The Desire To Change
I spoke to psychologists, coaches and leaders to dig deeper into what effecting change actually requires. Here is what it takes.
Talking about change is clearly very lucrative for authors and publishers. It’s one of the reasons listicles with titles like “5 simple steps to making your first million” are so successful, and why bookstores around the world are filled with shelves that groan with dieting and self-help books. Change sells.
But while many of these books are well-meaning, and are often great at providing first steps, where they fall behind is on the follow-up. And very few people are interested in their own personal growth to the degree that they are actually willing to change. In his book Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, Alan Deutschman reveals that just one in nine people will successfully make changes to their life, even if that change directly benefits them. It really does seem that, as Stan Goldberg wrote in Psychology Today, “being is easier than becoming.”
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In the evolution of JRNY, the personal change company I am building with my co-founder Julian and our team, I spoke to psychologists, coaches and leaders to dig much deeper into what effecting change actually requires. Through these conversations, a consensus emerged: in order to effect personal change, you need to have in place the desire, the skills and the conditions to change.
When we talk about skills, we’re really talking about your knowledge of how to implement change. As that aisle of self-help books reminds us, there are all sorts of skills that can help you to change your life circumstances: the power of habits, setting good goals, working with your behavioral biases and setting up accountability systems, to name a few.
The conditions in which we place ourselves can inhibit our ability to change. Imagine you live in a household of couch potatoes and you’ve decided you need to get back in shape. Netflix is on TV, there’s pizza on the counter and beer in the fridge … do you really want to go for a run tonight?
But while skills and conditions are necessary to sustain change, desire is there to inspire change—to get you out of the gates. And this is really where things start.
Your desire is the why of change. Author and speaker Simon Sinek talks about finding that why:
There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.
Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do.
By why I mean your purpose, cause or belief — Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?
During the early days of building JRNY, our early product tester Anna told us she wanted to prioritize her health and her family as her country came out of lockdown. Anna was then a Frankfurt-based corporate lawyer who we met years before. She was exactly the sort of person we had built JRNY for: Her excitement about the prospect of changing was palpable.
Yet while many of our early users were returning to the app daily, after two weeks all JRNY had helped Anna to do was set three doctor’s appointments and confirm two nights out.
No deep transformation had taken place; no fundamental insight: we had not even scratched the surface! She told us she was done, and thanked us for the help. Julian and I were scratching our heads. We knew there was a deeper longing for change in her, yet apparently JRNY had not been able to help her act on it.
At that time, we were beginning to understand that desire was the most powerful lever to inspire change in humans. So we got in touch with Anna to find out where the excitement she had felt about her transformation had gone and where it had gotten her.
Most crucially, what was her why for wanting to change?
Anna told us that she had long had the dream of living a more flexible life, not as driven by one corporate career but by a portfolio of projects with her community of friends and family at the center. She had this urge to take a leap of faith some months before the pandemic struck. The lockdowns sent her back into her corporate home office shell, and had the effect of muffling her desire. As restrictions started to loosen up again, she felt the seed of change taking new root. Now would be the time!
As we developed our concept of the “desire to change”, we kept coming back to two drivers: The undeniable truth and the irresistible vision—one driver that pushes us, and one that pulls.
Photo by the blowup / Unsplash
Push: The Undeniable Truth
This is when you discover that it actually pains you to not act. Change is hard: it takes tremendous effort and, most of the time, it is easier to distract yourself with vanity achievements (a promotion; a new challenge; a house) or numb yourself with life’s variety of drugs (social media; work; alcohol; exercise). Change happens when the discomfort of your undeniable truth is so intense you cannot distract nor numb yourself anymore.
So we asked Anna: What truth about your life is so uncomfortable that you have taken to numb yourself rather than taking it on? How much pain is the status quo causing you? What will happen if nothing changes?
What came out was both surprising yet also a story we had heard from many people in our community: the pandemic had underlined the importance of health, especially the health of her parents. She realized: “wow, they are getting old! I have been taking family for granted and have not invested in these relationships for a long time. It really raised the necessity for reconnecting with my family.”
However, the undeniable truth is not the full story. This discomfort is nondirectional. While you might have created awareness about what made you unhappy, you have not formulated where you want to go. This is where your vision of the desired future comes in.
Pull: The Irresistible Vision
The second driver of change is a vision you care so deeply about that you cannot ignore its existence—and you cannot rest until you have done what you can to make it a reality.
Anna decided she wanted to be more involved with her family. We asked if she had a clear vision about how that would look. In great detail, she shared how she imagined the family coming together describing a vision of a party under a tree at her grandfather’s house, with children and parents chatting and playing... In her mind’s eye, she was painting the happy ending scene of a family saga.
Anna had both a clear idea what she wanted to move away from—the undeniable truth of her aging parents while she was pursuing an unfulfilling career—and a desirable future to move towards—the irresistible vision of a lively family communion.
We realized: JRNY had clearly failed at helping her connect to her underlying desire to change. Our product had fallen short, promoting short-term tactics rather than long-term transformation. We asked Anna if she wanted to give JRNY another chance to make that vision a reality, and she agreed.
Control & Positive Reinforcement
In “Smarter, Faster, Better,” Charles Duhigg writes that “a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.” Duhigg cites a 2010 Columbia University study that describes the need for control as a biological imperative.
Now, Anna had JRNY back at her side. The app encouraged her to break down her ambitions by asking “if you want to make your vision a reality, what contribution can you make by the end of this week? How about today?” Anna started to grasp the reigns of her life, little by little.
We are running JRNY in a closed beta phase. Click to join the list.
Then came the breakthrough: over the last few weeks, Anna made a major decision: to move back to her hometown, Hamburg. She decided to prioritize community and flexibility over career in the next phase of her life. Even post-pandemic, this might put a dent in her career as a corporate attorney; but it is more aligned with her values.
In order to promote this feeling of being in control—psychologists call it the “locus of control”—Anna focused on the little things that she could change rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of turning her life around: Her journey started with tiny steps—steps that she felt were within her control, including filing a request with her employer to transfer to remote work, and making a list of places she wanted to live in the vicinity of Hamburg.
To drive real personal change, we need to engage the trio of desire, skills and conditions to change. Desire breaks down into push and pull elements: developing your undeniable truth about what needs to change, and cultivating an irresistible vision of our future. It is where we fell short at JRNY in the past.
Anna’s story offers us an illustration of the requirements for successfully embracing and enacting change. Once she had firmly established her desire to change, and understood the factors motivating that desire, she was able to reinforce her commitment to put family and friends first as she embarked on this new chapter in her life.
Our exploration of the levers of personal change altered the course of JRNY: Julian and I are now on the way to building a product that helps people cultivate their desire to change. By connecting our users to the deeper motivations beyond their stated goals, we hook up their emotions to those goals. Your vision has to be such a heartfelt, compelling picture that you have no choice but to be drawn towards it.
We are super excited to continue building JRNY into the best personal change company out there, meeting our users where they are and helping them change their lives for the better.
Photo by Christian Lue / Unsplash
As always, here are the books and articles that inspired me to write this.
Alan Deutschmann: Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life
Psychology Today: The 10 Rules of Change
Some of the inspiration came from the work of the conscious leadership group, notably their book 15 committments of conscious leadership: The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success (English Edition)
The Columbia study mentioned by Duhigg: Leotti, Lauren A., Sheena S. Iyengar, and Kevin N. Ochsner. "Born to choose: The origins and value of the need for control." Trends in cognitive sciences 14.10 (2010): 457-463.