When it comes to making change in our lives, there is an old adage – “If you do what you always do, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” It makes sense. Most of us know it. But to change the patterns of what we’ve always done can be the challenge. We slip into grooves. Comfort zones. And while perhaps we may crave a different and improved situation, the mere idea of change may incite panic in many of us. We want to move to a new place within our lives, but we aren’t prepared or don’t know how to take the steps to get there.
What can we do when we are stuck on our path, perhaps riddled with frustration and confusion, wishing to be somewhere else but unable move forward? The good news is that simply acknowledging our situation is a signal that we’re open to making the change. This awareness allows us to open the door and simply look at the situation more clearly. But we may need to dig a little more deeply.
According to business studies done by Chris Argyris, a business theorist and Professor at Harvard Business School, people have mental maps with regard to how we react in situations – the way we plan, implement and review our actions. Despite our personal theories and our best intentions, which may be different, these mental maps become our default and influence our actions. “Think of these rules as a kind of “master program” stored in the brain, governing all behavior. Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high, just as a computer program with hidden bugs can produce results exactly the opposite of what its designers had planned.” (Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review May-June 1991 Issue.)
So how do we change or reprogram these mental maps? According to Argyris, we should begin with our approach. As explained in his study, many people approach learning as merely problem solving – identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. He has described this as “single loop” learning. In order for people to change how they act, they must also look inward – reflect critically on their own behavior, identify ways they may inadvertently contribute to problems and then change how they act. His studies refer to this as a “double loop” learning process.
According to an interview and article in the New York Times, David Chang an internationally renowned, award-winning Korean-American chef, restaurateur and owner of the Momofuku restaurant group, did the tough work of “double loop” learning to reengineer his path. He spent years cooking in some of New York City’s best restaurants and apprenticed in noodle shops in Japan. When he started Momofuku Noodle Bar, he worked 18 hour days and could barely pay himself a salary. He couldn’t figure out why the restaurant was failing. But rather than point fingers or even quit, he did a brutal self-assessment. Then he dramatically changed course. He and his cooks worried less about what dishes to cook and looked for inspiration in fresh produce at the market to come up with wild, flavor-packed food combinations of things they would like to eat. Everything shifted – people started showing up, rave reviews and awards accumulated. Today, Momofuku and David Chang are well-known culinary stars.
While this is a simplified version of a well-known business theory, it can also be applied to our everyday lives. Here are a few suggestions on how to simplify changing our patterns to affect change in our lives.
Awareness – Identify the problem or obstruction that’s blocking your path. Sometimes we need to step back from the confusion and emotion. It can be as simple as saying I’m stuck or this is working anymore.
Ask Tough Questions – The questions may be tough because the answers tap into our emotions. If we need to lose weight, it may sound as simple as cutting back on food intake and increasing our activity. But if it were only that simple there wouldn’t be millions of people struggling with weight issues. We may be stuck in a job we don’t like or a relationship that’s toxic. How did we get here and why can’t we seem to make the change?
Be Honest with the Answers -It’s tough to be brutally honest with ourselves because we are admitting that we are less than perfect. But when we are able to cut through the emotion, a more vibrant picture of the situation shines through. The only caution is to also inject some self-love into this process. We may not always like the honest answers and we often beat ourselves up for perceived missteps. Or conversely, we may begin to point fingers at others for our predicament. Either approach can be destructive and self-limiting. We always contribute to our own circumstances. We need to examine our role and be honest with it.
Let Go of Comfort and Embrace Fear –Personally, when I am stuck in situations that are less than ideal, it usually takes me a long time to make change. I hold onto things for longer than I need to. For me, it usually boils down to two words – comfort and fear. Despite the feeling of being ‘stuck’ in less than ideal circumstances, there is a certain degree of comfort in the situation. When it comes to finding a new job, learning a new skill or doing something totally out of my comfort zone, it means a leap of faith into the unknown. The learning curve might feel steep. The people might not be friendly. What if it’s too time consuming and interferes with my family life? What if I fail? Ultimately, I have stepped away to begin something new – a few times. The end result was sometimes rocky but I when I took the leap of faith discovered a few things: I could still land on my feet, I actually learned something new, I met some wonderful new people and it opened up doors to more knowledge and experience. It was part of my learning curve. A step closer to where I needed to be.
Courage – It takes courage to change the patterns in our lives. There is so much advice on how to implement change but it is ultimately our choice and our actions that will steer the course in our lives. I have only walked in the steps of my own life. I recognize my patterns. Some I have successfully rerouted my path, but there are many grooves that I continue to slip into and follow despite my best intentions. When I have stepped forward into the unknown, there was a degree of worry and fear. But in those situations, I had the courage to make the change. And the knowledge and memory of this courage, along with any subsequent successes or failures, gives me the strength and courage to move forward and make changes as they arise in my life.
In some situations taking the leap of faith feels like a destiny, but sometimes that debilitating fear has me hovering at the ledge longer than need be. In those situations I look for the wisdom of my life lessons and use the tools of my yoga. Pause. Take a deep breath. Stay in the moment with each breath. Find my center. Move forward with confidence that I have all that I need within me. And trust.
Then I remember the words of Lao Tzu:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”