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Why Is Change So Hard?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey know a thing or two about the nature of human change. For over two decades this highly decorated professorial pair from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education researched the subject, and in the process uncovered an underlying rationale that helps to explain why human beings find change so difficult and what we can do to overcome those very obstacles. “Immunity to change” is the term they used to describe our species’ adversarial relationship with change, and in 2009 they co-authored a book by that very name.

Kegan and Lahey quote a study which showed that when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits (diet, exercise, smoking etc.) only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. It’s hard to imagine a greater motivation than life itself, and yet that doesn’t seem to be enough — the ability to change remaining maddeningly elusive!

As Robert Kegan jokes in an online lecture, “If fourteen frogs sat on a log and three of them decided to jump into the water, how many frogs would be left on the log? … I know a big part of you wants to say eleven is the answer to that question, but I wanna suggest to you that fourteen might be a better answer, because there’s a big difference between deciding to [do something] and actually doing it!”

Kegan and Lahey set out to uncover what it is that stands in the way between our genuine intentions and the change we wish to see, and in the process uncovered what they term “hidden competing commitments,” which inhibit the probability of change.

Here’s an example of what this looks like: Multiple studies have found that one year after being prescribed life saving medication (say, to prevent strokes), only 53%-57% of the patients will still be taking their medication. When asked why they had stopped taking their medications, the most common answers given were “I don’t know” followed by “I get busy” in second place. These non-answers, say Kegan and Lahey, are indicative of the immunity to change, and the need to uncover the hidden competing commitments that are standing in the way of these patients’ success.

Kegan and Lahey would probe a patient’s psyche. “How would it feel to do the opposite of what you’re doing now? If you did take your medication every day?” The answers given were eye opening not only to Kegan and Lahey, but to the patients themselves, having never consciously considered the question before. “I would feel like a sick, old man,” patients would often say. “I’d be like my dad, with one foot in the grave.” Hearing these words come out of his mouth, one patient noted the glaring irony in his situation: “That’s interesting. You’re showing me that the thing I’m doing to not feel like an old man is likely to leave me a dead man!”

The breakdown: Hidden competing commitment = The commitment of the patient to not feel like a sick, over-the-hill man. Big assumption = If I have to take medicine every day for the rest of their life it means that I am an old person in decline.

Kegan and Lahey would subsequently invite the patients to examine their big assumptions, asking them to observe their big assumptions in action. In the case of life-saving medication, the patient might be asked to commit to taking the medication for one or two weeks and measure whether this, in fact, made him feel like a sick old man. Human beings, as “meaning-maker’s” at their core, might also consider adopting a fresh perspective, turning the medicine-taking process from a dreaded burden (“death, here I come!”) into a pleasureful opportunity (“Thank G-d I can stay young and vibrant with one little pill!”). The thinking goes, remove the roadblock laid out by hidden competing commitments, and the commitment to change can take over.

In my decade plus as an outreach rabbi I’ve heard many similar sounding non-answers from otherwise religiously motivated individuals as to why they are not committing to particular mitzvot or observances. If Kegan and Lahey could hear my students speak they would point to their immunity to change and some, as-yet-undiscovered, hidden competing commitments. Maybe my students are committed to living a certain kind of lifestyle, and they assume that certain mitzvot are simply incompatible. Or, perhaps they harbor negative associations with certain observances that they would otherwise be open to incorporating into their life.

Like Kegan and Lahey, I encourage my students to examine their big assumptions for what they are — assumptions. Commit to a mitzvah for a period of time and examine the reality on the ground. As King David exclaims, “taste and see that Hashem is good” (the literal translation of Psalms 34:9). “Taste and see” — experiment and experience a life with Hashem and His commandments, and you will find that “Hashem is good.” — A life lived in consonance with G-d is “good!”

It’s not unusual to hear fresh perspectives out of the mouths of mitzvah-experimenters as well. Unrealized spiritual and earthly benefits of mitzvah observance are often discovered in the process, and even when certain mitzvot are found to be incompatible with lifestyles once held dear, it’s not unusual to hear that they are more taken with this new lifestyle than than they are with their old one. “Taste and see!”

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