How to Change Your Life

So you want to live an interesting life. But right now, you’re sitting in a cubicle in Columbus, Ohio, and it’s 24 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s icy cold water dropping off the roof in front of your office window. The sky is grey, as it has been for the last four weeks. As it will be for the next three months. And that’s if you’re lucky. You still have to buy Christmas presents, but you will probably delay it – again. Delay it until it becomes a real pain in the ass. You would like to leave and bake Christmas cookies with your children or your friends, but you can’t, because your boss ordered you to finish that totally important (and totally boring) presentation.

You look at the dripping water. There’s already an icicle forming. At this moment, just like in any moment of your life, you have two choices: You can either stay in your office, prepare that presentation, accept the upcoming three months of overcast days, stress out over Christmas presents, and forget the faces of your friends and family until things get better (i.e. never). Or you can change the rules.

Changing the Rules

Friendly Anarchism is all about changing the rules in order to live an interesting life that fits you. It’s not about adopting my rules. It’s not about “no rules at all”. It’s about looking at whatever situation you find yourself in, considering the rules you are currently playing by (Hint: They were probably not made by you!), and then dismantle them and change them for good.

Unfortunately, change doesn’t come natural to us, and resistance against it can be strong. So before we look at the strategies to make change real in the next part of this post, let’s just take a moment to understand why change is so hard for us.

Opposing Change

Human beings are a strange breed. As we saw in How to live an interesting life, we may live a life of worries and boredom for decades, and never get our shit together and do something about it. The reason for this is homeostasis. Originally, homeostasis refers to the body’s automatic efforts to maintain a constant, normal state of the blood stream. At a psychological level, homeostasis is our resistance to change. It is something inherently human, just like armpit hair or dental caries – and just like armpit hair and caries, we don’t have to accept it.

Change costs energy. It’s bascially a trade-off: We accept short-term losses (less income, anxiety) for long-term benefits (being our own boss, traveling the world). Unfortunately, there’s a part of us that doesn’t like this. This part thinks that energy is better used to maintain our current equilibrium – so if we start to change, there will always be some internal restraints against it, trying to backslide and keep up the status quo.

What’s worse, as changemakers we not only have to fight homeostasis within ourselves, but also in our environment. None of us exists separated from a system of people, institutions, and all kinds of external influences. Be it a president trying to change his country or us trying to become a vegetarian, there will always be external forces trying to prevent it. Just as we have to win against internal resistance, we also have to consider these environmental factors.

The Wake-Up Call

It looks as if we needed a wake-up call in order to change. Once we feel Death’s embrace, we seem to finally understand what’s at stake. And if we survive, we change: Jonathan Fields became an entrepreneur and writer after almost working himself to death as a lawyer. Will Steacy became a fine art photographer after surviving an armed robbery at the sneaker store where he was working at. And there are hundreds of examples like this. Once we honestly accept that the whole “Life is short” story is for real, we are ready to bear the consequences.

Unfortunately, we aren’t taught this stuff at school. Memento Mori 101″ could be the most useful course we’d ever get.1 But as this doesn’t happen, we have to understand it on our own. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

Life is short. If there’s something in your life that sucks, you can change it – right here, right now. All you have to do is get clear about where you want to go, and use both your emotional and your rational side in order to get over homeostasis. (I will explain how to do this in detail in the next part of this post.)

Anatomy of a Changemaker

My friend Rudi is a changemaker. He wouldn’t admit it, because he’s too humble, but he basically sees a thing that calls his attention, dives into it, gets great at it, and then he either keeps doing it because he enjoys it so much, or he drops it for something else.

With this attitude, he has left behind his original job as a shop assistant and done all kind of interesting things. In order to flee compulsory military service, he left behind his mother country Italia. (He doesn’t like to be pushed around.) He became a hospital nurse, a photographer (doing his own lab work and prints) and a social worker in Latin America. Then, he specialized in intensive care and aroma therapy. He is a gardener, an art collector, and the best cook I know. (He once wrote a book about how to make a perfect tomato sauce.)

When the intensive care job became too stressful, he reduced it to 15% and got his general qualification for university entrance at the age of 35. Now, he’s enrolled at a renowned university in Vienna, Austria, studying landscape architecture.

The great thing about Rudi is that he is just an ordinary person. He is no Time Lord that can regenerate twelve times like Dr. Who. What’s more, change scares him shitless. Last year, when he was about to enroll for university, seeing himself becoming a student again, he almost got paralyzed. Almost! Because Rudi is a stubborn guy. And he did it anyway. He isn’t perfect – but he is a perfect changemaker, because he understands that his life is short, he wins against his worries, he motivates himself, and he takes a crystal-clear direction to make change real.

Look at your surroundings. How many Rudis do you know? I bet there’s at least one of them amongst your people. The lesson: Anybody can change. You only have to want it. And once you become a changemaker, you can be and do whatever you want.

