Are you sustainable?

I’ve spent the last week in the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Ten years ago a friend convinced me to enroll in an unusual class here at JMU; it was my final semester of senior year, and the class had no tests or quizzes – I was an easy sell. The class made me think, and asked me to examine my behaviors and perception of the world. I enjoyed some of the exercises immensely, and then forgot about them for ten years.

Or so I thought.

As I was building my business last year, my friend pointed out to me the similarities between my coaching methods and that class we took our senior year.

Realizing the overlap, I reached out to my former professor to tell him the impact his class had on me, and how I was employing some of the concepts in my life and coaching practice. A few short months later, he invited me to JMU to speak to his latest batch of students.

Among my favorite assignments in this class was the Intentional Change Project – a semester long project that would, unknowingly, dictate how I attempted to make any change in my life moving forward. I’ve had the pleasure of comparing notes with my prof all week, and discussing the real seeds of making intentional change. As my time here comes to an end, we decided to team up to share our collective findings for implementing change.

The solution for many of us is to “hope” for personal change to occur, or to adopt a set of values that validate a good habit; like agreeing that being vegetarian is the way to go, but demonstrating far too little action for any changes to be effective. We may have life-affirming values but we often fail to align our behaviors with these values. It is unlikely that your future will be any different if you do not demonstrate your values on a day-to-day basis. The point here is that simply hoping for things to get better in your life, or expressing values that support changes you’d like to make, will not work. 

Actually changing your behavior is central to creating and maintaining personal growth.  Meaningful and enduring individual change requires awareness, motivation, and intentional self-development. It is so important to remember, however, that successful personal change is normally slow, and expecting rapid change is to doom yourself to frequent failure; jumping off the bridge has never been a good way to learn how to swim. If we plan for slow change, we sidestep many of the drawbacks of attempting fast change – like things changing back to the way they were just as fast.  We see this in the well-intentioned-but-never-successful diet attempts, adoption of a new workout routine that quickly results in burnout, or sudden plan to limit your spending, only to splurge one week in.

Patience, as usual, is a virtue here, so we might as well just accept it up front. 

Most importantly, slow change offers you ample time to make lifestyle adjustments and changes to your daily schedule in order to accommodate these new circumstances or habits.  

Awareness of the need for change is first, that is, understanding that change is necessary for individual growth. Motivation follows awareness, and while motivation can be both exciting as well as frustrating, its direct function is to move an individual toward a desired behavior.  But even for those who are motivated to make intentional personal changes, however, there exist countless excuses for not actually changing behavior. We’re too busy, work is too demanding, we don’t yet have something we need, etc.  When we blame something else for our inability (or really lack of desire) to make a change, we claim victim status — it’s not my fault I can’t make the changes I want to make.  Or we simply put off the change, content that we will do it, but in the future - I’m really going to start my workout program in the summer. 

This doesn’t work.

In order for changes to take place in some serious manner, we must have some passion or real desire for the change, otherwise we can forget it.  We may have the awareness, but not the motivation, and we need both.

Most importantly, we need to develop change processes that will support our changes. This is central to our success, whether it be continuing to motivate one’s self, keeping track of progress, strictly organizing the change, or rewarding ourselves for continual progress.  These factors tend to help break down the barriers to successful individual change, which could be a fear of change (change disrupts the status quo, eliminates bad habits you might like, or leaves you to develop new habits).  Ultimately, successful change requires practice, persistence, and resilience.  Once we develop a successful and tested change process, the next changes are generally less difficult and stress producing.

I’ve spent the week discussing this with my prof, and urging college kids to start acting like the people they want to be. Because, ultimately, values are not the problem, behavior is.  It is your behavior, not your values, that defines you, and determines how others perceive you. 

Behavior, in the end, defines character—not values, aspirations, faith, hope, or attitudes alone. 

This class I took ten years ago has adapted to the changing needs of the new generations coming through campus, but mostly the assignments remain the same. The new title, however, is Sustainable Personality.

Sustainability is a term often applied to larger concepts - the environment, economics, social structures - but how often do we consider our personal sustainability? How can we attempt sustainability on such a massive scale, if we can’t first take care of ourselves?



Co-authored with Dr. Eric Pappas