Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life: Part 4

In the second part of Chapter 1, “What Do I Know About the Process of Change?” Learn about Kaizen steps and the “Backpack” we all carry with us.
You can access the already published posts here.

What Do I Know About
the Process of Change?

First-Order and Second-Order Change

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your LifeYou may not have heard of “first-order change” and its companion, “second-order change,” but you’ve often observed this phenomenon with water.

A pot of room-temperature water placed on the stove will gradually get warmer until it boils. Likewise, a tray of room-temperature water placed in the freezer can gradually get colder in an ice cube tray until it freezes. The change from room-temperature to almost boiling and from room-temperature to almost freezing are “first-order changes.” The water hasn’t changed its fundamental qualities. it is still something we call “water,” only warmer or colder than it was. The change is incremental. it’s not unlike changing your house from muted to bright colors by painting one room and then another, or losing one or two pounds a month until you’ve reached the weight you want.

In other words, we experience first-order change when we transition in a linear progression to a different way of being in the world over a period of time — by doing something more or less than we had done before, by doing it faster or slower, or by accomplishing it with greater accuracy. To become a different person through this kind of change, we need to follow the road of practice and reinforcement with steps that are tangible and measurable. Gradually we change the brain by turning new neurons on and abandoning old ones. in an organization or family, first-order change allows individuals to get used to one change before they are asked to accept another.

Often we make such gradual progress that we aren’t aware we’re really changing until one day we meet an old friend we’ve not seen for a long time and he or she says, “Wow. You’ve really changed. When I last saw you, you wouldn’t have had the courage to do that [whatever it was that you just did]. What made you change?” You aren’t likely to respond, “oh, I’ve just been making first-order changes.” Yet as you think about it, you realize that you have gradually gained confidence to do something that would have been totally out of character to your old self.


When have I made a significant change in my life by moving steadily, but slowly, toward a goal?
What did I learn from that experience?

Second-order change, on the other hand, is what happens to water in the moment between almost-boiling and boiling and between almost- frozen and frozen. This is not a small change. It is radical, a major paradigm shift, liquid to vapor, liquid to solid.

This kind of nonlinear approach to change is sometimes, though not often, observed in organizations (and with an occasional person). It happens when they shift from one way of being in the world to another through a transformation that occurs in less time than a first-order change might take. for this kind of change to occur, however, we need to think and feel very differently in a short period of time so that we can behave differently in a significant way. This requires a major rewiring project in the brain and happens far less than we’d like.

Instant success is the American ideal and if we don’t change quickly, we are disappointed in ourselves. it is possible, of course, that you may be suddenly inspired by a speaker or preacher or author, and when something “clicks” you may see things in a totally new light, a complete transformation of thought that translates into a consistent new action and new perspective. However, if you’re hoping for a fast and extreme make-over, you might be disappointed, especially if you’re waiting for a bolt of inspiration that can take you from who you are, and where you are, and set you down in another place as a totally different person.

In other words, let’s imagine you want to no longer be depressed, or you want to no longer feel you have to control everything. As noble as those goals might be, you aren’t going to go from depressed to outrageously optimistic in one day, or from being someone who always argues with your partner to someone who can always keep your cool. it just doesn’t happen that way.

It happens like this. You begin by choosing a doable goal that is heading in the direction you want your life to move and you do it. A Kaizen step. Then you choose another doable goal and do that. Another Kaizen step. And so it goes.

Then, although you may not notice the specific action you took that caused the final transformation, one day you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that your life is different, fundamentally and completely different, than it was before you started on the first step toward change. You may still get depressed once-in-awhile, or you may sometimes get upset over something small, but for the most part you’ve arrived where you were heading, happier and less angry.

From the Land of Wish-and-Want to the Land of Will-Do

It may be a long time before you take enough Kaizen steps to get to where you want to go. But it can also be a long time from when you first recognize the need for change before you actually take the first step. for example, for years I’ve wanted to create a visual metaphor that illustrated this observation. Then one day I awoke with a picture in my mind that I’ve turned into an internet animation called “Getting Through the Gate to Change.” This is how it goes.

