In his book Triggers, (Penguin, 2015), executive coach Marshall Goldsmith examines the question, "Why don't we become the person we want to become?" In this edited excerpt, he explores the reasons behind our internal resistance to change.
When we look to change a behavior, we often fall back on a set of beliefs that trigger denial, resistance, and ultimately, self-delusion. They are more pernicious than excuses. An excuse is the handy explanation we offer when we disappoint other people. Not merely convenient, it is often made up on the spot. We don't exercise because "it's boring" or we're "too busy." We're late for work because of "traffic" or "an emergency with the kids." We hurt someone because we "didn't have a choice." These excuses, basically variations on "the dog ate my homework," are so abused it's a wonder anyone believes us (even when we're telling the truth).
But what should we call the rationalizations we privately harbor when we disappoint ourselves? Mere "excuse" is somehow inadequate to describe these inner beliefs that represent how we interpret our world. An excuse explains why we fell short of expectations after the fact. Our inner beliefs trigger failure before it happens. They sabotage lasting change by canceling its possibility. We employ these beliefs as articles of faith to justify our inaction and then wish away the result. I call them belief triggers.
You can easily learn how to close the gap between the "ideal you" and the "real you." However, this does not mean that you will do it.
People who read my writing sometimes tell me, "It's common sense. I didn't read anything here that I don't already know." It's the default critique of most advice writing (you may be thinking it right now). My thought is always: "True, but I'll bet that you read plenty that you don't already do." If you've ever been to a seminar or corporate retreat where all attendees agree on what to do next -- and a year later nothing has changed -- you know there's a difference between understanding and doing. Just because people understand what to do doesn't ensure they will actually do it. This belief triggers confusion.
We deify willpower and self-control, and mock its absence. People who achieve through remarkable willpower are "strong" and "heroic." People who need help or structure are "weak." This is crazy -- because few of us can accurately gauge or predict our willpower. We not only overestimate it, we chronically underestimate the power of triggers in our environment to lead us astray. Our environment is a magnificent willpower-reduction machine.
In The Odyssey, Homer's classic work from circa 800 B.C.E., the hero Odysseus faces many perils and tests on his return home from the Trojan War. At one point his ship must pass the Sirens, whose haunting voices lure sailors to their death on the rocks near shore. Odysseus wants to hear the Sirens so he puts wax in his men's ears and ties himself to the ship's mast so he can safely hear the Sirens' singing without going mad. He knew willpower alone wasn't enough to overcome the Sirens' temptation.
Unlike Odysseus, few of us foresee the challenges we will face. As a result, the willpower we assume when we set a goal rarely measures up to the willpower we display in achieving that goal. Something always comes up to sink our boat. This belief triggers overconfidence.
When we want to make an excuse for errant behavior, any day can be designated as a "special day." We yield to impulse and short-term gratification because today is the Super Bowl, or my birthday, or our anniversary, or my day off, or National Cookie Day (December 4, if you don't already know). Tomorrow is back to normal. We'll be our usual disciplined self then.
If we really want to make change, we have to make peace with the fact that we cannot self-exempt every time the calendar offers us a more attractive alternative.