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  • Steven Sutton, LCSW

How Change Works

I work with people every day who want changes in their life. They have been doing things one way for a long time and want to learn how to do those things another way so that they can experience something better. I encourage them to get serious about observing how change happens for human beings, and to stop using a fantasy model for growth they want to experience.

Most people operate as if change happens when they collide with the right information, meet the right guru or coach, or come across a new idea that holds the key to their problems. They become fascinated with learning why they do things the way they do them. They seem to believe that knowing why they are the way they are holds the key to changing their experience of life. They think if they just had access to the best information they would experience a transformation. These folks read books, get excited about the material, and then move on to the next book soon after since reading the last one didn't result in change. They may hire a coach or attend a conference held by someone who says they have the answers. After listening to the expert for some time they are really excited! Soon though, when the change doesn't happen, they conclude that the expert must not have been so impressive after all and move on to another solution.

These folks (and I would argue we've all done this at some point in our lives) are using a fantasy model of change. The fantasy is that change will happen suddenly and occur as a breakthrough. That change comes from an outside power or circumstance. That we're passengers in the process. When it's laid out bare, most people would agree it doesn't sound very realistic but even many of them still behave as though that's how change might happen in their lives.

If you want to change something about your life, begin by thinking of something you were once not able to do that you can now take for granted because you've mastered it. It could be a life skill or something from your career. How did that happen? Did you develop command of that skill by hearing someone talk about it? Did you master the ability by reading a great book about it? Did you come in contact with an eloquent description of how to do it and subsequently find yourself with the ability to perform the skill at will. No, you did not. Those things may have been part of learning the skill or ability -- they may have set you on the path to learning and changing -- but that's not how the change happened.

Think back to your first day of work. You may have been asked to read some procedure manual, or review written material about the job. Perhaps you shadowed someone to see how things are done. Did you have everything you needed to have command of your role after that orientation? How long would it take a brand new person off the street to be as good at your job as you are? Why is that?

Now remember that first time you hit the gym to build strength. It was likely awkward and you may have felt out of place. How did you become comfortable? The answer applies to a remarkable number of things you once could not do that now you can:

  • How did you learn to walk?

  • How did you learn basic math?

  • How did you develop the strength to run a 10k?

  • How did you get good at a sport or hobby?

The answers to all of those questions have several things in common:

  1. You collected some basic information.

  2. You went through an awkward beginning. At this stage you weren't very good at the thing. For many projects, you may have gone through some degree of pain while you learned.

  3. You did not quit.

  4. You practiced basic steps again and again. Then you practiced some more.

Over time, you acquired strength, skill, and ability.

While there are many variations to the details of how you learn, the above listed steps are present for the vast majority of examples. Learning is changing, and changing is learning. If you want to experience something different and better, you'll have to do something different over and over again. If you find it's difficult, painful, risky, or discouraging, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with what you're trying. It probably means you're just not good at it yet. You already know how to remedy that and master the change you wish to make in your life. Get some good information or a role model to emulate, and then practice. You don't have to feel like practicing to practice. You do have to practice if you want to make a change. That is how change happens for people. They do small things, repeatedly, until they create a different experience for themselves. You already knew it was true -- don't fall for the trap that there is another way to make it happen.

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Jun 01, 2021

This was outstanding and really hit home with me. Thank you for it.

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