Imagine that the “comfort zone” i described earlier when talking about the brain is located somewhere in the middle of a place we’ll call the “Land of Wish-and-Want.” Here you are fairly contented. If there are problems on the horizon, you’re largely unaware of them or give them little thought. At the moment, you have no intention of changing your behavior. Why should you? So far you’ve adjusted your life to accommodate the minor ups and downs of life. Why should now be any different?

Eventually, however, you can’t avoid the pressure of “something” that is trying to push you in a new direction, although at first you may not know the source of that “something.” or it may be that you are experiencing emotional or physical pain and realize life is not as cozy as you thought it was, or “should” be. If the force driving you out of your comfort zone is inspiration, you may not hesitate to move toward an ideal of how you can make life better for yourself and for others. If someone is pushing you, you may temporarily shift your attitude or behavior, but there’s a good chance you’ll find a way to return to doing things the way you’ve always done them. for that you can thank the ease with which the brain uses old pathways and needs encouragement to create new ones.

In the case of physical pain or disability, there is obviously lots of motivation to find a way to make yourself feel better. if you’re dealing with emotional pain, however, you will usually begin by wishing your distress, whatever the cause, would go away, or that others would do something different so you don’t have to. For a period of time you remain hopeful that things will magically improve on their own as you attempt to adjust to the current situation.

When things get worse, or at least no better, you become convinced that the situation should change — somehow. But just as wishing and hoping don’t make things better, thinking they should doesn’t help either. You begin to suspect that change may actually require some effort on your part. So you tell everyone that you want things to change and intend to take action soon. Now you’re getting serious. You’re not quite ready for commitment to a specific action. But you’re talking yourself into the courage you will need if you’re to explore what you must do for things to actually change.

What is important to note, however, is that it isn’t until you reach the point that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach your goal that you begin the first (Kaizen) steps that move you closer to success. it is as though you go through a series of preparatory steps in the “Land of Wish-and-Want” before coming to a gate in a wall that separates these preparatory steps from what i call a “Land of Will-Do.” in passing through the “gate to change,” you reach a tipping point when change becomes possible. That is when enough neurons have been “turned on” so that your brain can create a sufficiently efficient pathway for the development of a belief that life can be different and that new behavior will result in new consequences. only then can genuine and long-term change take place.

• • • • •

The Heroic Journey

One of the best ways to describe such transformation is through the story of a “heroic journey.” This is not the making of a hero as we generally think of it in today’s world. We consider someone a hero for rescuing occupants from a burning house. The principal of a charter school in Los Angeles that is surrounded by gangs, violence, and poverty says of her students that, “What they walk through to get to school makes them heroes.” She honors that effort by creating an environment where they must meet very high standards. There are many illustrations of “heroes” and “heroines” who come forward and act with courage in a moment of need and who go beyond expectations to make the world a better place.

No, what I am speaking of here is the unfolding story of a person who becomes a hero or heroine through a process of personal change that has been described in thousands of legends, myths, and fairy tales over long centuries.

This journey begins simply enough. The potential hero or heroine, like Harry Potter in all his adventures, or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, or any individual who eventually becomes a hero or heroine, begins as a regular person who moves through ordinary days in an ordinary life. Well, Harry’s not exactly a “regular” person, but he lives a fairly ordinary, if unhappy, life.

Things are humming along relatively smoothly, deep in the comfort zone, when something dramatic happens. A tornado. A visitor from another dimension. A wizened old lady with a secret. A rider on a white horse. A challenge from a stranger. A threat to the community. Whatever it is that happens, potential heroes and heroines are put in a position where they have to make a choice as to whether or not they will respond to what is called the “call to action,” or sometimes as a “call to adventure” or “call to life.” i prefer the term “action” because that’s what has to happen if your life is going to change, although you may certainly experience the process as an interesting “adventure” at some point along the way.

An excellent explanation of what happens in the first part of a hero’s or heroine’s story is given by the scholar Joseph Campbell in his well-researched book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

This first stage of the mythological journey . . . signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.

