Five Things You Need To Know About Change

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.                                                               I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”                                                                                                                                               — Mark Twain

How long does it take to change? Various studies have found that it takes three days, three weeks, or 30 days. I never understood how they measured that—it sounds like they’re just pulling numbers out of a hat. A more recent study says it takes 18-254 days. That’s quite a range! So what’s the real answer? As long as it takes. 

I know, that’s not much of an answer. As in so many areas of real life problems, the real answer is: It depends. It depends on a variety of factors, such as:

Your nature. Are you determined and focused, or are you easily distracted and prone to quitting? Obviously you will do better if you are determined and persistent. 

The type of change. Some habits are relatively easy to adopt, for example, drinking a glass of water every morning. Others, such as adopting an exercise regimen or diet, are more challenging. Changing your mindset or beliefs can be extremely difficult.  

How badly you want to change. For this one, let me tell you a story, as told to me by my grandfather. 

My Grandpa Sam was a dashing fellow (so he told me), and smoked according to the fashion of the day. Cigars, pipes, cigarettes, whatever was handy—he’d fire it up and contentedly puff away.

Sam had three young daughters. Nothing brought him more joy than to walk into his house after work and have them run to greet him at the door, smothering him with hugs and kisses. 

One evening he came home and braced himself to receive the onslaught of affection. The three girls charged at him. My Aunt Irma, the oldest and fastest, reached him first. As she threw her arms around his neck she noticed the strong scent of tobacco. She drew back instinctively and said, “Eww, Daddy, you stink!” The two younger ones followed their big sister’s lead and refused to come near him. He tried to coax them over but they were having none of it. The rejection pierced him like a knife to the heart. He never smoked again. 

Are you hoping things will change by magic, or are you committed to doing whatever it takes?

Do you have a plan? It isn’t enough to just want to change, it takes work to make it happen. A wish is not a goal, and hope is not commitment. 

One of the best plans is a set of rules. Instead of saying “I will drink more water,” adopt a rule such as “I will drink a glass of water every morning when I brush my teeth and before every meal.” No exceptions. Instead of deciding to exercise more, make a rule that “I will exercise four times a week, and do 20 pushups before bed.” You must also define what you mean by “exercise,” for example, a 5K run, an hour in the gym, or 30 laps in the pool. 

When it comes to rewriting your inner story, your plan may take the form of a series of challenges. For example, suppose your old foundational story says you are low on confidence and socially inept. Years of living by that script written by your child-self has reinforced your behaviors. After you disprove the old story and rewrite it to reflect your new reality, you will need to test and reinforce the new story by designing a program of challenges. These challenges must be relevant to your objective, and they should be increasingly difficult or complex. A simple set of challenges might look like this:

Ask a service representative for help

Ask a stranger for directions

Strike up a conversation with the concierge at a hotel

Make small talk with someone you don’t know at a party  

Offer your opinion on a matter in conversation with someone you don’t know

Try to persuade someone to change their point of view

You would attempt each challenge a number of times until you feel comfortable and confident, and then move on to the next one.

Whether you have support or some system of reinforcement. Anyone can quit smoking for an hour, or maybe a day. Anyone can go to the gym once, or order a diet meal. But permanent change is not easy to do on your own. It helps to have a loved one to encourage you, an accountability partner, or a coach.    

Change happens all the time, whether you like it or not. Why let change simply happen to you, when you can choose to change purposefully for your desired result?

You Can Create Your Own Reality

Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga are known for constantly “reinventing” themselves. Their fans applaud them for it. I believe one reason we admire them for their ability to transform themselves is because we wish we could do the same. Let me tell you a secret: We can!

Your inner story is the one you’ve been telling yourself about who you are, how you relate to others, and the way life is supposed to be.

This story is not accurate because you wrote it when you were five or six years old. What did your child self know about life, people, relationships, or the way things work? Nothing! Yet despite its flaws, this story became the script for your life. But do you know you can rewrite your inner story and make it better, like a good editor can take a sloppy manuscript and turn it into a bestseller?

You may be wondering “How far can I take this rewriting my inner story thing? Can I invent a completely new persona for myself—like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga—or am I limited to uncovering my ‘true’ self?” 

This is up to you. What is your true self anyway? It’s whatever you decide it is. You are not making up alternative facts. You cannot say you lived with the dinosaurs, went to Mars, or scored a last-minute touchdown to win the Super Bowl. But you can reinterpret and reframe your story. The distinction between reinterpreting and making stuff up is a fine one. Besides, it’s all in your head anyway.

