Why We Don’t Become the Person We Want to Be

Journal for Quality and Participation., By Marshall Goldsmith

For several years, I’ve performed what some might consider an unusual daily ritual.

At a pre-arranged time, I get a phone call from a person who I have hired solely for the purpose of listening to me report my scores on a brief self-test. The questions (29 of them, at last count), which I wrote myself, function as a simple checklist of my life’s main priorities. They ask whether I’ve done my best to exercise, set goals, have positive interactions with others, etc. My caller listens politely, perhaps offers a few general words of encouragement and hangs up.

What’s the purpose of this self-rating? This process, which I call the “daily questions,” keeps me focused on becoming a happier, healthier person. It provides discipline I sorely need in my chaotic working life as an executive coach, teacher and speaker, which involves traveling 180 days out of the year to countries all over the globe.

At the seminars I teach, I encourage students to try it for themselves by writing their own questions. Most of them are eager to participate. To date, almost 3,000 have completed an online version of the daily questions. Many others have emailed me seeking guidance on how to write questions of their own.

When I encounter a skeptic, he or she usually asks why I need to pay another person to remind me of such simple things – the list even includes whether I flossed my teeth. Shouldn’t I, a fully functional adult, remember to do that on my own?

Of course I should, and so should we all. But as I argue in my latest book, “Triggers: Becoming the Person You Want to Be” (with Mark Reiter, Crown, May 2015), simple, daily behaviors are among the hardest things about our lives to control or change. Taken together, they can make the difference between a life well lived and a life gone hopelessly off course.

However, perhaps because our culture lionizes willpower and independence, most of us believe that we aren’t supposed to need help with these fundamentals. Instead, we tend to believe help is warranted only for difficult, complex problems. From this perspective, the daily questions seem pointless at best. Why take a test for which I wrote the questions and to which I already know the answers? Not only that, I merely ask whether I’ve done my best to do achieve my goals – that’s a pretty soft standard. The only scale of success is, “Did I try?”

It sounds too easy. But after years of dedication to this process, I now hold the counterintuitive belief that the daily questions are in fact a very tough test, one of the hardest we’ll ever take.

__

To understand why, you first need to grasp a basic truth of human behavior. Changing it is hard. Very hard.

When I ask people in my seminars about the hardest change they’ve ever made, they invariably list their biggest accomplishments: making it through medical school, running a marathon, creating a perfect soufflé, etc.

These are indeed impressive. I probably couldn’t do any of those things! But behavioral change is even harder. Accomplishing a goal is like climbing a mountain, standing for an exhilarating moment or two at the summit, and then heading back down to the world secure in the knowledge of your achievement. Changing a behavior means climbing up that mountain, climbing down – and then climbing back up again every single day for the rest of your conscious existence.

For example, if you’re going to eat right – a behavior – you can’t just do it once. You have to do it every day, all day, for the rest of your life. The same goes for being more patient, becoming a better listener or staying away from cigarettes.

I liken behavioral changes like these to mountain climbing because it feels just as difficult, especially at first. Only with repetition does the new behavior take on a sense of inevitability. It will eventually become easier to follow the pattern than to break it. But that takes time and incredible fortitude. I like to say that behavioral change is just about the hardest thing for sentient human beings to accomplish.

As an object lesson, think about a change you’d like to make. Now, think about how long you’ve been trying to make that change. I’m going to hazard a couple of bets: first, that the change is something important to you (otherwise, why would you bother to change it) and second, that you’ve been trying for a long time – that you’d probably measure that time in months or years rather than days or weeks.

At this point you might be feeling a twinge – maybe even a stab – of regret, thinking about that talent you never used, that weight you never lost, or that child you never got in the habit of encouraging. The upshot is this: our behaviors matter. Perhaps they matter more than our achievements. We don’t live with our promotions and university degrees every day, but we do live with our choice to be better people.

