The Willpower Myth
Illustration: Kate Gibb
You say you need to make a change, but you can't—you're weak, you have zero self-control (sound of forehead being struck). Instead of beating yourself up, you can do what researchers are discovering actually works. We have the three Rs of transformation.Maybe you haven't made it yet, that change you've wanted to make, but you know what it would take. Hard work. Willpower. Self-discipline. And if you've been trying to make the change of your dreams for years without success, you've probably told yourself that you failed because you didn't try hard enough.
That's what we all think, but when researchers examine the actual mechanism of change, that's not what they find. So says Alan Deutschman in his book Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, out this month in paperback from Collins. Deutschman, executive director of the Atlanta consulting firm Unboundary, decided to get to the bottom of whatever it is that makes people and corporations able to change—especially after they've tried and failed. What he found is that people get unstuck not through willpower but through a relationship with a person or a group who shows them the way. Not just any relationship will do. It has to be an emotional relationship with someone who inspires hope and belief, who makes you say, "If she can do it, I can, too."
Unlocking the secret of change is especially critical for those who literally have to change or die. The book's title refers to people like heart-bypass patients, who must change their lifestyle or face surgery after surgery or death. Astonishingly, nine out of ten of them don't make the changes that would save their lives, though the stakes couldn't be higher.
After Deutschman came upon this statistic, he heard about a doctor who had turned those numbers upside down: Dean Ornish, MD, a San Francisco Bay Area professor of medicine. Ornish's program requires patients to make the most radical changes of all, including switching to an extremely low-fat vegetarian diet and doing regular yoga and meditation practice. Yet nearly eight in ten of his patients—many of them steak-eating CEOs, mind you—make those major changes and maintain them years after they've left Ornish's program.
According to Deutschman, the key to the program's success is the relationships those type-A workaholics and steak-eaters develop when they show up for the support groups and classes that are the program's hallmark. There they find other type-A workaholics and steak-eaters; when they see that their peers are going home to chant "om" or munch on quinoa and kale, they realize it can be done. So they lose weight, lower their cholesterol, achieve a 91 percent decrease in the frequency of chest pains the first month, avoid further surgery, save themselves and their insurance companies tens of thousands of dollars, and keep up the behaviors that restored them to health.
Learning about Deutschman's findings solved a personal mystery for me. I had left Fortune magazine after becoming a mother and spent a few years writing freelance articles about personal finance and business. I cowrote a book about careers, and once in a while somebody would even ask me to be on television. Not too shabby. The only problem was, I didn't want to write about business. I wanted to write about the ways I tried to please my unpleasable mother, or what made me choose politics as my religion, or why my three daughters are all spaced five years apart.
I worried that my stories weren't theatrical enough to be interesting to readers, but I got to work. I wrote and rewrote. Then I shoved my pages under the nose of my husband, Tom, an award-winning writer himself, who gently informed me that my efforts were not quite ready to send off to editors. I stayed married to him anyway.