What is the difference between the people who do and don’t change?

Maryam Abolfazli
Jan 9, 2018 · 6 min read

Last night, in preparation for a job interview, I talked to a friend about getting out of prison and making a successful life for himself. Trell is a successful personal trainer in DC and a committed one. He’s constantly putting out content to promote his business and building his network of trainers in the city. He even has a prison-style boot camp workout on Saturdays.

He attributed a lot of his success to a program that he attended in the months before his release. In this nine-month program, he was expected to acknowledge his mistakes and then face the realities of what he will be up against when back in society. I asked him, “So even though this program was really pivotal for you, I’m sure many people still didn’t change when they came out.”

Trell responded, “Oh yeah every one of the people I knew, my friends, all went back to the doing same things once they got out. But I can’t tell you what will lead to change, because I think it’s very personal. For me, it was my brother and mother. I just couldn’t let them down. Maybe for another, it’s his child. I just don’t know, it’s different for everyone.”

I’d hoped he’d figured something out that still baffled me. Most of my career I’ve designed and built training programs driven by theories of change intended to motivate an individual to change a behavior, attitude, or practice with the long term effect that this person will benefit their community and society, eventually. I was still unsure what the difference was between the person that goes through the training and makes a change and the one that doesn’t. And plenty of codependence literature taught me the obvious: it has nothing to do with how much you try to change them yourself.

When I talked to Trell, he said one of the things that helped him the most was getting realistic about expectations of the world when he got out. He said it took him two months and forty job applications before he could get a job. I wanted to know why he didn’t quit. “Because I knew it would be hard, I didn’t expect anything else. I just kept going.”

Last year, I took part in a series of transformational trainings in LA. By its very name, these trainings were geared towards, well, transforming a person. During this four month process and after, as I kept in touch with my cohort, I observed with great interest who would make changes in their life and who wouldn’t. And then, as usual, wondered about what made the difference.

The approach of the training was largely emotional and New Age. It focused on re-engineering the mind to constantly find solutions instead of excuses and welcoming the more difficult conversations. Picture lots of men crying for the first time in years, if not decades. And it did work, many in my cohort that finished the three month program were changed, not all, but many. Did their lives reflect this change? Often, in subtle and not so subtle ways. What motivated them? A slew of reasons from health, to dysfunctional relationships to career dreams. The training was challenging psychologically and those of us that remained must’ve really wanted something significant. The challenge came once the training was over, though, not knowing how to apply all that we had learned, and facing an unchanged world. It seems we could’ve benefited from the last part of Trell’s training.

“Because I knew it would be hard, I didn’t expect anything else. I just kept going.”

So much of the branding and messaging about change is about taking the first step and then all will align. But in actuality, change, and achieving dreams, is really comprised of a million difficult steps. That part of the story is often less emphasized in inspirational quotes on Instagram, likely because no one would take the first step, if they knew how hard it could all be. The truth is, to the food addict, or the woman who wants the divorce, it is really painfully difficult to make that change. Emotionally and practically. And maybe, in their cost benefit analysis, it’s just not worth it. When life itself requires so much will to get through, why add to the discomfort?

We know that there are some essential aspects to change, we know this from 12 step groups and research. We know a person needs a supportive environment, we know a person needs to get away from the triggers of the old way of being, the shame of it has to go away, and we know a person has to be committed. We know that willpower is generally useless when it comes to behavior change. But it seems like the main reason anyone implements any significant change in their life comes down to the “why.” The why has to burn.

That’s where Trell seemed to hit it on the nail. Most of the time the why is another person, whether it’s the responsibility towards a person, or the love of a person, that sense of connection has to be strong.

Or not. In the recent comedy show “Nothing to Lose but Our Chains,” Felonious Munk, a comedian and social commentator carves out his life story for the audience, sometimes with humor but mostly with unexpected seriousness. Included in this story is his 6-year incarceration and the transformation that took place after. He attributes his life U-turn to comedy and a simple decision to “be a decent person.”

A few years ago a team and I created a few online schools, one of which was aimed towards helping women start their own businesses. I was a obsessed with these schools, and was often looking at my team like “why aren’t the participants starting their business?” One day it occurred to me, that the difference between me and my colleague, on the one hand, and the trainees, on the other, was that we were responsible for paying our rent, while the rest relied on their parents or a spouse. Rent theory, I called it. If the buck stops with me, then maybe I have to make things happen.

And finally, what about those that want to pursue a dream? What makes them finally do it? There’s a difference between the person who thinks about doing something but is okay with the way her life is and the person who senses something is incomplete because she isn’t doing what she enjoys. The former will likely stay put, the latter will likely make the leap.

About a year ago I was teaching a Creative Writing class and one of the participants, Deepti, was writing a story about a trip to Italy and was stuck. As we delved in, I asked her to describe what was special about waking up there, what was the feeling? She started talking about freedom from working, and being able to set her own schedule. So what does that feel like? I asked her. Her eyes widened. “Great.” I ran into Deepti a year later and she had left her job and was consulting. This outcome seemed almost inevitable from the look on her face that day.

So having read all the way to the bottom, you are still waiting for the answer- what makes a person make a change? Well it’s clear that the change doesn’t come from without. Ultimately, like Trell said, “it’s personal.” Those that want it, will do all the work, find all the community, take all the excruciating steps, make it happen.

Maryam Abolfazli

Written by

Middle East North Africa & Internet Lover + Human Interactions Observer @maryack

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