The daily questions are so hard because, if we answer them honestly, they force us to face those choices. Because we wrote the questions ourselves, we can’t blame some outside entity for imposing goals that don’t really matter to us. Because we are the only ones responsible for coming up with the right answers, we can’t say we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. And because we only have to try to do what the questions ask, we can’t write off the exercise as impossible. Even in the most straitened circumstances, there’s always room for effort.

When you fail that kind of a test, there are no excuses.

In my years of answering daily questions, I have never yet had a perfect day. A very few have come close, but far, far more often I must report that I failed somehow.

So why put myself through such a tough exercise day after day? First, I believe it’s well worth trying to come close to my goals, even if I don’t always meet them. Even the small ones (flossing) add up to something important (like my good health). Second, asking the same questions every day forces the issue: if I fail too many days in a row, I’ll either quit asking or finally do something decisive to fix the problem.

I’m proud to report one of my biggest successes along these lines. When my daughter Kelly was 11 and my son Brian was 9, I asked them how I could be a better father.

Kelly had this humbling answer: “Daddy, you travel a lot. But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is how you act when you get home. You talk on the telephone; you watch sports. You don’t spend much time with me. One time it was Saturday, and I wanted to go to a party at my friend’s house. Mommy didn’t let me go to that party. I had to stay home and spend time with you. And then you spent no time with me.”

That hurt. So I decided to keep track of how many days I spent at least four hours with my kids. Here’s a little chart that summarizes my progress:

1991: 92 days
1992: 110 days
1993: 131 days
1994: 135 days

To this happy story, a happy twist: I made more money in the year I spent 135 days with them than in the year I spent 20 days. But the real proof of my success is that by 1995, when my kids were teenagers, they were starting to get a little sick of me. They said it was perfectly OK if I slacked off a little. My son suggested I aim for 50 days.

Spending more time with my family took sustained, daily effort. And it continues. As part of my daily questions ritual, I ask myself every day if I did my best to be a good husband, father and grandfather.

__

At this point, you may be composing a mental list of your own questions. Excellent! I hope you will take up the daily questions habit yourself, and that it will improve your health and happiness as it has improved mine. I encourage you to create the questions according to your own priorities, whatever those happen to be. I offer just a few suggestions to help you get the most out of it.

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to make your questions active instead of passive, as shown by research I conducted with my daughter, Kelly (she’s now Dr. Kelly Goldsmith, with a Ph.D. from Yale in behavioral marketing and a faculty position at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management).

Our research grew out of a discussion about “employee engagement,” a term used in management circles to describe a state of active involvement in work that you might liken to an athlete being “in the zone.”

Kelly’s key insight was this: if companies want their employees to be engaged, they should avoid handing out the typical surveys that ask workers what their bosses and managers can do to improve. These surveys aren’t bad. They provide companies with many valuable suggestions. But they are diagnostic, not curative. They do nothing to put employees in an engaged mindset.

Only the employees themselves can do that – and a good way to remind them is to ask active questions about their working lives. For example, instead of asking the passive question, “Were you happy today?” (which invariably produces a laundry list of complaints), Kelly suggested asking an active question: “Did you do your best to be happy today?” The ball is now in the employees’ court. They have to evaluate and take responsibility for their own actions.

This logic dovetailed with my own daily questions process. Feeling that my personal questions were static and uninspiring, I tweaked several of them to reflect Kelly’s active formulation. For example, I changed a few of my questions as follows:

• From “Did I set clear goals” to “Did I do my best to set clear goals?”
• From “How happy was I?” to “Did I do my best to be happy?”
• From “Did I avoid trying to prove I was right when it wasn’t worth it?” to “Did I do my best to try to avoid proving I was right when it wasn’t worth it?”

Suddenly, I wasn’t being asked how well I performed but rather how much I tried. The distinction is meaningful because in my original version, if I wasn’t happy, or I overate during the day, I could always blame it on some factor outside of myself. I could tell myself I wasn’t happy because the airline kept me on the tarmac for three hours (i.e., the airline was responsible for my happiness). Or I overate because a client took me to his favorite barbecue joint where the food was abundant, caloric and irresistible (i.e., my client – or was it the restaurant? – was responsible for controlling my appetite).

