The Only Person You Can Change

The Only Person You Can Change

It's funny how certain things, seemingly small things, can have a big impact on how you look at yourself, and stay with you for a long time.

A couple of years ago, I was taking a walk with a colleague (ah, the good old days, when we used to work in offices and see other people in real life).  She was telling me about a conference she'd recently attended, where during one of the sessions, the participants did an "advice to your 20 year old self" exercise, and shared their advice with the other participants. The piece of advice that stuck with her, and by proxy, with me was this:

The only person you can change is yourself.

And that's enough.


That second part, the "and that's enough" is the life changing part.

I think that most of us who've been on this planet for more than, say 30 years, have probably figured out that changing other people, if not entirely impossible, is pretty damn hard. And I think that most of us know that the only person we can can is us. Yeah, yeah. I know. 

And that's enough. This is the part most of don't believe. We might know that we can only change ourselves, but deep down (or maybe not deep down), we really believe that no matter how much we focus on our own change and our own journey, if other people don't change too, nothing we change in ourselves will be "enough". So there we are, working hard on our own self-development, reading all the books, watching the videos, doing all kinds of great things to change ourselves for the better. And then we look around and see all those other people just coasting along, doing nothing. So what's the point of all this hard work, if we're doing it in a vacuum? How can the change I make in only myself make any difference when there are assholes out there continuing to be assholes?

Blame someone else key on keyboard

I'm not going to lie, there are times when I'd like to have this key on my keyboard

 We see them, and we know they need to change, and since we've been working so hard at changing ourselves, we know how to do it. So we decide to "help" other people change. And this is where it all goes to hell.

Most of us lack the belief that when we change ourselves, the people around us will change in response to that. We don't have to do anything about it -- it will just happen. I've seen it happen.

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to something that I think illustrated this pretty clearly. Gary Vaynerchuck posted a video on LinkedIn in which an interviewer gave him a scenario along the lines of this (I'm paraphrasing - I've put a link to the post at the bottom of this article):

You have a business partner you've worked with for years manages the financial side of your business. You trust this person so much that you leave the finances to them -- you don't pay much attention. You find out that they've been using company funds inappropriately -- using them for personal vacations, stuff like that. How do you react?

My friend tagged me in this because he knows me really well, and he was curious to see what I'd say. Here's how I think I'd react.

My first response would be "umm, okay what's wrong?" I mean, if I trust someone so much that I don't feel the need to have any oversight of the financial side of my business, and that person betrays that trust, I immediately go to the "something bad is happening in their life to lead them to this behaviour."

And my second response was "what should I have done to prevent this from getting to this point?" The fact that I gave up all responsibility for the financial side of my own business is a problem of my own causing, no matter how much I trust anyone else. A good business owner cares about the finances and the truth is, I have no one to blame for my lack of oversight but myself.

It didn't surprise me to see that Gary V's response was effectively the same as mine -- I'm familiar with his philosophy and leadership style. He talked about his own accountability for what happened and empathy for the person who did it. But what really surprised me were some of the outraged comments on the post.

Things like "this is backwards Gary, you're not accountable for someone else stealing from you," and "this response just excuses their behaviour," and "you should feel hurt and betrayed, not empathize with them."

This is when I really understood that so many people don't see that accepting that you can only change yourself is not the same thing as taking the blame for someone else's shortcomings.

The interviewer didn't ask how he would feel, he asked how he would react.

I would feel angry, hurt, betrayed, pissed at myself for trusting someone when maybe I shouldn't have and probably any number of other things. But those feelings are meaningless when directed at other people. Me yelling at my business partner for stealing doesn't change anything. It doesn't make it less likely that this will happen to me again, it doesn't make it less likely that this person will do it to someone else in the future. It doesn't change anything expect that maybe, for a few minutes, I'll feel righteous and relieved to get it off my chest. Followed by days of self loathing for having lost my temper.

And here's where I had an a-ha moment. My whole life, when things have gone wrong, my default orientation was to think "was that my fault?" I used to think that made me weak. That it meant I didn't believe in myself and was willing to accept blame for things that weren't my fault. But looking at this situation made me realize that actually, I've built a certain strength of character this way. That I haven't been blaming myself for things other people did, but rather holding myself accountable for my part in the situation. 

I've been living the "and that's enough" part for a while now, and I didn't even realize it.

So tell me -- when have you noticed that a change in you initiated a change in people around you?

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1 comment

Really cool blog, and lots to think about. Thank you. And you’re welcome for grabbing your attention. :)

re a time I changed and it initiated a change in someone else?
I have to admit, and I’m sorry, I don’t have a good example. At least not one I can draw on at the moment. I’m sure over wings, we could come up with a few, but I feel I might have been a bit too greedy lately to recognize it. I would like to think I’m not, but often I find I’m trying to drive forward, push push push. I’m lucky to have great friends who are patient with me and guide me, subtly, which I really appreciate. I worked at one place recently where part of a team, WE could really be a we, and I LOVED it (thank you). But unfortunately it didn’t last. That’s ok, I learned MANY things which I’m constantly trying to apply to my daily routine.

Thanks for this article. As always, you make me think. Have a good one.


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