Remember, the story your child self wrote was not accurate, yet you accepted it as true and it governed your life for many years. The new story you write to replace it with will also be imperfect, even if you strive to get it completely accurate. You have the power to control these inaccuracies and make them go in your favor. By what margin? That’s your call—whatever you are comfortable with.

Other people exaggerate, embellish, indulge in a bit of harmless literary license, and otherwise contrive to present themselves in the most favorable light, so why should you limit the way you see yourself by imposing a stricter standard? Seeing yourself in an unfavorable light or holding yourself to a higher standard may be a big part of your challenge in the first place!

My mother used to say we lived in a zoo. It’s true that we had a lot of pets (including some she never even knew about, heh heh!). But we didn’t literally live in a zoo. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if my brothers and I “remember” having a few more pets than might have appeared in an official census.

How many middle-aged men reflect on their youth and “remember” themselves as a star athlete and chick magnet? Guilty of a little (or a lot of) exaggeration maybe?

Have you ever looked back on an event from your distant past and felt unsure about whether it actually happened or it was just a dream? Or talked to a friend about something you experienced together years before, only to find that you have completely different recollections?

Have you ever read a historical account that was completely different than your own accepted account?

We distort things all the time, whether deliberately or by accident. The thing is, your brain doesn’t care! It makes its own truth. 

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

— John Lennon

It is important to understand that you are not inventing a new story for yourself. And you are not denying the old story. The same events that happened in your old story remain in your new one. You are reinterpreting those events in a more positive way. You are drawing new inferences and deriving new beliefs and principles for living from them.

Your old story may have scripted you as a timid schlub, stumbling from one disaster to the next. In your new story you may be a confident, assertive dynamo, going boldly where you never dared to go before.   

Reality isn’t real. It isn’t carved in stone. It is created. You are surrounded by people, events, colors, sounds, and influences, and you interpret and make sense of them as best you can. Someone else in your position—with their own filters, biases, and perceptions—would create a different reality. There is no single reality, there are countless possibilities. You create your own reality. If the one you’ve been living isn’t working for you, you can create one that does. And it all begins with rewriting your inner story. 

My Journey To My Inner Story

When I first started teaching organizational storytelling almost fifteen years ago, I was interested in the various stories people tell in business and the purposes they tell them for: teaching lessons, branding, transmitting personal and organizational values, sharing your vision, influencing and persuading others, driving change, and so on. It was great!

I soon realized that the personal branding story was especially important. That’s the story you tell that establishes your credibility to tell all of the other stories. That was even better!

A few years ago I realized there was an even more important story: the one you tell yourself. I dove back into my old pool of psychology, exploring identity, confidence and self-esteem, locus of control, and other topics. That was best of all!

Your inner story is where it all begin. It’s the story you wrote for yourself as a child about who you are, what the world is like, and how everything in life works. Your child self didn’t understand anything well enough to create this blueprint for your life, but here you are—still operating under that false narrative.

Most people are not even aware that they wrote this story, they just think “It’s who I am.” Of those who are aware, very few know that they can rewrite it.

It begins with a journey of discovery, a trip back in time to your story’s origins. Once you uncover your inner story, you analyze the misunderstandings that went into making it, the faulty assumptions and inferences you drew from it, and the maladaptive beliefs that formed as a result. Then comes the serious work of rewriting the story and designing challenges to reinforce it. Your old story has quite a hold on you, and it will not just go away so easily.

You can go through this process yourself, but it helps to have a coach or story guide to lead you through the process. Your new story will be transformational. Your new life will be sensational!

And it doesn’t get any better than that!    

What I Learned About Confidence In A Boiler Room

When I was about ten years into my legal career I applied for a job at a stock brokerage firm. I was looking for something in the compliance department. Later on I realized that compliance was the last thing they were interested in—they were eventually shut down by the SEC and the firm’s principals were slapped with seven-figure fines and jail terms. But at the time I thought they were legit. They told me to start slamming the phone—making cold calls to prospective investors. I was desperately looking for a way out of law and fascinated by the stock market, so I decided to try it out.

It works like this. You’re given a stack of lead cards with contact information of registered business owners. You then call each person and try to get them to open an account with the firm. Once you open forty accounts and pass the licensing exam you’re in business.

It didn’t make much sense to me. Why would a total stranger send me money to invest? He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know anything about stock investing. If they wanted to invest, why wouldn’t they just call a big firm like Merrill Lynch? Because I didn’t believe in my ability to do the job or the firm’s business model there was no way I could have been successful. I didn’t open a single account, and I left after two or three weeks.