Adding the words “did I do my best” injected the element of personal ownership, of responsibility into my Q&A process. After a few weeks using this checklist, I noticed an unintended consequence. Active questions themselves didn’t merely elicit an answer. They created a different level of engagement with my goals.

To see if I was trending positively – actually making progress – I had to measure on a relative scale, comparing the most recent day’s effort with previous days. I chose to grade myself on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the best score. If I scored low on “Did I do my best to be happy?” I had only myself to blame. We may not hit our goals every time, but there’s no excuse for not trying. Anyone can try.

At the moment, I have 29 daily questions. There is no correct number. It’s a personal choice, a function of how many issues you want to work on. Some of my clients have only three or four questions. My list is 29 questions deep because I need a lot of help (obviously) but also because I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve had years to deal with some of the broad interpersonal issues that seem like obvious targets for people just starting out.

The first 13 of my questions ask whether I did my best to address a particular behavioral change or interpersonal challenge. For example, I ask if I did my best to avoid angry or destructive comments, and whether I did my best to find meaning in my work. The remaining 16 cover professional and personal self-discipline issues, things like how much sleep I got at night, how many minutes I devoted to writing and whether I was up-to-date on my physical exam. I depart from Kelly’s formula a bit here since it doesn’t make much sense to ask whether I did my best on those things. Instead I score myself with a measurement of time spent, or a yes or no.

If you’re not sure what to start with, I recommend the questions I use in my online survey (by the way, if you’d like to participate, please feel free to drop me an email at marshall@marshallgoldsmith.com). These questions cover the basic tenets of employee engagement, but they work well in other areas of life as well:

1. Did I do my best to set clear goals today?
2. Did I do my best to make progress towards my goals today?
3. Did I do my best to find meaning today?
4. Did I do my best to be happy today?
5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
6. Did I do my best to be engaged today?

If you take the online test, we follow up after 10 days and essentially ask, “How’d you do? Did you improve?” So far we have conducted 79 studies with 2,537 participants. The results have been incredibly positive.

• 37% of participants reported improvement in all six areas.
• 65% improved on at least four items.
• 89% improved on at least one item.
• 11% didn’t change on any items.
• 0.4% got worse on at least one item (go figure!)

Given people’s demonstrable reluctance to change at all, this study shows that active self-questioning can trigger a new way of interacting with our world. Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up. In doing so, they sharpen our sense of what we can actually change. We gain a sense of control and responsibility instead of victimhood.

I say this knowing that it’s hard not to feel victimized sometimes. There is so much in life we can’t control, and the challenges truly are formidable – even for the typically very successful people who seek out programs like the daily questions. Maybe you find your job draining, or you’re trapped in a toxic pattern of arguing with a spouse. Maybe you carry fifty extra pounds, and it’s hurting your health. Maybe you’re running out of money. Maybe you’re lonely.

The daily work of behavioral change, which can do so much to re-orient our lives for the better, might seem overwhelming. The people we know we can be, the people we once dreamed of becoming, can seem to recede ever farther as we try to stay afloat in our daily routines. We feel dissatisfied, and dissatisfaction slides so easily into bitterness. Once the chance to make a change has passed, that bitterness solidifies into regret.

Think of the daily questions as a pragmatic antidote to those darker emotions. Put your goals on paper, or an excel spreadsheet, or a papyrus scroll – whatever works for you. Measure every day, “Did I do my best to…?” Your problems won’t disappear, but you exist in a different relation to them. You are now the agent of change.

You will fail many times. I do. But you will have your shoulder against the wheel, and believe me if you keep at it that wheel will move. Your disciplined effort and concentration on a set of problems of your choosing will affect your life for the better. When you look back on your life from the vantage point of old age, you’ll be able to say, if nothing else, that you tried as hard as you could at the things that mattered most to you. You did your best. No regrets.