Want to change yourself? Change the system.

While reading “The Lucifer Effect,” it’s becoming increasingly clear how much of behavior is a product of situations and systems. I think that coaches and psychological change agents are missing this piece, big-time.

I have many people tell me that “if a person just gets clear on their big passion, they’ll make the change they need to make.” Or if they “just have an inspiring vision,” that’s enough. And yet that simply hasn’t been my experience. People go to a change agent, come back all pumped up, and six weeks later are back where they started.

(Besides, do you want a surgeon who has passion, or a surgeon who has training? There really is more to life than just having passion. Indeed, there’s research that says passion often comes from doing something you don’t like and growing to like it.)

Yes, not having an internal change will often keep you stuck. If you sabotage yourself at every turn, you’ll be stuck wherever you are. But my new opinion is internal change only works if it gets you into action. But not just any action; action needs to help create a new situation or new system that will support the new identity or new vision, or the change will eventually die out.

You don’t hear that side of the story, though. When a change agent fails with a client, they don’t trumpet the failure from the mountaintops and examine what happened in detail, to find out if their (the change agents’) models of change are insufficient. And the clients who don’t change don’t trumpet the story for obvious reasons.

My new formula:
change = change in mindset (identity, role) + change in actions + change in systems

In my NLP training and my coach training, identity has been considered a powerful shaper of behavior change. And it is, it just turns out that Situation and System can be even more powerful than identity. It also turns out that identity is shaped by behavior, even if the behavior is undertaken for neutral reasons1.

The Power to Change



  • Changing a system or a situation is the most powerful creator of change, because it forces behavior to change.
  • Changing behavior is the next most powerful, when done in a way that reshapes identity.
  • Changing identity is the least most powerful of the three, but still very powerful, because it can provide intrinsic motivation which can lead someone to change their action and their systems.

  1. see the Social Psychology literature on “commitment and consistency,” in which small behavioral changes produce identity changes. 

Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds

The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.

All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.

A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.

Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.

So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.

Don’t accidentally say f**k you to your customers!

T-mobile is using the tune of the song F**k You by Cee Lo Green in their latest radio ads. They apparently missed the part of psychology where people recall the words to songs. They sing about how you should switch to T-mobile, which doesn’t require a contract.

Their intent is for you to break up with your current carrier. But communication doesn’t work that way. When we communicate, our audience hears … whatever our audience hears. Anyone who’s ever said to their shmoopie, “would you please pick up your socks?” knows that an innocent question can be heard as an attack on someone’s entire identity1.

Here’s how communication really works: I get my audience to think “f**k you” by listening to a song whose tune makes those lyrics come to mind. Then the lyrics say “T-Mobile” over and over. When my audience hears is “f**k you, T-Mobile.” Over and over. I seriously doubt that was their intent.

When you’re designing ads, public speeches, or even just carrying on a conversation, pay attention to the words you use. Choose words carefully, so they have the greatest chance of unambiguously conveying just the message you want to come across. And if you’re talking to your shmoopie, the only safe words are “yes, dear.” Use them often.

  1. For those of you not yet in relationships, the question “would you please pick up your socks?” is heard as “You are an ignorant slob who doesn’t deserve to live.” A much better way to say the same thing is to say, “Shmoopie? I’m cleaning the apartment. Where would you like me to put your socks?” 

Efficiency Might Be Bad

I’m a huge fan of system dynamics and the understanding of complex systems that has come from the field that Jay Forrester invented.

This is a superb article by the late Donella Meadows about the leverage points in complex systems, in ascending order of effectiveness.

Alas, most of the things we do to try to change our social and economic systems use only the least effective levers.

Tonight I’m especially struck by #9, delays in systems. Delays of information and material movement can throw a system into or out of sync in ways that utterly change the system’s characteristics.

For many years, we’ve been operating as a society under the implicit assumption that speed = efficiency. The faster things are, the fewer delays, the better off we are.

But this isn’t necessarily true. Increasing the efficiency of communication decreases the time between communication we have to understand and respond. We end up in reactive mode, rather than thoughtful mode. That’s one of the pernicious effects of email. Many people take action on email as it comes in, rather than taking action only on what’s important. That can make the difference between overload and achievement.

Removing communication delays also seems to reduce our tendency to prepare. When you can make changes to your presentation all the way until the night before it’s due, then you will. In prior years, when you had no choice but to finish early enough to send your slides to be duplicated, you actually had time you could then use to rehearse and concentrate on delivery, rather than on making last-minute changes.

Read the article. Let me know your thoughts, if you still have enough attention span to make it through, after all the years we’ve spent training ourselves to operate in a purely reactive—but oh, so efficient–mode.


Your Framing Changes the World

The way we frame things mentally determines how powerfully we’ll be able to handle them.

I auditioned for Spamalot at a local theater last night. After checking in, they informed me that I was in the very last audition slot. That gave me the “opportunity” to listen to my competition as they sang their audition songs. One by one. While I waited with growing trepidation on the cold, unforgiving wooden bench outside. Trying very hard to smile. (It was an acting audition, after all.)

Each person came out complaining apologetically. “When I performed that aria at Madison Square Garden, I hit the high C with so much more resonance.” Or, “gosh, I forgot all the words, so I just improvised new, rhyming lyrics riffing off of a 13th century Olde English translation of the Song of Solomon.” By the time it was my turn, I was a nervous wreck.

But then, some part of my brain found The Answer. As I stepped through the curtains into the auditorium, the thought came to me: “Forget auditioning. Perform. You have two awesome minutes on stage. Give the audience your absolute best!”

One Thought Changes Everything

Suddenly my attitude changed completely. When it’s time to step on stage, there’s no time for practice or judgment. It’s commitment time. By framing this as a performance, rather than an audition, my nerves vanished. I was suddenly alert and happy (I love performing, after all).

I walked confidently to the pianist, gave him my sheet music, and proceeded to sing my song confidently, dramatically, and with full attention on the small audience that just happened to be the directoral staff for the show.

Nothing about the situation changed except my thinking. An “audition” was scary. A “performance” was exhilarating. The right thinking led to a mental and physical state that let me give my all. Last time, I “auditioned,” was a nervous wreck, and didn’t get the part. This time, I “performed,” gave it my all, and had a great time. My all still may not be good enough to get the part, but at least I had fun performing, which I love.

I tried this again during the dance audition. We got to dance twice. The first time, I was a total wreck. You’ve heard of two left feet? I have seven left feet. And they’re all superglued together. It isn’t pretty. But right before the second dance, I thought to myself, “this is performance, not audition! You may suck, but give the audience the best you have to give.” With that change of attitude, I remembered the entire routine and made it through with all the grace and artistry I could bring to the combination.

We Can Choose Our Frames

How you think about situations before you deal with them will affect the options you find, the actions you’ll take, and how resourceful your mental state will be when you start to deal with them.

Next time you find yourself nervous, sad, angry, apprehensive, or anxious, try a new framing.

If you’re going in to a “critical negotiation,” try a “new, mutually profitable relationship” instead. You’ll stop concentrating on the risk and instead you’ll start finding ways you can both benefit from the relationship.

If you’re on a “failing project,” start thinking about “a chance to rescue something good.” You just may find a way to use what you’ve learned and built in a new way that makes the project successful.

If you’re dealing with an “obnoxious, unreasonable person,” try connecting with “a good-hearted person who has really poor social skills.” Seriously. You’ll find your attitude changes.

Try explicitly reframing stressful situations. Are you fooling yourself? Maybe. But maybe you’ll fool yourself right into finding better, more resourceful ways to handle your challenges.