To give you an example of this kind of change, later in the book you will meet roger, a young man who lived in the Middle Ages and became a hero by accepting the call to action. i am sure that if you think of yourself as you follow his story, you will notice that you, yourself, are somewhere along the path of this journey, perhaps already in a “zone unknown.”

• • • • •

Leaving Home With a Backpack

Another metaphor may help explain why it is often difficult to take the steps necessary to get to, and through, the gate to change. You see, all of us are born into a home fashioned from our parents’, or other caregivers’, dreams, traditions, beliefs, education, and experience. The foundation for this home was built by the culture in which our parents grew up and the age in which they lived. Not knowing anything else, we accepted our lives as the way things should be. even if there was discord in our family, it was home. It was familiar.

It is important to note that no matter what kind of atmosphere there was within the homes where we began our lives that, metaphorically speaking, each room had a window. The windows faced one direction. North. South. East. West. And while corner rooms might provide a view in two directions, our parents, like most people, tended to use some rooms more than others and to like the view in only one or two directions. They encouraged us to like that view of life as well. This doesn’t mean that what our parents were looking at was wrong, it was just limited.

When we went outside, even though our horizons were expanded, we were encouraged to focus on some parts of the world to the exclusion of others. So we were taken to some places and not others. We attended one church but not another. We went to one school rather than another. We played with one group of children and not another. This selective experience of the outside world felt most natural to us. After all, our parents’ beliefs worked for them. Why shouldn’t they work for us?

When we were allowed to leave the house by ourselves, our parents tried to make certain that we would continue to accept their ideas on how we should live. They did this by creating a “container” into which they stuffed all their beliefs, injunctions, and instructions. I think of this container of parents’ dreams and goals as an invisible, highly stretchable “backpack” we carried with us wherever we went as children — and continue to carry today.

in this backpack we could find our parents’ rules for how to treat others, the kind of education we should have, the religion we should follow, the foods that are best for us to eat, the books we should or shouldn’t read, the kind of job that would allow us to reach the potential our parents saw in us, the kind of friends we should have, and the kind of person we should marry.

Then as we ventured farther out into the world, we came into contact with relatives, neighbors, friends, preachers, teachers, pundits, experts, celebrities, and even authors of self-help books who added their opinions to our backpack. This is how you should vote. This is what you should wear. These are the beliefs you should hold. These are the charities you should support. everyone is only too willing to tell us how to change the way we live if we are unhappy, and how to live even if we are happy with our lives. What is important to note is that accepting, without careful examination, someone else’s opinion of how we should live adds more weight than is necessary in this bundle we bring with us everywhere.

Not only is our backpack filled with the opinions and exhortations of others, of course, but we add to it our own dreams, accomplishments, whatever self-assurance we’ve picked up along the way, values we try to live by, skills, accomplishments, and strengths, all influenced by our temperament. of course, we wouldn’t want to leave out our failures, resentments, regrets, guilt, fears, the memory of traumas and the residue of illness. And we make certain to keep a list of every possession we buy, especially those to which we are attached.

With so much accumulated over the years, we’ve come to believe that the contents of this backpack define us. By claiming that what we believe, what we own, what we say, and what we do is our “identity,” we attempt, mostly unconsciously, to guarantee our place in the world, for no two backpacks are the same.

The ego, whose job it is to protect our identity, has bought into the idea that the contents of the backpack determine our identity. Thus the ego makes certain that the pronouns of “me,” “mine,” and “I” are sprinkled liberally throughout our conversations. Consequently, the contents of the backpack are very important to our ego.

But what happens when we no longer can stay in our comfort zone, when we find ourselves on a path to change, when we aren’t sure what to do next and we can not longer find the answers in our backpacks? What happens when the weight we are carrying becomes too heavy? Perhaps then it is time to sort through the backpack and explore whether the admonitions and beliefs we’ve been carrying all these years still apply to our lives.

Is there a way we can discard unusable items in this heavy piece of the past and replace them with something that more accurately reflects who we really want to be? Yes. Do we need to find an “expert” who will tell us the items to keep and those we should discard? No. We are the experts. it is up to us to decide what to do with all the junk in our backpacks.

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life is reprinted here by permission.

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