As I age and become more aware of people over 60 I see two kinds of older people: those who are curmudgeons and those who are amazing. My theory for why this happens is that real, deep change is hard, and I suspect that it gets even harder the older one gets. Those who refuse to do the hard and often painful work of real, deep change become old curmudgeons.

Those who take on real, deep change make significant changes throughout their lives—first in their 20s, then their 30s, and 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. Just like a retirement savings account, these changes add to their growth and they compound over time. Those who choose not to make these deep changes slowly become dinosaurs.

On a side note, if you know some of these amazing older people, I’d suggest that you buy them lunch and ask for their wisdom. They’ll have a bunch to offer. Of course they may also have some of the social ailments that many older people have, like talking too much, forgetting what they have to say, or not being in touch with the latest ways that the world works. But if you can sift past these, you’ll gain a lot of wisdom.

While you’re still young, I’d like you to understand the typical phases that people experience when they go through real, deep change. Hopefully this will help you to take on difficult change earlier in life so that they can compound over many years—just like your retirement account.

The First Phase of Real, Deep Change
The starting point is what I call the fat, dumb, and happy phase—or what academics call being Unconsciously Incompetent. This is when I’m blind to where I’m falling short. This is also when I’m aware of my shortfalls, but I don’t see them as important, so I don’t see a big reason to change.

When someone helps me see otherwise, it usually hurts and it propels me into the second phase.

The Second Phase
This is when I realize that I’ve not been good at something that is important to be good at. This often comes with embarrassment and even some shame. In my simple (and probably crude) way, I call this is the “I suck” phase. Academics call this being Consciously Incompetent.

Moving from Phase One to Phase Two is growth, but it feels like I just went backward. Because this feels so bad, many will choose to quietly slip back into Phase One. These are the people who slowly become old curmudgeons—even though they may only be in their 30s or 40s.

Those who hang in there and work to actually start their journey of growth get moved toward the Third Phase of real, deep change.

The Third Phase
This is when a person starts to get better. It’s usually really hard and takes a lot of intentional focus. I call this phase the “This is hard work!” phase. Academics call this being Consciously Competent.

I’ve noticed in my own life, and in others’ stories, that there are several steps that happen before fully working through this phase:

  1. I decide to get better at the something—again, from last week’s posting, I’ll use the example of becoming a good listener. In this first step I don’t actually listen well in a certain interaction, but some time after that interaction, I recognize that I didn’t. This is hard on me! I’m embarrassed and maybe feel a bit of shame.
  2. I’m still working at being a better listener. Once again, in a particular interaction, I fail, but almost immediately afterward, I realize it. My awareness of my growth-need is getting closer to the moment when I really need to be aware of it.
  3. In another interaction down the line, I’m just about to fail and I catch myself just in time. I don’t fully fail. I start to become a better listener, even though I don’t do it well yet.
  4. Finally, I’m able to be aware of the change I’m hoping to make and, in this example, I start listening pretty well in more cases than not. I’m still not great at it, but I’m doing it and getting better each time.
  5. Over time I become a good listener (or whatever I’m working on). It requires lots of focus, but I like the feeling of improvement. I have a real feeling of effort and accomplishment!

Over time, this propels me into the final phase.

Phase Four
This is the payoff phase. This is when the deep change that I worked so hard to develop becomes natural to me. It doesn’t even feel like an accomplishment anymore because it has become who I am. Academics call this the Unconscious Competence phase.

People who put in the kind of effort and courage it takes to dive into deep change many times over become amazing human beings. It often takes years to grow in these ways, and unfortunately many of us start too late, but the dividends are well worth it, no matter when we start.

I hope you find these concepts compelling and helpful for your journey as you work to become an amazing West Michigan leader!

Be great this week!

Image by Captivating World. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.