We have it all backward. We lament how the world is falling apart because other people won’t change their pernicious ways. Health-care costs are soaring because other people eat too much and exercise too little. The workplace is too political because others hoard information and resources. Others have dangerous political or religious views. Others are polluting the planet. And worst of all, "others" come to a full stop before entering the new traffic circles in my town. Sheesh.
That’s why we all crave the ability to influence others. If only we could get them to change, our lives would be much better.
But over the past few years, I’ve gained an appreciation for a distinguishing capacity of some of the greatest people I know—the capacity to influence one’s self. Unlike most of us, these individuals are capable of thinking of themselves as influence projects. They can stand above themselves like interested scientists and consider the habits and proclivities of their favorite lab rats—themselves. By doing so, these select few develop insights, interventions, and strategies to get themselves to behave differently.
I started noticing this tendency four years ago when my colleagues and I began a study of changers—people who took on monumental personal challenges and succeeded. I studied the change strategies of people who overcame decades-long addictions, people who changed themselves in order to correct dysfunctional relationships with loved ones, and people with profound work-limiting habits who owned up to their deficiencies, reshaped their habits, and relaunched their careers.
IN THE THIRD PERSON
But it wasn’t until a year or so into this project that we discovered the most important lesson: If you’re thoughtful and clever, you can trick yourself into behaving in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. We began noticing changers’ internal dialogue and how often they referred to themselves almost in the third person. They thought about themselves in an objective, detached way that was odd. "I can’t believe I did X" one might say—as though talking about a total stranger. Or "I better be careful or I’ll do Y." Or even better, "If I do X, it will make me do Y." Most important, we realized their bizarre conversations with themselves, about themselves, weren’t just incidental to their success; they were fundamental.
This one-person dialogue enabled changers to take on two roles in their change process. Somewhere along the way they realized they had to become not just a subject, but also a scientist. To mimic their success, do two things:
1. Take charge. Stop playing a passive role in your change process, looking around for some smart person to write a book, invent a gadget, or offer a seminar that will fix you. No one knows how to do that because you’re unique and no one has ever studied you.
2. Study your behavior. As a scientist, you need to gain far more insight into what conditions make you behave in different ways. You must appreciate the many sources of influence that shape your choices. Successful changers see themselves as lab rats running through life’s maze and conclude the only way to really take control of their behavior is to take control of the maze itself.
While I admire and love many of the changers we studied, one has become an overwhelming favorite of late. Her name is Margaret Maxfield. She exemplifies what it means to think intentionally and carefully about influencing yourself. I believe Margaret’s intensely personal change challenge is a textbook study in using science to influence your own behavior—and ultimately your happiness. Let me start by sharing a bit about her to illustrate my thesis.
Margaret was born in 1926 and her husband, John, in 1927. Two years ago, 5-ft., 3-in. Margaret realized it was increasingly difficult to keep her 6-ft., 6-in. husband from falling, or to help him back up when he did. So they came to the difficult conclusion that they needed to move to an assisted living center.
Margaret and John felt extremely reluctant to give up their independence and control. They are people who passionately sucked the marrow from life. They didn’t just study math; they both became world-class mathematicians. When John became interested in engine repair, he didn’t just tinker around; he rolled up his sleeves and restored five vintage Rolls-Royces. When they decided to buy a farm, they didn’t hire help; they learned how to work the land themselves and planted tens of thousands of Christmas and sugar maple trees every year.
And herein lies the lesson. I watched this couple thoughtfully influence themselves in a less-than-ideal circumstance. They designed a life with new constraints that caused them to feel and act in ways they knew could produce happiness. "Perhaps we will lose some control," they reasoned. "What, then, could we take control of?" John decided to focus on fitness. He designed an exercise regimen that made him the Jack Lalanne of their Placerville (Calif.) assisted living center. Margaret chose mastery. She decided to learn Spanish and take on John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a comprehensive treatise on the geology of the Golden State. If life limited her range of motion, she’d doubled her velocity within that range.
They noticed they were struggling with the thought of losing the farm. But rather than trapping themselves in that struggle, the scientists in them kicked in. They turned the loss into a celebration of giving. They gave their cars to friends who needed transportation. They gave their Louisiana farm to a Palestinian graduate student whose family they were close to. As generous as these acts were, Margaret is characteristically insightful about their effects on her and her husband: "There’s a difference between being told by your daughter that you can’t drive—and giving your car away." Margaret understands she can influence her circumstances to create profoundly different emotional outcomes as well as cause her to behave in ways that will produce meaning and happiness in her life.
When Margaret made the transition from spacious homes to a one-bedroom apartment, she knew she’d lose more than an address. She’d lose identity. Where she and John once mingled with neighbors who knew of their academic and life accomplishments, she’d now associate with people who saw her as "just another old person." So she organized a writing project with John. They collected life anecdotes about Model Ts, country fairs, bears, hobos, and falling in love. The anthology was a Placerville bestseller and introduced them to staff and their new neighbors. On reading John’s tender poems to Margaret, more than one woman delivered a sharp elbow to a husband who never composed such beauty for her.
Margaret and John didn’t find happiness in California; they created it. They formulated strategies to get themselves to act in ways that produced an abundance of life within their newfound constraints.
It’s one thing to influence yourself around emotionally trivial issues like setting up a payroll savings plan to save more money. It’s another to influence your behavior when powerful emotions drive you to behave in dysfunctional ways. For example, your boss snubs you in a meeting so you avoid talking to her for weeks. Not a good idea. Or you’re reeling with worry about a wayward teen, so you blow deadlines at work as you sit in a funk in your office. Now you’ve got both a wayward teen and a bad performance review.
I’m writing about Margaret because she recently offered me a powerful example of someone capable of acting as a loving scientist in her own life while overcome with debilitating emotion.
On Saturday, June 25, 2011, John Maxfield died. Months earlier, in their book, he wrote of Margaret poetically as his sweet love, Earth mother, and finally:
"My swamp-witch weaves her spells—
And I become a ticking watch
Or blue-eyed china doll.
When she shakes the world
Then only she can mend me."
John’s departure shook the world of his swamp witch. I felt desolate for her. I knew how tender and entwined their relationship was for more than a half century, and I worried about how she’d adjust to a solo portion of her life. Surely, she needed mending.
I should have known better.
POETRY IN AUTUMN
To be sure, Margaret misses John intensely. But Margaret has this incredible capacity to influence Margaret. She knows what makes Margaret feel depressed, what helps her feel engaged, and what helps her heal. One of Dr. Margaret Maxfield’s maxims is, "If you feel like you need help, go help someone."
So she did. She started a writing workshop for residents of her facility to help others document their lives as she and John had done.
And who knows, maybe Margaret’s ingenious method of influencing herself will help a few men find poetry in the autumn of their lives that their wives never received in the spring.
The most important influence challenge we’ll ever take on is that of influencing ourselves. Those who succeed at this formidable challenge treat it as the complex, fascinating, and important problem it presents. We are endlessly fascinating creatures shaped by myriad sources of influence. The only way we can succeed at creating the life and results we want most is to develop a greater capacity to intervene actively on our own behalf.
I have little doubt that Margaret’s genius for influencing herself will bless her future as it has her remarkable past.