How Change Works

Change has been a recurring theme here on The Friendly Anarchist. Yet until recently, I didn’t really get a grip on it. Sure, in the blogging scene there are many good thoughts on how to change habits, change your diet, change your job. But what was missing was the big picture, the panoramic view of how to change. As long as we don’t understand the whole process, it’s no wonder that change fails.

I decided to consult the experts, and I found my answers in the brilliant book “Switch – How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” written by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath.2 “Switch” provides a framework for making change real. It can be used in pretty much any change situation: Be it in a company, in our personal lives, or on a societal level. And while there are other models to follow, the worst thing to do when confronting change is to overanalyze – so I’d like to propose you to give this model a try.3

Basically, any change situation is controlled by two main systems that I already mentioned above: Our emotional self, and our rational self. The Heath brothers use an analogy to describe these systems, that was originally created by psychologist Jonathan Heidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis“: The emotional side is the Elephant, and the rational side, the Rider.

Now, the Rider generally holds the reins and decides where to go – but if the Elephant doesn’t move, the Rider will be powerless. (Ever tried pushing around five tons of Elephant?) So the Elephant has to be in agreement with the direction proposed by the Rider – and, to add a third element, they have to move on a Path. The Path stands for the process of change, and this is key to understand: Profound change doesn’t happen in one single step: It’s a process, not an event!

The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path

As our rational side, the Rider represents the part of us that likes to analyze, plan, and focus on long-term benefits. It’s probably quite active already if you’re considering to implement a big change in order to live an interesting life.

The problem with the Rider is that he not only likes to think and analyze – he overthinks, and he overanalyzes. This can lead to decision paralysis, and that’s what we have to avoid in order to make change real.

But even if the Rider is clear about the change we want to make, the Elephant might see it as a task too big or too uncomfortable. And if the Elephant doesn’t move, change won’t happen. Everybody who has ever procrastinated on an important issue knows what I mean. The Elephant focuses on short-term pleasures rather than on long-term benefits (Buying that new computer now instead of reducing living costs and being able to travel next year). But he isn’t the bad boy. The Elephant stands for love, compassion, sympathy and loyalty – and once he’s motivated, he’s practically unstoppable.

Wherever Rider and Elephant want to go, it will be easier the less obstacles there are. At best, the Path to walk on will be a downhill road. Tailwind and several gas stops providing fresh coffee will help, too. In order to make change real, we have to think about ways to shape the Path ahead.

Mind you, shaping the Path isn’t just for people doing ordinary things! Even if you are about to create a completely new Path on your own, you can do several things to make it easier to walk on! Compare it to bringing a machete into the jungle over being stuck with nothing but you hands to get through the brushwood.

Coming Up

To make change real, the Heath brothers present nine strategies to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. I will outline them for you next Tuesday. This will be your key for making your interesting life real and getting out of that cubicle in Columbus. Be sure to check back in, or subscribe for free via RSS or e-mail!

The illustration uses a beautiful photo CC (BY-NC-SA) by Valerie Chiang. Thanks!

  1. The entheogen ayahuasca supposedly teaches people how to die. Sounds tough, but also quite intriguing. Definitely on my bucket shortlist. []
  2. Hat tip to Derek Sivers for pointing me at it! []
  3. I also recommend reading the whole book because it provides a myriad of studies and best practices in a very accessible and entertaining style. The strategies described by the Heath brothers saved the life of 100.000 persons in the USA in the course of 18 months and helped building companies like Rackspace. []


    1. Hehe, maybe I should include white rabbits in the next part, to bring more animals into the analogy? :)
      When you feel it’s scary, it’s probably the Rider trying to figure out everything at once. This doesn’t work – more on that next time. Also, remember that anxiety is a good indicator when deciding where to go!

    1. Ha, I would say we coordinated pretty well, even though we didn’t do it consciously: You tweeted the idea, and I published the post with the details! Sure enough, on Tuesday we’ll get even more practical! :)

  1. Fabian, this is huge: “It’s about looking at whatever situation you find yourself in, considering the rules you are currently playing by (Hint: They were probably not made by you!), and then dismantle them and change them for good.”

    Talk about overcoming homeostasis! I find it’s easier to overcome a circumstantial homeostasis than a rule/ limiting belief homeostasis… I can get up and fly to Brazil tomorrow, but it’s really hard to overcome the beliefs I’ve imbibed from some cultural “authority.”

    1. Thanks Ryan! I suppose that overcoming the “circumstantial” homeostasis can actually be the first step to change a limiting belief. (It’s a process, not an event!) But be it as it may, flying to Brazil can never be a wrong decision! ;)

  2. Great post Fabian – thanks. Change is the only constant in life – it’s happening all the time – and we have two choices a) to accept, and go with the flow (change), or b) resist, which tends to cause suffering (because as the Borg on Star Trek used to say “resistance is futile”). This post did however get me thinking about passive change i.e. letting the world, and change, happen to us – and proactive change i.e. where we take the driving seat. I think your post is referring to the latter. Looking forward to your next installment on this.

