. But, of course, that’s not so. That but­ter­fly is only a corpse. These winged crea­tures, angels, but­ter­flies, sacred experiences…they are meant to be loved, trust­ed, and cared for. They are meant to pull us out of our shells, our­selves. They are meant to be fol­lowed. If you can do that, well then, I believe real­i­ty will take care of itself.

    It is great to hear from you, Dean. By all means, let’s stay in touch!

  • Dan:

    Can I elab­o­rate a lit­tle on the water­fall metaphor? In the pho­to you see the water going over the falls and col­lect­ing again in the pool at the bot­tom. Most of the water goes over the edge and hits the bot­tom changed, but not trans­formed. The tran­si­tion is the falling, the change is that all the water drops are in dif­fer­ent rela­tion to each oth­er at the bot­tom, but where is the transformation?

    Well, look in the mid­dle there, where the water hits a rock halfway down. See that? Some of the water has trans­formed to gas, it has trans­formed from heavy liq­uid to lighter than air vapour. Some of it is even mov­ing UP, which is not what hap­pens in a water­fall, is it? Only by falling could it have done this.

    It’s that small amount of water that turns to vapour and escapes that rep­re­sents trans­for­ma­tion. Not every­thing that goes through tran­si­tion and change transforms.

    And now the ques­tion is: which drop of water are you? The one that will fall to the bot­tom, or the one that will explode into the air and float away?

  • Ah, love­ly Chris. You’ve used the metaphor well. I bow! Per­haps oth­ers will join with their inter­pre­ta­tions, too!

  • I find water — and espe­cial­ly water­falls — to be fab­u­lous and flex­i­ble sources for metaphor. Rather than a more intel­lec­tu­al inter­pre­ta­tion, I’ll sim­ply offer a more phys­i­cal or emo­tion­al one that water­falls in gen­er­al, and your pho­to in par­tic­u­lar, evoke in me: a pro­found sense of release.

    The title of your post, and many of your — and oth­ers’ –insights into change, tran­si­tion, trans­for­ma­tion, and tran­scen­dence, are very much in align­ment with what I’ve been read­ing, feel­ing and think­ing lately.

    I recent­ly start­ed re-read­ing Way of the Peace­ful War­rior, a book (and now movie) by anoth­er inspir­ing Dan, Dan Mill­man. The book is about how the author, when he was a cham­pi­on gym­nast at UC Berke­ley, trans­forms him­self — with vary­ing degrees of open­ness, accep­tance and inten­tion — under the men­tor­ship of a wise war­rior he calls Socrates. 

    Last night I read a pas­sage that I think is rel­e­vant to your ques­tion “Can Peo­ple Change?” The author starts out,

    I was just going to tell you that I’m real­ly will­ing to change. That’s one thing about me; I’ve always been open to change”

    That,” said Socrates, “is one of your biggest illu­sions. You’ve been will­ing to change clothes, hair­styles, women, apart­ments, and jobs. You are all too will­ing to change any­thing except your­self, but change you will. Either I help you open your eyes or time will, but time is not always gen­tle,” he said omi­nous­ly. “Take your choice.”

    So, I think the answer to your ques­tion is that we can­not help but change … it sim­ply comes down to a choice between con­scious and uncon­scious change.

  • Yes, you raise a great point, Joe, about the degree to which change/transformation is con­scious or uncon­scious. Look­ing back over my life there have been moments that changed every­thing — the day for exam­ple that I real­ized that I was am not the “change agent,” but that silence, beau­ty, and time­less­ness are. And yet, though that was con­si­cous awak­en­ing; the effects and fur­ther devel­op­ment of that aware­ness con­tin­ue, some­times at very uncon­scious lev­els. An instance of this is this very blog; which is designed to have the look and feel of a qui­et, long-term art — my prac­tice, so to speak. What leads to trans­for­ma­tion is touch­ing a broad­er field, as Otto Scharmer would say in his “The­o­ry U” work. Wit­ness­ing the grad­ual work­ing out of the trans­form­ing moment over a long peri­od of time, seems to me to be one of the most won­der­ful joys any­one could experience.

