If something doesn’t change, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Have you said something like that?
Whether out of desperation to preserve our welfare or a deep dissatisfaction toward the status quo of life, the need to change is both hopeful and daunting. As soon as we recognize the need for change, our thoughts turn to fear, forecasting just how ‘bad’ things can continue to go wrong. Next comes anxiety, an emotion which stems from looking at the mountain of work necessary to make meaningful changes.
Fear and anxiety are formidable opponents, and, if left unchecked, may paralyze even the most well-intended person. I’ve had my share of restless nights and dark seasons. But the desire for change is no less formidable, strong enough to go toe-to-toe against any resistance. However, we must give the potential for change a fighting chance if it is to be a real contender in the ring of our inner-self.
After examining how meaningful changes come about in life, I’ve distilled the process to six primary catalysts, each of which continues to play return appearances in my life’s ever-changing landscape.
I. The Wake-Up Call
“I didn’t realize I had a problem until my kids skipped a meal, but I hadn’t skipped a cigarette,” said one friend of mine. Whether it’s trying to beat a habit or wanting to make a career change, we can only jump off the solid ground of reality that exists at the ‘end of the line’ or the ‘bottom of the barrel.’ We reach the point where we say, ‘This is how things really are,’ and we know it’s the truth.
As I’ve written previously, admitting that something needs to be different in our lives does not need to be shameful. Instead, it recognizes that what has been is not what we want forever. This profoundly courageous assertion, one which comes to us through various life-pressures, leads us to do things we have never attempted before.
What is your most recent wake-up call?
Once we admit that we need to change, some encouragement is necessary. Interestingly, it comes from an unusual place: our past.
Sit down and make some notes of areas where you have already made meaningful changes in your life. In could be healing a friendship, cutting things off with an abusive relationship, choosing to take up a new hobby, or deciding to move to another town. I suspect that if you’re like me, you’ve likely already made a series of significant changes which deserve recognition.
This awareness, then, says something powerful to us: you have made changes before and you can make changes again. Yesterday’s success is today’s permission, and we won’t get anywhere if we don’t see our own capacity to embrace transition. Encouraging ourselves is vital if we want to grow.
III. Define the Change
Any good sharpshooter will tell you that hitting a moving target can be infuriating; it’s enough to learn how to hit a stationary target at a distance. Therefore, defining our single stationary target is essential if we are to train to hit it.
My friend Mike Kim recently shared that whales often find themselves beached because they are surrounded by schools of small fish. While a primary food source, the fish also tend to throw off a whale’s internal sonar navigation, thus preventing the mammals from noticing the dangers of a shallow bay. Sharks, on the other hand, are single target hunters and are therefore rarely seen beached.
What small fish that throw off your navigation do you need to eliminate from your life? What’s the goal you need to go after? Picking your single target in open water will help keep you from being distracted by the chaotic school of fish in the bay.
IV. Mentors: Graybeards and Blue Hairs
Once we’re aware of the need to change, recognized that we’ve already made meaningful moves in the past, and decided what it is we’re after, our next step is to surround ourselves with mentors that aid us in our specific pursuit.
Yes, this is the ‘older and wiser’ anecdote that we winced at as teenagers. But those Older Wisers have the very thing we need: reports from further down the battlefield about what to expect. Only a foolish general would dismiss reliable intelligence from first-hand sources. Pride is the greatest enemy of wisdom because it claims to know more about its future than wisdom does of its past.
Mentors can take many forms, whether they are people we look up to in our immediate spheres of influence or those we follow from afar. These are the ‘graybeards’ and ‘blue hairs’ of our lives (whether literal or figurative). My father once taught me to find someone who walks with a limp and follow them (a reference to Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord in Gen. 32:22–31). This is someone who has been where you haven’t, whose hindsight can be your foresight.
