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Three Pathways to Individual Transformation

Perspectives on Gradual, Sudden, and Intentional Changes

People transform regularly. Transformation, like evolution, is a natural human process. It’s also noticeable by others. A transformed person can seem palpably different.

Often we note physical changes. Weight gain or loss. The effects of aging. The impacts of lifestyle choices. Other times, people seem emotionally or psychologically different. Somehow lighter. Or more grounded. Or inspired in a new way. Full of love for a new child or a new partner.

Or simply happier.

Sometimes with gradual changes, a transformed person may not be aware of what’s happened, even though friends and family note the difference. Other times, with sudden or intentional change, the transformation is clearly perceived by the owner and agent. They’re aware, and in the case of positive change, they might even be proud of who they’ve become.

While personal change isn’t a linear process, I offer that there are three pathways to individual transformation worth noting: gradual changes, sudden changes, and intentional changes.

This essay offers perspectives on each of these pathways. It provides a model for pursuing intentional change. And it explores the roles of our social networks and perceived cultural norms — key contributors to our transformative experiences.

Gradual changes

While aging causes all of us to change physically throughout our lives, social scientists note that the traits that seem to give us our sense of identity can also morph over long periods of time.

A University of Edinburgh study looked at personality across a lifetime (more than 60 years in their subjects). It found that — given enough time — many of our core personality traits, such as agreeability, change.

Time, and the collective experiences of our lives, can transform how we act, respond, perceive the world, and sense value.

A meta analysis of seven surveys, covering more than a million people in 51 countries, has shown a U shaped curve of happiness across our lifetimes. For many of us, our early 50s are our least happy chapter — and we can become happier as we get older. In mid-life, the demands of family and finances can weigh on us. When our core circumstances change, we can feel happier.

Sudden changes

Decisions and experiences can change us — with sudden and immediate effect. Yet as the philosopher LA Paul wrote in the book Transformative Experience, “When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience.”

We must push ourselves into the unknown future world of our transformation.

Travel can invoke a sudden transformation. The perception that there are alternative ways of being can cause us to make dramatic changes to how we live when we return. A friend of mine recently returned from three weeks in India. She described the amazement she felt in sensing that the entire social construct, set of assumptions, and related behaviors in India, were entirely different from her experiences in the US. She seems different to me — and shares that she intends to live differently, based on this trip.

Art has the power to transform us. Painting, sculpture, architecture and other pieces — when we stop, notice and absorb them — can change us. Cathedrals, for me, have produced transformative moments, altering my sense of vastness and connection. As the writer Jane Hirschfield challenges, “Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?”

Elevating events can also change us. Music, sports, activist gatherings, spiritual services and other experiences can offer collective moments to gain energy, awaken, and come out as a different version of ourselves.

Personally shattering situations, through job loss, divorce, death and other traumatic events, can also cause us to change. Realizing our own mortality can be a powerful transformation catalyst.

The founder of Zen Hospice, Frank Ostaseski, offers “Dying is inevitable and intimate. I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be.”

Intentional changes

Our team at SYPartners has developed a model for behavior change that focuses on beliefs and abilities in the context of individual, organizational and societal constructs. We offer that with ample beliefs, acquired abilities, intention over time and (ideally) supportive environments, new behaviors can stick. These new behaviors can change us in meaningful ways.

Whether someone aspires to change physically, psychologically, or in how they relate to others, we can consider a set of outcomes and approaches to intentional changes. An outcome would be something that we seek, like more energy. Approaches are what we can do. They’re a set of new behaviors, like sleeping more and eating better.

Examples of outcomes and approaches follow in the framework below. Please note that the physical, psychological, and relational construct is a somewhat false distinction: many outcomes and approaches transcend boundaries (and operate as a system of change). This model is also not comprehensive. It is intended to be illustrative.

An Illustrative Model for Intentional Human Change

Desired outcomes, like energy, confidence, meaning and safety, have a set of approaches that can be powerful catalysts. When we sleep better, play more, serve others and generally do things that have proven benefits for ourselves, we can build a platform for personal change.

We can begin to see ourselves differently as we experience ourselves differently.

The model above can serve as a starting point as we design and launch personal transformation journeys. The model can also aid as a framework for service and product innovation initiatives.

As you are thinking about a set of potential outcomes that a new offering might invoke, you can consider mixing and matching approaches. Under each of these approaches lie a nearly limitless set of productizable experiences to help people think, act, and reflect.

Bringing experiences together in new ways, and experimenting at the intersections of approaches, could aid in the exploration of new, testable innovation concepts.

The uncertainty of transformation

Author Rebecca Solnit notes: “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.”