  • Mary Rivera wrote:

    hi i am a high­school stu­dent i read some of your page and i felt drawn to at least have the cur­tesy to comment..well all i have to say is i think that peo­ple have the abil­i­ty to be difer­ent not exact­ly change because you are still you but u can be you in a difer­ent way like a girly girl choos­ing to have a difer­ent style one day and becom­ing a tomboy..well thats all i gta say rite now i like ur page i sup­port your idae

  • Byron Murray wrote:


    I am not sure you receive com­ments from past posts but I will take it on faith that you do. IN think­ing about unfold­ing lead­er­ship and the idea of trans­for­ma­tion being added to Bridges work is very mon­u­men­tal for me and I am sure for oth­ers. I have been through sev­er­al trans­for­ma­tions with­out always being aware of them. How­ev­er, when I am still and look into the deep void of what Emer­son called the Over­soul I seem to con­nect to that long­ing deep inside me for that “some­thing” that tells me who I real­ly am and what I am real­ly becom­ing. It was at BTE with you and Barb that I began my own jour­ney that has been unfold­ing before me. The first small step was real­iz­ing what I knew about myself that would make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence to myself and oth­ers. Once that was clar­i­fied the jour­ney real­ly began. It began with the ques­tion: Now that you know, what are you going to do about it? If you answer what the how’s will take care of themselves. 

    The jour­ney has not yet begun if you think you have arrived”


  • Thank you, Byron. I like the way you high­light the nev­er end­ing qual­i­ty of the jour­ney and how it depends on a “some­thing” — both plain and mys­te­ri­ous — that seems to tell us about our­selves. I am glad this post was mean­ing­ful for you and that you left your sig­na­ture upon it!

  • Dan,

    Short and sweet my com­ment will be.

    Thank you for the great post. I came across it search­ing on google: Can peo­ple real­ly change?

    I was well aware of my abil­i­ty to change, although now I will always rephrase myself to say­ing – I/WE CAN TRANSFORM.

    The rea­son I was search­ing for the answer to this ques­tion is because I have recent­ly been faced with an issue at work. An issue that goes far beyond my work­ing rela­tion­ship with my man­ag­er, whom I have the plea­sure of call­ing my brother.

    Some years back we had a dif­fer­ence of opin­ions; I stat­ed to him that we can all some­how change the things that are harm­ing our­selves and every­one around us. To what he answered: we can nev­er change, we are who we are, we do what we do… peri­od! The moment was a very sen­si­tive moment since we were main­ly dis­cussing our fam­i­ly issues.

    Nowa­days, the issue we are faced with is sim­i­lar to the one we faced some years back (which lead to us hav­ing a phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion, one which I am not proud of, but know it was life chang­ing for us both). I have pre­sent­ed my resume and cov­er let­ter to him in hopes that he would ascend me to become the assis­tant manager/sales coach of the depart­ment. A posi­tion that is ever nec­es­sary in order to effec­tive­ly & effi­cient­ly coach our fel­low sales agents, whom have nev­er received a prop­er train­ing nor coach­ing. Also because they con­stant­ly approach me for guid­ance and ask me why my broth­er is some­times so con­tra­dict­ing with the issues/solutions that arise with­in the department.

