How To Change People

by on May 11, 2011 | posted in Marketing

Changing people is hard, but it’s possible. If you try and change a person by telling them to stop smoking cigarettes or to start doing pushups somewhat intermittently, you will have no impact. However, there are points where change can happen, change can be large, and change can make difference for the better in another person.

If you think about how “motivation” works, we can get occasional pulses to workout or work harder when we hear about how Steve Jobs built an empire by watching a video or Thor has washboard abs by watching a movie. These pulses almost certainly cause jolts of short term change, because they reflect temporary exposure to excellence in an area of personal weakness. However, they are rarely, if ever, sustainable, because that exposure is temporary, and the short term motivation boosts are rarely long enough to draw enough observable results to evoke a change from short-term impact to long-term habit.

What makes real change occur is not a temporary exposure to Thor’s abs or Steve Job’s empire – it is continued, sustained observation of people with characteristics of extreme excellence in an area of personal weakness.

From Temporary Change to Sustainable Habits

If you’ve ever lived with a roommate who constantly worked out while you lulled on the couch, I can say with certainty that you eventually got up and worked out with them due to that exposure. If you’re an intern in the same office as Seth Godin, I am positive that you won’t be living a life of mediocrity – because your exposure to that kind of person, if dichotomized against a mediocre life, would mean that you would be pulled to change – because you would be constantly exposed to those constant motivation pulses you had otherwise felt when you watched “The Social Network” or observed some guy with huge muscles. This kind of person probably isn’t able to get that sustained exposure to Seth, because he would never hire that person in the first place – but these sustained, dichotomized exposures do happen. They happen between friends from high school that took different paths – they happen between happenstance roommates – they happen between people of titanic success that mentor new interns or entry level employees to a company, who might have otherwise lulled in a career of mediocrity.

These changes don’t occur because the person with an area of great success constantly prodded them – yes, that might have slightly encouraged it – but the real reason behind it is the constant exposure to the superior personality characteristic. If we’re close to someone that’s only slightly better or even noticeably better, but not amazing, it’s hard to make change. Because we don’t see the gaps in ourselves, and frequently, we’re not competent enough to be cognizant of our own weaknesses. Also, we have egos, and few people can face constant, immense superiority without a need to match up to it – or otherwise, being inspired to believe that they too can achieve it. Part of this reason is because of the inspiration greatness imbues – the other part is that the personal closeness is an area they can greatly improve on means that the walls of fear they had about ever achieving it come crashing down – because it’s so close.

This is why being a mentor is so huge. This is why friends who are positive influences are so huge. This is why you don’t see polar opposites hanging out with each other. This is why overweight families beget more overweight children. If you need motivation, if you have an area where you need immense improvement, find that person you can get constant, sustained motivation from. Maybe it means hiring a personal trainer, or working for free for someone you respect. That’s what it takes to create real change – if you hang out with your same fat friends, you will still be fat. If you hang out with the same loser friends who accomplish nothing, you will almost certainly be a loser yourself.

This works the other way, too. Real change can happen if you’re especially good at one thing, and that exposure to someone else can improve another life. And that other life can almost motivate you in some way too, perhaps through excellence in another area – even if it’s in subtleties as small as making better contact with one’s family. If you have a friend who abuses drugs, use your far-superior lifestyle and achievement to make them rethink the obsession that almost certainly drags them down. Be in immaculate shape, constantly, in front of an obese friend. If you’re a CEO, go to lunch with interns and smile and check in on them to help spread the knowledge that got you to that point. That’s how you change people.

You don’t change people by prodding them with a stick and layering down verbal abuse, because that’s never enough to create long-term impact. Any other attempts are largely futile, especially when pushed upon people who have spent the majority of their lives doing the opposite of the preferred action. At 25 or later, it takes persistent, continuous pulls to make someone drop a cigarette or be a frequent at a gym.

No matter how hard you try – that won’t change. There is no human 2.0.

  • Jey Pandian

    Beautifully written Ross.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks Jey!

  • Eric Pratum

    For some people, being in close and frequent contact with that roommate, friend, whatever that has rock solid abs (or whatever else) is de-motivating. They look at Mr Abs, look at themselves, look back at Mr Abs, then… back… to… themselves. Suddenly, they’re motivation is not diamonds…

    Sorry, I got distracted there. What I meant to say is that many people feel like it’s not even worth trying because they can never be like that other person. My question is whether or not, over time, they would begin to try because they get tired of just not trying.

    • Ross Hudgens

      I think the examples you describe don’t happen between friends, or mentors. They happen between people who are in close proximity, but not friends. Because I have yet to see someone not get pulled up in the situation I describe when that friendship/mentorship exists.

      • Eric Pratum

        I disagree on the point about friendship because I think it’s largely a matter of circumstance. I’ve encountered this before in many situations. Now, maybe I’m not the most mentoring of people. I think I am, but it is entirely possible that I am not.

        I have had plenty of people that I am close to express interest in doing something that I do a lot (music, exercise, etc), things that I am more than willing to guide them in, just give advice, or provide whatever level of support they might need…only for them to hit the gym once and never go back, never get around to even opening their guitar case, and so on.

        I feel like I see this in lots other people. Think about the rare couples that you can tell are friends and really love each other, but one is a marathon runner or power lifter, and the other is obese. Or, one is an amazing musician, and the other has never shown interest in anything more than screeching away to Rebecca Black on their drive to work.

