Road Signs For Success – July 16, 2008

By Jim Whitt

If I had to name what topic I’ve written and spoken about most over the last 20 years it would have to be change. If I had to describe what the most difficult task I have to accomplish as a consultant, writer and speaker it would have to be helping people change. If I had to tell you the most difficult thing I struggle with as an individual it would have to be change. So, there you have it folks — if you want to succeed in life, business and any other pursuit you can think of you have to change. The problem is change is the most difficult of human pursuits.

To understand why it is so difficult for us to change, all you have to do is have a garage sale. As you prepare for that most dreaded Saturday of urban life, you start sorting your junk into piles of keep, sell or pitch. Now, here’s where the fun begins. You can pick up the most outdated, dysfunctional piece of junk but as you look at it a video is triggered in the archives of your mind — what psychologists call schemas. Schema is the root word for schematic which is a perfect description because a schematic is a diagram for how something is wired. When you see the garage sale item it throws a switch in your neurological pathways that is connected to a video player in your mind. You now are presented with a movie that is associated with the item that has an emotional connection that outweighs the functionality of the item. The rotted, rusted item which has no real value is now welded to your hand and you can’t pry it loose. It ends up in the “keep” pile for no logical reason other than the memory it triggered in your video archives.

 We’ve been cleaning out a barn on a place that has been in my family since 1946. There are over 60 years of accumulation in and around that barn. I can’t pick up anything without my archives launching full-length Technicolor movies associated with the item. My folks came of age in the Great Depression and subscribed to the World War II slogan of, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Therefore they never threw anything away. If we tore down a barn, we saved the lumber and the tin. We pulled the nails, straightened them and saved them in one-gallon coffee cans. When we took out a fence, we saved the posts, rolled up the wire, pulled the steeples and saved them — in one-gallon coffee cans. And all of it is still there.

When I see the rusted wire or nails or rotted posts or boards I see the movie of tearing down the barn or taking out the fence. When I want to throw away a rusted old tool, it is still in my hand in that video from forty years ago. When I pick up a dry-rotted saddle, I’m once again horseback, gathering cattle or roping a steer. The memories are so powerful it is as if they happened yesterday. It’s hard to throw something dysfunctional away when it’s still functional in your mind’s eye. Those videos are as real as the actual event. Yesterday is today. And what worked yesterday will surely work tomorrow, won’t it? Sorry, you can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. You have to change.

Psychologists will tell you that once a schema is fully formed you never get rid of it — or the videos in its archives. Now, here’s the good news — you create new schemas (and videos) when you engage in new patterns of behavior. But you need someone to direct your new movie — to tell you to pitch the old tool and start using the new. And show you how to use it — until it feels as comfortable as the old. And that’s why the topic I’ll be writing and speaking on most over the next 20 years will be change. And why the most difficult thing I’ll do as a consultant will be helping people change. And why the most difficult thing I’ll struggle with as an individual will be change.