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Alan Deutschman is one of the leading writers on change and innovation in the U.S. A renowned business journalist, his career spans 19 years and numerous high-profile publications, including Fortune, GQ, Vanity Fair and Fast Company. He is also executive director of Unboundary, a strategic consultant firm, and most recently, author of Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life. Deutschman shares his thoughts on the state of change in the world today.
A lot of people seem to think that it’s impossible for human beings to truly change. Do you think anyone and everyone can change?
I do, and I think that our ability to change is life-long, so it’s something that we can do not just when we’re young, but through middle age and into our senior years. Everyone has this potential. Many people don’t believe that they can change. But if you look at the scientific research—everything that comes from the exciting work in neuroscience in recent years—our brains have this ability. Humans are just incredibly resilient and adaptable, and we have a tremendous potential to change far more than most people would ever realize.
What makes someone good at change? Can you tell if one person will be better at change than someone else? Are there specific factors you notice?
Change is basically about learning—learning complex, difficult, new things. When you meet someone, you can tell whether he has continued learning throughout his life. Most of us, after college or graduate school, stop learning challenging, new things. When was the last time an adult took up a new sport or learned a foreign language? After college, most people get into a job and do the same thing for decades. If I meet someone who is 40 or 50 or 70 or 80 who says, “I have just started leaning Chinese for the first time” or “I am trying this new sport,” I know that’s someone who embraces change and is good at change. People like this have made change a part of their lives, and they have done it again and again. They have confidence that they can take on something new and difficult and work their way through it.
Are people who have gone through numerous changes in the past better prepared to go through future changes? Do you think we have a change muscle?
I think practicing helps with everything and it helps with change, as well. If you look at kids who grew up with parents in the military—who every year or two would have to move and go live somewhere else around the world and start in a different school with different friends and a different culture and community—it’s initially hard, but after moving a number of times, those kids get good at it. They know how to adapt and survive in a new environment and how to make friends quickly. The first couple times they do it, it can be very frightening, but after a while, they build confidence. I think this is true for any kind of change—staying in practice is really important.
A lot of people expect the first 30 days to be based on a very clear action-oriented plan. But I’m a big believer that your emotions, beliefs, thoughts and the language you use around change are just as important. Do you find this to be true?
Both action and belief are very important, but I think that a sense of hope and belief is at the foundation of successful change. It’s essential to have honest hope that you can succeed in the change and to have the belief and the expectation that you can. This is a deep emotional connection to a sense of possibility. But the other thing I’ve found, and this is something that you can learn through 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Delancey Street program, is that a lot of times you have to do something again and again before the emotion is there. So, if you’ve been an alcoholic, you feel like an alcoholic and it’s going to take a while before you feel differently. Every day, you have to act in a different way and eventually the new feeling comes. Action and belief are extremely important, and over time they buttress each other.
The title of your book is Change or Die. Do people really choose to die instead of making a change?
The title came out of research. I heard the dean of the medical school of Johns Hopkins University say that they have studied heart patients, people with terrible heart disease whose doctors have gone to them and said, “You have to start living a healthier way or you are going to die,” and two years later 90% have failed to change, have failed to switch to healthier lifestyles even though their doctors told them their choice was change or die. It’s not that they were choosing to die, it’s that they didn’t believe that after decades of living the way they had that they were capable of changing.
Have you found things that work better for men than for women when going through change?
I think the stereotype is true: Men coming out of our culture are less likely to talk about their emotions and to have deep, emotional relationships. I’ve found that even in my own life, when I get together with some of my oldest friends—friendships going back to college, people I trust deeply—it’s easier to talk about sports or business or movies. But it’s not a matter of having one approach. Relationships come in all kinds of forms and the key is finding the one that makes you most comfortable. This doesn’t necessarily mean having marathon talk sessions. It might mean finding someone who can be a model for you, someone who is like you, who has struggled with similar challenges. You can find hope and inspiration just from knowing this person and being with him or her.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered from researching and writing the book?
I think it’s the importance of other people. I used to see myself as an individualist, as someone who did well in school, who was very ambitious in my career and prided myself on the successes I’ve had. And as an author, there’s a very independent sense of achievement: you write your own articles, your own book, you are very self-sufficient, and you believe in yourself. But looking at the research in psychology over the past century, you can see that even the most accomplished and well-educated people can’t do it alone. You need a connection to at least one other person who can be a mentor. Better yet, being part of a strong community of people is what really helps people change. I think this is hard for Americans in particular to understand because we culturally enshrine individualism and we think we need to have more willpower and try harder and work longer. The really stunning revelation for me was that it is not about that: Change is really about learning from other people, learning skills and beliefs and ways of looking at the world. They can share with us and we can learn from them.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I love the phrase “acting as if.” It’s pretending that you’re an actor in a movie, and you’re playing the role of the character you want to become. I think that’s a very easy thing for people to visualize. It’s going to take a while for you to really feel like that character, but you can start acting the part, and it’s almost fun that you are pretending to be someone different than who you really are. If you do that long enough, it actually starts to become true.
The best thing about change is …
...it keeps you young. It is a revitalizing force. Change makes it so whatever age you are now, there’s always adventure, discovery, unpredictability and excitement. Even the really difficult, unwanted things that life throws at us can help people grow and learn and find a way to enrich their souls through the experience. Change keeps us young and makes us stronger.
What is the best change you have ever made?
Getting married. Having at least one person in your life who you have a deep, emotional connection to can open up all kinds of new possibilities. And I haven’t had children yet, so that probably would be as big or bigger.
For more information on Alan Deutschman, visit www.alandeutschman.com.
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