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Change or Die?

June 3, 2011
tags: ,

Yikes. Kind of heavy for a blog post title, huh? Stay with me though; I promise I’m not being (too) morbid here.

I’m currently reading a really dense but REALLY interesting book for my graduate class called The New Meaning of Educational Change by Michael Fullan.

What I like about the book so far is that Fullan does not focus solely on changes within the education system (despite the title); instead, he goes out of his way to discuss the very complicated subject of “change” as an entity in and of itself before atomizing it.

In a section of the book I read today, titled “The Mysteries of Change,” Fullan quotes a researcher named Deutschman who says, “What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act, and if you didn’t, you would die soon?” According to Fullan, the scientifically studied odds that you would change are NINE TO ONE against you. You would, literally speaking, choose to die rather than change. He then elaborates that 80% of the health care budget is “consumed by five behavioral issues: smoking, drinking, eating, stress, and not enough exercise.” The people affected by these issues presumably know that their behaviors are unhealthy and could, in excess, cause them to die early. So why don’t they just change?

According to several researchers, simply giving people the facts about their situations is not enough to elicit a change, or even the motivation for them to change. Appealing to merely a thought (even if that thought is a fear of something as significant and, well, scary as death) is not enough. In fact, the CEO of Johns Hopkins University hospital here in Baltimore said that 90% of people with a serious disease (such as heart disease) who know they need to change their lifestyle, “for whatever reason…can’t.”

Instead, argues Deutschman, in order to affect change, an appeal must be made to a person’s emotions and feeling of well-being. In his words, “we must figure out how to motivate people on the basis of their seeing that they can feel better…not just live longer. The key, then, is how to help people feel and be better.” He goes on to say that, “moral purpose by itself is insufficient. One also must feel and see that there is a means of moving forward.


This idea is FASCINATING to me because it is so simple and so true, and also because I am living proof of every single one of these statements. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but I lived the majority of my first two decades of life affected by two of the five behavioral issues that Fullan lists: I ate way too much, and I exercised way too little. The effects of this could not have been clearer: I was overweight and, according to my pediatrician, at a high risk of several serious diseases. These facts never had to be explicitly stated to me (I obviously knew I was overweight and unhealthy), but even once they were, I still was not spurred into action. Hearing my doctor say, “you WILL eventually develop diabetes” scared me, no doubt. It upset me too. I cried after nearly every doctor’s appointment in my adolescence, but it didn’t change my habits. I didn’t exercise more, I didn’t eat less. I continued on my same path until the next doctor’s appointment…when I heard the exact same thing I had the year before.

What Deutschman says hits the nail on the head, at least in my own experience: just hearing those scary words meant nothing; instead, I had to finally realize what it would FEEL like to be healthy, what it would feel like to feel better. I wanted to know what it felt like not to be winded walking to class; I wanted to know how it felt to run a mile without stopping; I wanted to know what it felt like to feel strong, to have energy, to move freely. And then, once I did get the ball rolling and started getting into shape, I finally saw that there was a means of moving forward—and it was all so simple!

(Crossing the finish line at my second 5K)

Now, instead of getting the “illness and death” talk at the doctor, she praises my low blood pressure and my perfect cholesterol levels. Quite the change in just a few years.

I often find myself feeling frustrated with people who refuse to help themselves, in any capacity. I have very little patience for people who wallow in their situations, or who say they want to change but don’t follow through. The reason for this is obvious: in those people, I see myself six or seven years ago. When I hear them giving excuses for their setbacks, I want to shake them (and, in turn, shake my former self) and scream, “If I could do it, you can too! You just need to TRY HARDER!” And yet, reading Deutschman’s analysis of these behavioral issues completely reframed this idea for me: even if I did scream at these people, that wouldn’t be enough. Plenty of my doctors, friends, and family members tried to “shake me” into weight loss, to no avail. The only thing that shook me awake (and, in turn, shook off the weight) was me.

I was my own catalyst, and I chose to change. It was the best, and the healthiest, decision I’ve ever made in my life.

Have you ever been faced with a “change or die” situation, literally or metaphorically? What was the result?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauren H. permalink
    June 3, 2011 9:11 pm

    This is kind of what my family is going through with my dad. He recently bought his first 4XL shirt. He’s making no effort to change his eating habits or exercise more. He admits that he is unhealthy. He has breathing, back, and knee problems due to his weight.

    I know if he could just see how much better he’d feel by making changes, he’d see it was worth it. But nothing we say can make him change. He has to want the change.

    You’re amazing. I wish I could bottle up you motivation and resolve and sell it!

    • June 3, 2011 9:42 pm

      You’re right, Lauren; he has to want the change because nobody can or is going to make it for him. It’s so hard to be on the outside and watching someone make unhealthy choices—when the healthy choices are actually fairly easy to make! I hope he comes around and gives some thought to small changes; often they are the ones that make the biggest differences. Thank you so much for your kind words; they really do mean a lot! And I’d be happy to sell my motivation if it would work ; )

  2. June 5, 2011 1:07 pm

    In my emotional state, it’s kind of like ‘get over your eating issues and anxiety and face the world as you are’ or die (or just be unemployed and unhappy forever)

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