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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