But I did learn a few things while I was there. Some guys (they were almost all guys, maybe two percent were women) were very successful at opening accounts. I noticed that they didn’t know any more about the stock market than I did, but they all had one thing in common: they sounded extremely confident. They had loud, authoritative voices. They didn’t just sit at their desks and robotically make calls—they stood up, paced around waving their arms, and refused to take no for an answer. They had an answer for every objection. And they were able to persuade dozens of people to invest with them during a single phone call. It sounded crazy to me! Until I thought about it from the perspective of the other guy on the line.

Imagine you’re a successful business owner. You have some cash lying around, but you haven’t had much time to think about what to do with it. You’re thinking I shouldn’t let my money just sit in the bank, I should invest it, but how? What if I lose it? I don’t know what to do. Then you get a call from a guy at a brokerage house telling you about a great opportunity. You think He sounds so sure of himself! I have no idea what to do, but he does! I don’t want to miss this opportunity. I’ll just send him my money—problem solved! 

In the boiler room, the confident sharks eat the less confident fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Confidence is extremely persuasive. The confident person gets the sale, the job, the promotion, and the girl. If you doubt me, ask ten women to name the three qualities they desire most in a man. You’ll be surprised at how many times you hear the word “confidence.” Or maybe it won’t surprise you at all, because you already know it’s true. 

If you are brimming with confidence, great! If not, you need to develop it. How? There are a few ways.

Fake it ’til you make it. Do the things confident people do. Walk, talk, dress, move, and act confident. Make strong eye contact and talk in a deep voice. It gets easier with practice. But bear in mind that there are a lot of moving parts to this approach. If you betray a lack of confidence in your voice or a gesture the whole facade can crumble.

Another approach comes from Hollywood: “method” acting. Instead of starting from the outside and trying to adopt a host of mannerisms calculated to make you appear confident, you start from the inside. Ask yourself “What would a confident person do?” and try to internalize that character. You might have a person you actually know as a role model, or you might model a real person you do not know (such as George Clooney) or a fictional character (for example, Don Draper). If you do it well, you will walk, talk, and act confident. This is not easy either, or we would all be movie stars!

Note that with time and dedication you may achieve some degree of success with these techniques, but there is a better way. You can rewrite your inner story. If your inner story says you are not confident, you will have a hard time faking it. But if you can rewrite your inner story to support the confident person you wish you could be, then real confidence and all its rewards can be yours.

Are You An Impostor?

What do Abba, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Marley, Simon and Garfunkle, and Diana Ross all have in common? Aside from being very successful musical acts, they all have at least one “Greatest Hits” album. Almost every great band has a Greatest Hits album. But have you ever seen a “Worst Flops” album?

It isn’t just musical acts who put their greatest hits front and center and ignore their lesser efforts. We all do it. Our resume or CV contains our professional greatest hits, but we do not mention the failures, missteps, and embarrassments we’ve suffered. 

Everyone else’s CV does the same. They show their best and hide their worst. We don’t see their flaws because they are hidden. And while we may try not to show others our own shortcomings, we are painfully aware of them. We are terrified that others might see our faults anyway, and expose us as a fraud. This fear of being found unqualified for (and undeserving of) our role is called impostor syndrome, and it can be debilitating. 

This sets us up for a lifelong struggle. We see our worst self, but we see the best of everyone else. It’s like looking at life through a distorted lens. We make ourselves small—we belittle, diminish, and disparage ourselves—while making others bigger than they are. How messed up is that? Shouldn’t we be building ourselves up?

At the logical level we know that other people have flaws they don’t want us to see. We may even understand that other people don’t see some of our inadequacies that we are trying to keep under wraps. But understanding this is not enough to overcome our fears. Mr Spock (of Star Trek fame) may be able to tame his emotions with logic, but the rest of us are too human to do this—our emotions rule.

Impostor syndrome is especially common among those who are promoted into a new role at work. They won the promotion because they excelled in their previous role, but their new role requires capabilities they have not yet mastered. Some people overcome this problem with time. They gain the knowledge, skills, and experience required, and as a result become more confident. They grow into their role. They may have some doubts on occasion, but they are manageable.

Others are not so fortunate. The doubts are overwhelming. They feel inadequate not only in their new role, but in other areas of their life. The feeling that I’m not good enough is pervasive. Affirmations, visualization, and waiting will not help. They are operating under a false narrative, and they need to attack the problem at the roots by rewriting their inner story.   

If your inner story supports maladaptive beliefs such as I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy, I don’t deserve it, then it will not support the new, empowering beliefs you wish to install. But you can change your inner story and create the life you want. The most important story you will ever tell is the story you tell yourself.