The Problem with Resolutions

This article was written by Dr. Mike Thomas, Senior Director of Powerful Practices at Battelle for Kids and co-author of the book, "The Best Teacher in You: How to Accelerate Learning and Change Lives". Mike has helped districts and state departments of education across the country use value-added information in combination with multiple measures to guide instruction and accelerate student growth.

The New Year is a time for resolutions. We resolve to eat smart, drink less, lose weight or exercise more. We also make professional resolutions like developing better relationships with some of our students, or making our lessons more interesting and engaging. No one can argue with any of these intentions because they are about positive personal and professional change. Unfortunately, we don’t often deliver on the promise of our resolutions. We resolve to do something different, we make progress, but almost invariably, we end up quitting or stopping short of our goal. The question is why? Why is it so hard to do things that are good for us or to make changes in our teaching practice? Do we lack commitment? Are we short on willpower? Or is there something else going on?

As important as willpower and commitment are for beginning any kind of change, these capacities, by themselves, don’t often deliver the promise. What happens when the novelty of the change begins to wear off? What happens when we decide to back off for just one day? What happens when we begin to reconfirm old assumptions? The more daunting factor associated with personal or professional change is how we react to the vulnerability we feel any time we try to do something outside of our comfort zone. Do we back away from the challenge or do we access other resources that allow us to continue to engage as things become increasingly uncomfortable? As Brene’ Brown says eloquently in her writing and in her top-rated TED talks, it is our response to feelings of vulnerability that dictate how we live our lives. People, whom Brown calls the “whole-hearted”, embrace vulnerability as a necessary aspect of growth and development. The rest of us will do almost anything to keep that feeling of vulnerability from ever arising. As my favorite comic strip character, Pogo, used to say: We have met the enemy and he is us.  

So if change is associated with vulnerability and the tendency for many of us is to avoid feeling vulnerable at all costs, then how is it that we can change and grow? Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have spent most of their professional careers studying adult development and change, or perhaps more precisely, what gets in the way of adult development and change. Their take on the New Year’s Resolution problem is not that we lack willpower or commitment but that we ingeniously build up immunities to the change process. These immunities exist for one reason — to protect us from experiencing the unpleasantness of being vulnerable. When an impulse to change arises, this system goes into action, brilliantly keeping us within our comfort zone.

Most of these immunities are in the form of assumptions about the way the world works. If I do X, then Y will happen. For example, let’s take the case of a teacher who resolves to work on his relationship with some of his most difficult students. He begins by trying to interact with these students when they enter his classroom. These efforts are met with blank stares. He asks them about their weekend. They laugh at his unusual interest. He asks these students softball questions during class. They respond with a bored, “I don’t know.” He calls their parents and hears back, “I don’t know what to do with him/her either.” His immediate failures make him feel even more vulnerable. After a week of what feels like little success, he begins to return to his old patterns of teaching his subject and interacting with those who care. The resolution to build better relationships dies on the vine. What are the immunities to change that are active here? If I reach out, these kids won’t engage. If I show them I care, they won’t reciprocate. If I talk to their parents, nothing will change. And ultimately, if I try to do this, I will be wasting my time and my effort.

When the “whole-hearted” teacher acts on this same resolution, exactly the same things happen. The only difference is that the whole-hearted person understands that this will be a long-term effort and that the vulnerabilities that he feels are a necessary part of the process.

So are we stuck with who we are? Are some of us destined to be whole-hearted while others of us are not? Are there ways to overcome our tendency to run from vulnerability and remain in our comfort zone? Kegan and Lahey provide lots of helpful advice here (See for example, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work). They have created, for example, a straightforward protocol that allows us to probe the gap between the change we want to enact and what we do instead. By walking through this exercise you are able to uncover and examine the assumptions you hold that keep you locked in place. To paraphrase Kegan and Lahey, the real secret to any kind of productive change is to better understand what you really want and what you are willing to do to get it.

A couple of weeks ago I received a tweet that included this image. It seems especially appropriate here.  Perhaps once we determine what’s causing our own individual gap, we can begin to build the bridge.