This is an important paradox for each of us. We sometimes yearn for a different experience of ourselves. But we won’t really know how our new self will feel until we are actually transformed.

It is through the doing that the transformation happens, often with unexpected experiences and sensations. This can be unsettling.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay Circles, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

Through an unsettled self seeking change — and willing to be further unsettled through the journey of change — transformation can occur.

How our social networks shape transformation

Thus far, this essay has looked at individual transformation via our perception of an integrated, independent self. There are limits to this view.

Neuroscientists like Joe LeDoux are exploring the component pieces and emergent processes of how we think of ourselves. Cognitive scientists Sloan and Fernbach believe that the Enlightenment idea of a rational, self-made individual is tenuous. Robert D Putnam conveys the importance of social connections.

We are much more emotional, complex and interdependent than we often imagine. We are highly social creatures, heavily influenced by our friends, family, co-workers, communities and culture.

The poet John Gardner said, “In the ever-renewing society what matters is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.”

Social network analysis gives us one framework. This field attempts to predict desired outcomes based on the structure of relationships within a person’s life, or within an organization where they gather, study or work.

Aspects of social network analysis can help us with our intentional change efforts. For example, while we are pursuing psychological change we benefit from what network analysis experts Interstitio call a Coleman Network — a “small and dense cluster of relationships that provide support and feedback as a transformation is pursued” (special thanks to Interstitio for their help on this essay).

Alternatively, if we seek work or earning changes, we benefit from a Burt Centrality Network. This network consists of interconnected people we bridge across multiple groups that are different in their focus or construct. In bridging groups, we serve as an information broker and are exposed to novel information and ideas — increasing our value.

As we pursue physical changes, like becoming stronger or losing weight, we know that healthy behaviors are contagious. People often express the beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes of their peers. To aid in our physical transformation, we benefit from social networks with similar goals and behaviors.

Overall, our social networks help fuel and predict the potential for transformative change. Being aware of their power and construct can be pivotal to ensuring successful change.

Our cultural constructs

Each of us have brains that have been formed in relation to others. Our brains are highly plastic — and change dramatically based on our environments and interactions.

Culture plays a powerful role in how we perceive the world, even when we’re not aware of its influence. Mazarin Banaji of Harvard has shown the impact, and widespread presence, of implicit bias. As we grow-up, we are exposed to media, events, literature, statements and other experiences that program our brains to make predictive shortcuts.

These shortcuts then become biases, which are often unconscious. We can be quite unaware of why we get stuck in certain behaviors — and why certain forms of desired, transformative change can be so hard.

Several approaches can be beneficial:

  • Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, can equip us to become more aware of our biases.
  • An anthropological and historical exploration of our cultures can help us understand how shared constructs have evolved.
  • Intentional interaction with people from different cultural backgrounds can help us see our culture with a new set of eyes.
  • Mindfulness practices, as researched by Richard Davidson, can enable us to gain a greater awareness of our thought patterns and tendencies.

Recognizing our cultural norms and our own biases can minimize friction with, and add energy to, our transformational efforts.

Moving beyond ourselves

Krista Tippett of On Being helps us remember that great leaders of social change, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were constantly working on themselves — while they pursued the external change that they desired.

Through our inner work, we can develop greater capacity to pursue the change that we wish to see in the world.

Whether we wish to be more available for our families; want to make more impact through our work; seek to learn more quickly; yearn to help those in need; or hunger to make the planet a better place, our individual transformation efforts can have a higher probability of success when they are in service of something beyond ourselves.

To this point, this essay has mostly been abstract. Let’s conclude at a more personal level.

What might a higher calling be for you? How might you wish to transform, to impact something beyond yourself? Can you imagine what it might feel like to experience yourself, and the world, differently? Might you want to build a new transformative product, possibly using the model for intentional human change above?

To start, I’d encourage you to write down a description of the transformation you seek. A powerful exercise that Lisa McCarthy and others espouse is vision writing. In it, you create a narrative of what your future will be like, written in the past tense as if it’s already happened.

Pick a time period and give it a try. At the end of next year, what will you have done? How will you have felt? Who will you have spent time with? What will you have learned? What will you have done to change yourself — and the world around you?

Try writing this as if it’s already happened, such as, “It’s now the end of 2018. I feel entirely different. I have more energy and feel closer to my partner than ever before. I accomplished what was most important to me this year, including….”

Don’t worry if you can’t see your transformation (the what nor the how) clearly. As Rebecca Solnit advised, we don’t really know what’s on the other side of the transformation. And to channel Emerson, if you feel unsettled in this exercise, well, that’s probably a good thing.

All great transformations begin with an action. What might your first move be?