Books are still one of the most significant mentors. While we may never meet their authors, we glean from their narratives, fiction and non-fiction alike. Mentors don’t have to be people we know but the information we have access to. Mentors can also be the voices in podcasts, articles, and videos, as well as the stories we hear passed from one person to another. If you can learn from it, then you should value it.
I appreciate this quote from the twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. While it pertains to the Christian category of theology, the subject can easily be replaced:
“To study theology means not so much to examine exhaustively the work of earlier students of theology as to become their fellow students. It means to become and remain receptive, for they still speak, even though they may have died long ago.”
A note should be made here, however, that mentors who are actually involved in your life have a distinct advantage: they can correct you in real-time. This component is critical to meaningful mentorship. While anyone can learn to play a guitar chord through a YouTube video, the video cannot analyze your finger-tip placement against the frets or critique the quality of your tone (at least not yet). Invite living-critique into your everyday life to maximize the quality of your personal development.
V. Work and The Rule of Threes
There comes the point where we must start doing the hard work of changing. Work is the procrastinator’s worst nightmare but the workaholic’s preferred intoxicant. For the former, every step until now is their expertise; for the later, they’ve skipped all the rest just to roll up their sleeves. But both avenues are riddled with problems. The procrastinator will study so much that he or she becomes entrapped in the endless discipline of research while the workaholic will find that misinformed toil never produces any meaningful change.
My friend Kirk Gilchrist uses a framework to help people create manageable steps for change. I call it the Rule of Threes. It goes like this: if you can do something for three days, you can do it for three weeks; if you can do it for three weeks, then you can do it for three months; and if you can do it for three months, you can do it for three years.
However, sometimes even the initial three days is too much. Instead, it might be three hours, or even three minutes, depending on what you’re trying to beat. I have a friend who suffers from Trigeminal Neuralgia, known more commonly as the ‘suicide disease’ because of how most people afflicted with this painful condition end their lives. She has had to learn how to live one minute at a time.
You don’t have to tackle the whole goal today. In fact, most meaningful life changes can’t be undertaken in one day. But you do have to do something that moves the ball down the field. What are you going to do today toward your goal?
VI. Talk It Up
One of the best tools for making progress is to talk about what we’ve learned and how we’re growing. Sharing our experiences not only makes us accountable to others but carries the added benefit of positive self-talk.
Just like we need to admit the need for change, we also need to recognize when we’ve changed. There is something about personally attesting to our progress, like the encouragement found in step two, that keeps us motivated. That’s because accountability and encouragement are critical for transforming information into behavior.
The vehicle of ‘how we talk about our development’ is less important than the consistency of talking about it. Your little-known blog may not generate much traffic, but your faithfulness to expound upon your development will pay inner-dividends for years.
Perhaps the most significant form of talking-it-up is doing so amongst other peers who share some of your passion, if not your same pursuits. Join a group of like-minded people in your city or town. This could be a creative group of musicians or writers, a self-improvement group, a community organization, or a church. If joining a group isn’t an option, think about creating one: all you need is one other person who shares your enthusiasm. Years ago, I wanted to join a writers group in my city. However, none existed. So when I discovered a few people in my church community who shared similar interests, we started meeting on a regular basis. Lesson? When what you see doesn’t exist, create it.
Remember, your success will be someone else’s permission.
I once heard it said that what we do today is what we’ll do for the rest of our lives. So choose to do something today that you want to do tomorrow as well. It might not be ‘the whole thing,’ just make sure that it’s ‘something’ that gets your crosshairs on the target. Reexamine these six steps and locate where you are today. Be honest with yourself and your situation, and then look to move to the next level with confidence.
If you’d like, shoot me an email with where you’re at in the six steps listed above. I’d love to know where you’re finding life and energy in the midst of your progress. I also hope that my content can continue to be one of the many ‘mentors’ to help you move forward. If you haven’t signed up for my list already, please do. It’s a great way to stay in touch and to get my articles before everyone else.
 Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 173.