        There are so many factors though that boiling it down to one cause in all situations is near impossible, I believe. Or, maybe being in close proximity to someone that excels at something does not necessarily motivate you to do exactly what that person does, but simply to work harder at something else that is of interest to you?

        • Ross Hudgens

          You might like music and exercise, but are they areas of extreme excellence? I’m guessing not. Also, if someone has extreme excellence in music but the other person has no interest in it, they’re not going to improve because they feel no need to. And I have not seen a couple where one is a marathon runner and the other is obese.

          • Ross Hudgens

            Not to say it can’t happen, but that seems like an extreme outlier to me.

          • Eric Pratum

            If you define it at such an extreme end of the spectrum that someone would have to be an Olympic athlete or Juilliard trained musician in order to cause this change in someone they are close to, then yes I agree, but your first sentence below your subhead reads, “If you’ve ever lived with a roommate who constantly worked out while you lulled on the couch, I can say with certainty that you eventually got up and worked out with them due to that exposure.”

            When I compare that to my own experience, exercising according to a well thought out plan and practicing music everyday makes me one of those people, not a Seth Godin-like figure from your very next sentence, but probably more often than not in the same league as an average “roommate who constantly works out.” I read your post as leaning more on the general “roommate who constantly worked out” and less on the Seth Godin situation, which it’s sounding to me was the wrong interpretation. Is that right?

            I guess that I just see those runner/obese couples because I’m in the South and do runs and rides with typically very fit guys that 20-30% of the time seem to have obese wives. It’s weird. I know. Maybe, it’s regional.

            Also, are you taking a position on the the question of whether or not being friends with and in close contact with, say, a great musician might not motivate you to get better at music if you perhaps have no interest in music, but would motivate you to at least get better at something you are interested in? I would think that being in close contact/friendship with someone that excels at something would often motivate you to work toward excellence in something while not necessarily the same thing, but that’s my opinion. I have only anecdotal evidence.

  • Richard Lee

    What you wrote about here is the single biggest lesson that I learned last year.

    After trying everything but the come-to-jesus speech on a friend, I finally pulled the trigger on that speech and it went over like you would expect.

    After that I had an epiphany: change only comes from within and the only way I can prod that process along it to be an excellent role model.

    So… I stopped trying to “change” people for the simple reason that I nor you nor anyone will ever “change” anyone. But by roll modeling, we can create an environment where peer pressure works, over time, in a positive way.

    And… it really does works!

    Over the last couple of years, I have slowly “fired” some friends and relatives. I realized that they added nothing of value to my life, were doing nothing with their lives and as such, were a negative influence on my life. This culminated in an ah-ha moment when I realized that: people who do not grow as individuals will do their best to prevent those around them from growing.

    Does that previous sentence remind you of someone? If so… fire them! They’re poisoning your life.

    You must be the best “you” that you can be. Be excellent and in turn you will role model excellence and through peer pressure (over time) you can “change” people.

    So… it’s a two step process. Get rid of the energy vampires, the time vampires and the no-growth losers around you and surround yourself with “people with characteristics of extreme excellence.” This will allow you to become the super-human you know that you can be. In turn you will have a profound positive effect on those people you desire to change for the better.

    It really does work!

    This is on a tomb in Westminster Abbey:
    “When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me. But alas they would have none of it. And now as I lie on my deathbed I suddenly realized: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement I would have been able to better my country and, who knows, maybe even change the world.”

    • Ross Hudgens

      Well said Richard.. not much to add other than thanks for the comment, cause I mirror your sentiment exactly. :)

    • L DOG

      Surround yourself with people that think the same way you do because everything you think and do is right! YAY!!!

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  • David Hawkins

    Hey Ross, if you like Jonah Lehrer you might like a book I read last year called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

    The subtitle is ‘Greatness isn’t born, it’s Grown’ and it’s right along the lines of this post.

    In fact, I recommend that book to anyone who enjoyed this post!

    To take an example, the author explores the secrets of an isolated, almost dilapidated, training ground that has bred
    many of Russia’s best tennis players – Anna for example (I won’t even attempt her surname. There are others but I don’t have a memory for Russian names)

    To look at this place from the common assumption that the countries with the best facilities will nurture the best athletes is,
    quite frankly, a fallacy. Take the fact that Britain sucks at football (soccer) and tennis among other sports that we supposedly
    developed, and you can see that there’s something going on that we aren’t seeing.

    CLUE: Ross gives it away in the article.

    Great stuff Ross!

  • Deborah

    Hi Ross,
    I am currently supporting a family in “crisis” on a voluntary basis.
    Without disclosing details they are living “in poverty” however are recieving benefits and have a roof over thier heads.
    The children are living on the verge of neglect. The autorities have however not seen that there is a problem so I am trying to work with them to improve/ get them to change thier lives.
    The parents have limited education, low self esteem, no wish to work, little self respect or care for themselves, thier home, thier appearance / hygiene / health or thier childrens lives.
    They recieved bad parenting themselves and as far as I can see do not feel that they are doing anything wrong.
    Do you think it is possible to change adults like this? or do you think it will take the harsh wake up call of the children being removed to do this?
    I desparately hope its the first as unless people can change, there really isnt much hope and makes me question if I can continue supporting and pretty helpless.
    I have found myself not only shocked by how very awful peoples lives are, how they are happy to live like they do and also how much the social services turn a blind eye to! :-(

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