Flipping the Switch on Change

I just finished Switch, the newest book from the Heath brothers (authors of Made to Stick). While I was surprised that the second book from Chip & Dan wasn’t about communication, as their first had been, I really enjoyed this one.

Switch discusses how to make change happen, both personally and in relationships, as well as in organizations and countries. Leaning heavily on the analogy of the Elephant (one’s emotional motivation) and Rider (your reason or will), Chip & Dan talk about why change is often so hard and how to make it happen.

While some of their points seemed intuitive, thus simply providing vocabulary for things that we all know, other points really surprised me. For instance, did you know that people eat more when they’re given a bigger container of food (even if the food tastes terrible)? And that self-control is an exhaustible resource? Throughout the entire book, I found that their stories and examples latched onto my memory (I guess the book was “made to stick”), affecting the way that I see people’s behavior.

Here are a couple points that really got me thinking:

Find the bright spots. Often it’s important, instead of focusing on changing negative behavior, to see what’s going right and build on that. The Heath brothers write, for example, that in 1990 Jerry Sternin of Save the Chidren was charged with the task of reducing malnutrition among children in impoverished areas of Vietnam. Instead of launching new food programs or aiming to fight poverty, Jerry looked for “bright-spot” families whose kids weren’t malnourished, and investigated what they were doing different. He discovered that through a few basic changes in their eating behaviors (like eating four instead of two meals per day and adding sweet-potato greens and shrimp from the rice paddies to their rice), poor families were able to give their children the nutrients they needed.

“Our habits are essentially stitched into our environment.” During the Vietnam War, drug use among the US military was a huge problem, with half of soldiers trying narcotics and 20% becoming addicted. The White House feared what would happen when these soldiers returned to US soil, but found, surprisingly, that rates of drug use among returning Vietnam vets was less than one percent. Chip & Dan go on to explain that our habits our tied to our environment, and that personal change is much easier during a move to a new location. Also, to make change happen personally, we must consider the affects of our environment on our habits.

I found the ideas about environment especially intriguing due to my work. For the past six years I’ve been involved in running training programs for young people who want to grow their personal lives and change the world. While our students often experience incredible transformation during their time with us (three or five months), sustaining that change when they return home can be very difficult. I think that the insight in Switch could add to our conversation about creating sustainable change in young people’s lives.

If you’re interested in creating personal or organizational change, I’d recommend reading Switch. This book provides a vocabulary for talking with family and co-workers about change, and provides important insight into the anatomy of change and people’s motivations and behaviors.

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