Sometimes change happens to us and sometimes we choose it.  Either way, it’s often difficult.  How well we roll with the punches has to do with our mindset and attitude – and how we deal with uncertainty.

When we have no choice and a change finds us, we are forced to transition through it.  But while we may have no control over the change itself, we have total control over how we respond.  Sometimes we may play the victim or blame others, but that won’t take us very far.  Assuming responsibility for ourselves and our choices, having a positive attitude, looking for the learning and opportunity in the situation, these are the things that will move us on to the next big thing in our lives.  Is this easy?  No way!  But practice and support make it manageable, and a coach can often help us in getting through the stuck places.

For now, let’s concentrate on the changes we choose to make.  While change may be difficult, there are things we can do to increase our chance of success.  Here’s a model of change proposed by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.”  (They borrowed parts of the model from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis.”)  This model will work for making changes in one’s personal life, organization, or community – even for those who are not in a position of authority.

This model consists of three parts:
1)  our rational side, which they refer to as the “rider,”
2)  our emotional side, which they call the “elephant,” and
3)  the environment or “path.”

The Heath brothers suggest that we must address all three of these in order to make a successful change.  For example, our rational minds (the rider) may know the reasons we want to make a change, but unless we have our emotional side on board (the elephant), we won’t succeed.  The rider can only use willpower for so long to “steer” the elephant; after a while the rider will tire and the elephant will do what he wants.  So we must find an emotional connection that appeals to our elephant so that he, too, is excited about the change and brings his energy to it.  Then, we want to shape our environment to give us the best chance of success.

Here’s an example.  Penny wants to lose ten pounds.  Her rational mind knows it’s a good idea and wants to cut out the junk food.  Her emotional self is motivated because she would like to be able to wear some clothes she grew out of and look great for a reunion; in fact, if she loses the weight, she’s going to buy a new dress.  And she has shaped her path by making sure there are no Oreos or Doritos in the house.  Get the idea?

Of course, that’s a bit over-simplified.  What happens when her elephant decides it wants a cookie from the kitchen at work?  How long will Penny’s willpower last?  How can she motivate her elephant?  She can start by asking herself why she wants the cookie.  Is she hungry?  Is she looking for a mid-afternoon boost of energy from the sugar?  Is she lonely?  Bored?  The elephant is simply trying to get its needs met; Penny has to find another way to get the feeling the elephant wants.  It might be with a healthier snack, something interesting to do, or a friend to talk to.

Making changes successfully requires a certain level of awareness, introspection and planning ahead.  There are other tools that can help as well, such as support systems and accountability.  In Penny’s case, maybe it’s checking in with a disciplined friend or Weight Watchers.  Celebrating smaller achievements can also help keep the elephant motivated, and anticipating and forgiving the occasional setback can help keep him from quitting when things don’t go according to plan.  But what if it’s not ten pounds, and it’s sixty?  A whole new lifestyle or identity shift may be needed.

And weight loss is just one example.  What happens when we want to make a big shift like a career change?  That much uncertainty can be overwhelming and cause limiting beliefs to surface (e.g., I’m too old/young, don’t have the time, can’t be an artist/doctor/engineer, etc.).  We may also run into a fixed mindset that says we don’t have the required skill and talent.  For those who get stuck before they get started, consider working with a coach; a coach can help people move past their fears as they move through the change process.

So what might the Heath brothers’ model look like for a career change?  Let’s use Bill as an example.  Bill has decided it’s time to start his own company and be his own boss.  His rational mind knows he’s pretty disciplined, has a lot of expertise in his field, and can already identify his first few customers.  Emotionally, Bill loves the idea of having more autonomy and flexibility in his schedule.  He can shape his environment by creating a plan and working on his business at night before he quits his day job.

Is it really that simple?  Yes and no.  If we break down the change into a manageable plan of individual actions, the change is less overwhelming; most big changes are actually a series of small steps – and not one major leap.  But let’s face it, Bill is likely to run into some doubt, indecision, and anxiety.  What if he can’t get enough customers?  Where will he get technical support for his website?  As a small business owner, what does he do about health insurance, taxes and hiring an assistant?  What if his employer suspects he’s leaving and fires him before he’s ready to go?  Issues like these are bound to come up, and Bill needs to keep his motivation stronger than his fear; having support can help keep Bill on track and working his plan successfully.

Every change is unique to the person making it; we all bring certain strengths and experiences as well as limiting beliefs and fears.  When it comes to the changes you want to make, if they feel too big or complex, keep taking small steps towards them and get some support.  Coaching can help people find and develop the resources needed to navigate the changes they choose – and face – in this constantly changing world.

What changes do you want to make?  What’s one small action you can take today to move you in the direction of your goals and dreams?


For more on change from the Chip and Dan Heath, see “Switch Resources” at

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