Read through the stories on the previous pages and you’ll notice a common thread — the concept of change. When Linda, who we mention in the introduction, dropped law in favour of stand-up comedy, she was doing no more than changing career. Being a chameleon was instinctive; it was a natural behaviour, as was following her dreams and her desires.
However, throughout her life there was other change she was unable to make, change that came from more negative, deep-lying patterns of behaviour. In particular, was her propensity to overeat. Despite periods of losing 20kg or 30kg, she could never keep it off and over time always returned to her obese state.
Her stumbling block was her ability to change behavioural patterns. This would have required her to alter deep-set subconscious habits that she had developed as a child and a young adult.
In a sense, we’re all Linda. We have our good habits and bad habits, learned responses to external triggers. We get stressed, we reach for a cigarette; the person next door starts playing some awful music at volume 11, and we reach for an imaginary machine gun. We share many beliefs about ourselves — ask anyone, and they will tell you that they have a terrible memory, good judgment and a terrific sense of humour.
To change habits and beliefs requires unlearning those automatic responses and that first means recognising them.
Habits can be anything from shooting up heroin, to constant complaining, procrastinating or feeling unloved. There are also behaviours which are unfamiliar which we would like to turn into habits — eating healthy food, praising ourselves, or learning compassion and forgiveness.
In the words of British therapist Marisa Peer, we need to “make the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar.” So when we criticize ourselves, she says, flip that around, and make self-praise the familiar behaviour and self-criticism the unfamiliar one.
It’s not always easy to spot a habit, as we have conditioned ourselves into believing that it’s normal or even “right”. The talented employee who is always 30 minutes late to meetings doesn’t believe their lateness is caused by a habit. It’s always the traffic, a trivial fault with their motorbike, a lost shoe, an unexpected meeting with a friend. They justify the lateness with excuses to avoid looking squarely at the habit.
But once we recognise how most of what we do is habitual, change becomes possible, and easier than we thought. What we have learned, we can unlearn.
As the American author Charles Duhigg notes in The Power of Habit: “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”
Moreover, these changes are not trivial. As the neuroscientist Dr. Joe Dispenza has shown in time-lapse videos, changing habits actually rewires the brain. The old circuits wither, and the new circuits grow, like building muscles in the gym.
So when two of our featured interviewees, Ironman trainer Todd Gilmore and restaurateur Robin Babu decided to change ingrained habits and become much fitter, they were not just changing their bodies, but their brain chemistry as well.
We also recount the story of Ha Minh, whose implacable desire to change gender faced opposition from society as well as difficulties with abandoning her learned habits as a male.
Even if you have overcome all your bad habits, it is probable that those around you are not so lucky. Habits exist in families, in schools and in companies, where it’s known as “corporate culture”.
Paul O’Neill, who took over as CEO at the faltering aluminium manufacturer Alcoa in 1987, horrified investors in his first speech by saying he would make worker safety his priority. They reported there was “a crazy hippie” in charge of the company who would destroy it.
But profits reached a record high the next year, and net income increased five-fold over the next decade.
O’Neill later highlighted the importance of understanding habit: “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”
The squabbles at the family meal, office politics and staffroom arguments are all forms of habitual behaviour, and so lend themselves to analysis and improvement. Habits are everywhere and so is the potential for betterment.
It’s not always easy.
Dispenza says that habits are akin to addictions, so that even if we know that compassion towards others is a good trait to acquire, that old resentment we used to harbour still feels good, like that calming first drag of a cigarette.
If you, too, have the ability to overcome your demons and change your habits, then change is truly possible. The only person holding yourself back is you.
As Linda would say: “If you get given a lemon, make lemonade”.
To read about some ideas for personal change, click on the following links:
Get Into Stand-Up Comedy
Take Art Classes
Get Professional Help
Nutrition and Vietnamese Food
The Power of Habit
The following stories are about people who have made substantial personal change. For some inspiration, click on the following links:
Todd Gilmore, The Triathlete
Sophie Pham, The Introvert
Ha Minh, The Woman
Laura Sheehan, The Mentor
Robin Babu, The Fitness Dude
Sheereen Amran, The Pastry Chef
Mitch Brookman, The Hairdresser