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.
One day soon afterward, I received my neighbor's UC Berkeley Extension catalog by mistake. As I walked down the street to deliver it, I noticed a class on personal essay writing taught by Pushcart nominee Margo Perin. On the theory that when you don't know what to do next, do any damn thing, I called to sign up right there on the sidewalk. I felt a connection with Perin from the moment I walked into the classroom. She was publishing an anthology of stories about complicated mother-daughter relationships and encouraged me to write about my own, explaining that it wasn't the drama so much as the writing that would make my stories compelling. For the class final, I wrote about confronting my mother over her chilly dealings with my 5-year-old daughter. The essay went on to be selected as a finalist in a literary competition, and I had a new career.
Before reading Deutschman's book, I had never figured out what it was about Perin's class that so quickly unwedged me. Now I understood that it was my identification with Perin. She grew up near me and her voice sounded like home; she had a mother like mine and wrote stories like the ones I wanted to write. According to Deutschman, I could have gone on forever plugging away unsuccessfully at my essays if I hadn't met someone like Perin, who would go on to become a close friend and continues to serve as my writing coach. My emotional connection with her gave me the belief that I could craft the kind of stories I preferred to write.
Perin also gave me the training I needed, which is another component Deutschman found vital to change. Once that all-important relationship inspires you to believe you can make the change, you need to acquire the skills necessary and then keep practicing—repeating—them until they feel natural. That's what Solana Beach, California, chiropractor Star Bailey discovered after years of trying and failing to make a decent living from her work. "I was having fantastic success with patients, but I wasn't managing my business properly because that's not what they teach you in school," says Bailey, who is 42. "I thought that because I was valedictorian of my class and very grounded in ethics I didn't need to learn how to manage my business. I was in dire straits financially, but I didn't want somebody telling me what to do with my practice to make money because that's not what I'm about."
Bailey had always admired the work of Scott Walker, a chiropractor who developed a technique that attempts to identify the emotional sources of physical ailments. Bailey studied Walker's technique and even opened her practice near him in hopes of one day working with him. Then she heard that he had started a new program that teaches teams of chiropractors how to grow their businesses while enhancing patient care. Bailey wanted to sign up for Walker's first group, but she was deeply in debt. She was so desperate for a solution that when Walker was enlisting doctors for his third group, Bailey added the course fee to her already burdensome credit card bill. After four months of implementing the methods she learned from Walker, Bailey nearly tripled her income.
"There's no way I would have been able to make the changes in my practice that were necessary had the program not been Walker's, the person I trusted the most in chiropractic," Bailey says. "The bond is what made me step outside my normal behaviors and trust that maybe someone had an idea that was better than mine."
Deutschman calls the third component of successful change reframing, or thinking in a new way after forming the key relationship (relating, the first component) and gaining and practicing new skills (repeating, the second). For example, Bailey now understands that running a profitable practice doesn't make her any less of a healer. I now feel certain that my stories are worth telling. And in ex-con and social activist Heather Weigand's reframing, she now knows she is a good person.
When Weigand was arrested for the fourth time in 1999, she was a 36-year-old prostitute who had been using drugs for 20 years. As a repeat offender, she was facing a prison sentence of 18 years or more. Her attorney suggested she enter a program in the jail called Choices, which was for addicted inmates who wanted to break the cycle of addiction.
"A counselor named Cydney Reyes came to me when I was arrested, and I'm sure I was an absolute mess," Weigand says. "I remember how good she smelled, and she had these crystal blue eyes and said, 'Do you need some help?' I broke down and admitted I needed a lot of help.
"I got into the program and I stayed right up under her. I wanted to know how she lived and breathed and acted. She shared her story with me, and I thought, 'Wow, she was even worse than I was.' She worked with me every day, and I probably sucked her dry of every piece of energy she had. I remember the moment that she gave me a hug and whispered into my ear, 'You are such a good girl.' That was the moment I believed I really was a good girl and I could do good things with my life. From that moment on, I never looked back."
The list of good things Weigand went on to do sounds like fiction. She was sentenced to four years in prison and accepted it gratefully, becoming an example for the addicted women she found there with her strict adherence to the behaviors she learned from her mentor.
"I would hear her voice in my head. She said that we are fighting for our lives and we can't break even the smallest rule," Weigand explained.
She lobbied for greater inmate access to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and taught relapse prevention in the prison's substance abuse program. She asked to be released into a recovery house in order to save money and look for work, then found a job as a residential counselor there.
"I wanted to live and breathe and work recovery," says Weigand.
Weigand moved up to clinical coordinator, supervising eight other clinicians, and earned a degree in criminal justice at San Francisco State University, where she received a number of awards, including one for the graduate with the highest academic and civic achievement. Weigand went on to found a criminal and social justice consulting agency called FocuzUp, which addresses the reentry needs of long-serving prisoners as well as those who have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
"I never thought I would be working for the wrongfully convicted," Weigand says.
Her current projects include building a reentry facility in Moline, near her hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, and lobbying for exonerated prisoner restitution legislation that she coauthored. And when a broken person wants to tuck up under Weigand and find out how she lives and breathes and acts, she opens her arms—just as Cydney Reyes did for her.
What if you're not lucky enough to come upon a Perin, Walker, or Reyes? Then seek one out. "Look for people who intrigue you and make you say, 'I'd like to be like her, how does that work for her?'" says Deutschman. "Then form that relationship and learn from it. So often we think that change is impossible, that people don't change, that we can't change. But you can't argue with a living, breathing person in front of you who has done it, and modeling yourself on them is the best way to do the same."
And if the person who inspires you isn't a good teacher or doesn't have the time to form the relationship that will help you change, keep hunting. Act as if your life depends on it.