    1. Steve, I like your distinction between the two classes of change. Actually, when the world around us changes, it’s probably helpful to create a personal agenda on how to cope with it, so this would bring the two together to a certain extent.

      But “passive change” can be more than that, if I think about it further: It’s then the idea of flow you mention, and not resist the change we live in. Certainly a beautiful image for an idler like me!

  3. Great read as ever. I was aware of homeostasis but never thought of its wide ranging effects, particularly our subconscious resistance to change. And Memento Mori is a concept I’ll be looking into more.

    On a side note, one thought I’ve been having about change recently, is that we all seem to assume it’s inherently good. How many politicians nowadays campaign on a manifesto of “change”? How many companies change entire departments and structures when they don’t hit their targets, just to keen shareholders interested?

    It’s important not to just change things for the sake of it.

    1. Thanks James! As for your thoughts on us perceiving change as inherently good, this is maybe a more extreme phenomenon in our modern societies. If I think about some archaic tribes (and even indigenous tribes existing today), resistance to change can be strong.

      Fair enough, workers that are getting laid off or industries that are losing their business models (music CDs, anyone?) are resisting it, too. Or just look at our helplessness when it comes to climate change or changes on the political stage (the rise of the BRIC states comes to mind).

      I’m with Steve here: Change exists if we like it or not. The world isn’t static. Politicians selling it is mostly just marketing, but we’re probably better off if we as individuals accept and embrace it: Controlling it where we can, and flowing with it where we cannot. (Of course, we should also resist change that is wrong; but then, by resisting it, we are changing, too! This is more an issue of taking control than to maintain things as they were.)

  4. great post. I like the rider/elephant analogy, I’ve never seen change, or myself, like this. I think I’m going to pay a litte more attention to the elephant in me. it helps to see something that you somehow knew already (with the stress on SOMEHOW) put into simple words. looking forward to Tuesday!

    1. Thanks, Petra! For me, it was really the same realization. Giving names to these concepts can be extremely useful, because it allows us to maintain more control.

  5. “The problem with the Rider is that he not only likes to think and analyze – he overthinks, and he overanalyzes.” – That is me. I over think, I over analyze, I hate change, because I am scared of the unknown. If you change one thing, it will effect something else. Right now, the balance is equal, how will I be effected if the balance changes one way or the other? Yes, the world (society) changes every day, every hour, every second. I’d rather it didn’t. While you can leave and bake xmas cookies…, more than likely you’ll be fired, and your warm cubicle will become the cold outside.

    1. I’d like the world to change slower at times, too. Unfortunately, we can’t really stop it. This is why I believe that we’re better of if we become changemakers ourselves, to influence the changes that are happening around us. At the same time, a certain retreat from the faster moving world is still possible, even temporary. Not all places in the world are so crazy fast as Manhattan.
      As for the cubicle, this is true only for the short-term perspective. Downsizing and building other income streams on the side can lessen our dependance on our jobs. I wrote about that in more detail in the next post, How to Make Change Real.
      I hope this helps, at least a little!

  6. Pingback: There is No Path
  7. A big part of change is awareness: to become aware of who you are and how your emotional systems work.

    What you call the Rider is your conscious/logical mind. What you call the Elephant is your subconscious/emotional mind. What you call the Path is your desires and life purpose. Your thoughts and behaviors come from your emotional system, so if you don’t change how you are emotionally wired, you can’t have any lasting change. And you can’t do this without understanding how your emotional/energetic systems work. There are two layers of emotions: positive emotions that inspire you, and negative emotions that hold you back. It’s important to see the distinctions between those two layers of emotions. To release negative emotions to allow positive emotions to express themselves more. That’s a huge topic.

    1. Etienne, that is one way to see it, although I personally experience it the other way around: Thoughts shape emotions and feelings, and then lead to action or non-action. Both positive and negative emotions are created by our thoughts, as far as I can tell. But as you say, this is a huge topic, and there are certainly different approaches to it.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

  8. Thanks for this! I have been wanting to live a life like that for a long time now. I have done all of the things society has told us to do. I got my degree, got married, have a job (which I am thankful for), am successful, but have stayed in the same Minnesota town most of my life. Most of my relatives still live here… This has given me a lot to think about. Also, talk about homeostasis! My Minnesota town refuses to change. I even look the same way I did when I was in high school! Everybody knows me and believes that I am predictable. I think it’s time to make some changes. (:

    1. Hey Lins, thanks for your comment! Change can be gentle as well, slowly escaping homeostasis! All the best for that and let me know how it’s working out! :)

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