Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
When I attended elementary school in the early fifties, I suffered from fairly severe allergies. Unfortunately, none of the doctors in my hometown believed in such twaddle. I complained of a general sense of malaise until my mother took me to our family physician. He (between puffs on a cigarette) explained that my illness was all in my head and that what I really needed was “a good dose of self-discipline.” Mother politely thanked the doctor and we returned home where I recklessly breathed the air and became sick—causing me to miss school. A lot.
Fortunately, every time I stayed home from school, something magical took place. I’d tune our TV set to the soap operas I watched the last time I fell ill. While a couple of weeks passed between sick days, the soap opera plots had not advanced one tiny bit. It was as if the actors remained frozen inside our TV set until I jolted them back into action by flipping on the switch. The amnesia case I had watched was still just being discovered. The upcoming divorce hadn’t progressed. The dalliance was still in the early stages. I didn’t miss a thing.
When I returned to school, the same magic also transpired. I could miss an entire week and it was as if no advances in learning had taken place during my absence. Skipping school left me unaffected—except for one minor inconvenience. By the end of each year, I had missed so many days that Mother was summoned to meet with the principal to discuss “my case.” It was always an awkward encounter.
“Your son has missed over forty days again this year. We’ll have to hold him back.” This was invariably Mrs. Kavonavitch’s opening salvo.
“But he earns good grades,” my mom countered.
“True, but he’s a disaster in the making,” Mrs. Kavonavitch mused. Then she scolded mother for giving into my “imaginary” allergies and reluctantly promoted me to the next grade.
My older brother, Bill, didn’t take any of this lying down. He suffered through school day in and day out and in his mind it wasn’t fair that I, “a big fat faker,” got to lie around and watch TV. He was dead certain I’d end up a hobo.
“He lacks discipline,” the doctor warned. “He’s a disaster in the making,” the principal chided. “He’ll end up a hobo,” my brother predicted.
As bad as people thought things would end for me, they expected far worse for our neighbor, Louie Egbert. Louie was the sketchy teenager who lived next door to us who could do just about anything that kids admire and parents revile. He could throw an ax twenty feet through the air and stick it into a telephone pole. He could climb down a tree face first just for the heck of it. He could (and routinely did) juggle flaming torches. In short, Louie was a regular redneck Cirque Du Soleil.
I admired Louie for all of these skills, but even more for his talent at building splendidly dangerous rope swings. Louie climbed a giant pine tree, secured a rope to a hefty limb, chopped off all of the limbs below, and voila; the neighborhood had a brand-new, death-defying recreational device. Adults didn’t share my admiration for Louie. The treacherous swings he fashioned were never on his family’s property. Plus, his swings marred perfectly good trees and were made from thick ropes that Louie stole from local tugboats.
“He’s gonna end up in prison,” my dad warned me. “He’s jail-bound for sure,” others chimed in. “A bad seed,” someone else added.
In early fall of 1964, after I climbed off one of Louie’s rope swings for the last time, I (to paraphrase my brother) “hauled my lazy, psychosomatic carcass off to college.” There, I joined the math club, majored in chemistry, and minored in how to get along with John Oglethorpe, my lunatic roommate. John was a pathological liar, and, as is often the case when only one of two people feels compelled to connect arguments to some morsel of reality, we quarreled about everything.
One day, John became so upset at my demand for facts that he chased me around the apartment with a butcher knife. Eventually, I escaped the attack and found a way to exact revenge. When the semester came to an end, I moved 800 miles away and spoke ill of him every chance I got.
“He’s a nutcase,” I told my parents. “He’ll end up friendless,” Mom added. “Won’t amount to a thing,” Dad piled on.
I didn’t hear anything about John or Louie for decades. The year I set off to college my parents moved three states away, so it took my fortieth high school reunion to get me back to my old digs. Soon, I found myself talking with my childhood buddies and learning what had taken place over the intervening years. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Louie, the rope thief, was now a respectable businessman and member of the Rotary Club.
“He’s not in jail?” I exclaimed in disbelief.
“Nope, he surprised all of us,” several people responded.
When I asked a classmate who was a distant cousin of John “butcher-knife” Oglethorpe what had happened to the guy I thought was most likely to be killed in a dark alley, she explained, “He just retired.”
“From what?” I asked.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. And then I learned how almost all of my childhood acquaintances had found a way to become productive citizens—even the “hoods” like Louie and John. No matter the dire predictions and unflattering labels, all succeeded to one degree or another.
As I moved around the reunion hall and talked with several other potential criminals from my own class, I was surprised that they, like John and Louie, not only avoided a life of crime, but their transformation stories were equally unremarkable. None experienced an epiphanous life-changing event. No burning bushes. No rock-bottom prison moment. No tear-filled family intervention. Instead, like the soap opera characters I watched as a boy, nothing in their lives changed rapidly or flamboyantly. They did change, but their transformations took place unceremoniously and over decades.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. When my partners and I studied individuals who made massive changes in their lives for our book Change Anything, none of the successful changers transformed in a splendiferous flash. Instead, they turned their lives around by patiently applying a whole host of techniques to their problems. They learned from their mistakes. They found new friends and distanced themselves from old accomplices. They honed their social skills. They developed career talents. Skill by skill, month by month, they changed. And in so doing, they give us, our children, and their children hope.
I’ve written about this before. I’ve suggested that today’s shenanigans don’t always translate into tomorrow’s felonies. Now I’ll add one more piece to the puzzle. Imperfections aren’t likely to be remedied in a flash. Louie slowly found a way to channel his creativity into entrepreneurial success. I don’t know how John transformed from a pathological liar into a preacher, but my friends assure me that he ultimately turned into a good man. It took a while, but he did it.
So the next time you become discouraged with your own inability to bring about rapid changes in your life, remember, if you’re moving in the right direction, time will gradually work its magic. Just look at school-skipping me and the “hoods” I grew up with. I didn’t end up a hobo. They didn’t end up in jail.
Now, for those of you who don’t want to wait until you’re in your mid-sixties to get a firsthand look at how time is working in your favor, there is a way to help recalibrate your change clock. It’s an easy enough process. Simply plop a lounge chair onto the Alaskan tundra, casually sit back, look up at the mountains, and watch the glaciers race. You’ll feel a lot better about yourself.