    Our rela­tion­ship, since com­ing back to Cos­ta Rica, has been some­what silent, speak­ing main­ly at work because, well we must in order to per­form our tasks. Since the moment I pre­sent­ed to him my pro­pos­al he has been speak­ing to me through his vibra­tions and quotes that he places at the end of his emails. I feel that since I pre­sent­ed to him my resume, he felt threat­ened, like the alpha-male type sit­u­a­tion. I can only think that he does not want to change his ways, which are affect­ing the depart­ment and all of us in our per­son­al lifes. I want to help him become a pos­i­tive leader and I want to lead the depart­ment along­side him. Togeth­er I know we can accom­plish a lot, even become the lead­ers of the entire orga­ni­za­tion (since he has the own­ers com­plete back­ing). But unless he allows me to help him, I fore­see every­thing will remain the same (as it has been since he took over the depart­ment). When I say the same I mean that our depart­ment lit­tle by lit­tle has been crum­bling apart (even though it is actu­al­ly grow­ing, the agents are over­worked, unhap­py, unwill­ing, feel unap­pre­ci­at­ed and due to this they are con­stant­ly leav­ing and being replaced), not only because we lack orga­ni­za­tion but because the men­tal­i­ty is neg­a­tive, con­tra-pro­duc­tive and contradictive.

    Well I guess my com­ment was nei­ther short nor sweet, sor­ry! I am con­sid­er­ing to show my broth­er your site and for starters this post, in hopes that he will allow me to help him to help us. Hope­ful­ly he will under­stand that I only seek the bet­ter sake of us all.

    I am start­ing my own site for the con­sult­ing ser­vices that I will some­day pro­vide to the type of com­pa­nies that we work for (gam­ing sites). Your site has inspired me to con­tin­ue pur­su­ing my dream and I know that your knowl­edge will be more than valu­able to my work and my life as a whole… THANK YOU!!!

    To fin­ish off, I would like to share a quote that has had a big impact on my outlook:

    “Everything I’m not… makes me every­thing I am”

    An unfold­ing leader

  • Michael

    Thank you for your comment…and espe­cial­ly for the way you are apply­ing trans­for­ma­tion so hon­est­ly to your life and your work. What real­ly comes through is your desire to reach out to your broth­er, and although there are nev­er any guar­an­tees that he will reach back toward you, the deep­er ben­e­fit of your attempt is in what you must learn about your­self. There are so many tragedies in fam­i­lies and com­pa­nies that come from fail­ing to take the risk to reach out to one anoth­er. If in the end you find you can­not influ­ence those you care about the most, you know, at least, that you held noth­ing back out of fear, resent­ment, or any oth­er neg­a­tiv­i­ty. Then, although there may be some­thing bit­ter­sweet, you are able to move ahead or move on in the right way. Trans­for­ma­tion can have that bit­ter­sweet side.

    I’m sure you have won­dered often what will open the door to your broth­er. Time and again I have had to learn in my own rela­tion­ships the impor­tant thing is offer­ing choice — and some­times this seems very hard or even unfair. Yet, there does not seem to be any uni­ver­sal key to anoth­er’s heart pre­cise­ly because we are not one anoth­er’s prop­er­ty. (A point that gets eas­i­ly lost in fam­i­lies and in com­pa­nies, and is often the cause of vio­lence and tragedy). Your broth­er must choose for him­self, as you must choose for your­self, as well. When you choose, you find your own des­tiny — your own trans­for­ma­tion — but you can­not make your broth­er choose a des­tiny he does not want on his own.

    Michael, it is so clear that your path is as deep as your pas­sion. Like the riv­er that goes over the falls, your pas­sion is what you must fol­low. Some­times it takes a long time for the water to fill up suf­fi­cient­ly behind a bar­ri­er to its path, but even­tu­al­ly it will spill over, and that, of course, can be the trans­for­ma­tion of love itself, no mat­ter what the out­come. You become ever­more who you real­ly are, hon­or­ing your dif­fer­ences from all oth­ers as much as feel­ing con­nect­ed to them.

    Many best wish­es to you, and thanks again for com­ing here to my site. Your pres­ence has made it far richer.

  • Thank you for every­thing Dan! I look for­ward to read­ing and com­ment­ing more on your posts, which I know will lead me toward con­tin­u­ing to unfold my leadership.

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