Change or Die


A native tribe in South America had been experiencing the premature deaths of its members for many generations, but the people had no idea what caused them.  Scientists began studying the tribe to try to determine what was causing the deaths.  Before long, they learned that the tribesmen were dying because of a disease that was caused by the bite of an insect that lived in the walls of their adobe homes.  They presented the discovery to the leaders of the tribe with four options for dealing with the problem:

  1. They could use insecticides to kill the insects.
  2. They could destroy the infected homes and rebuild.
  3. They could move to a new environment that didn’t support the life-threatening insects.
  4. They could continue to live just like they were and continue to die early, as they had been doing for generations.

Any guesses as to which option they chose?  Right…they chose to continue to live just like they were even though it meant that they would continue to die early.

Before you pass judgment, consider the following statistics.  Every year in the United States, approximately 600,000 people have bypasses and 1.3 million have angioplasties to deal with the life-threatening effects of heart disease.  Combined, these procedures cost approximately $30 billion dollars a year.

You would think that being faced with the grim prospect of premature death, these patients would change their lifestyles in accordance with their doctors’ directions.  However, study after study has revealed that fully 90% go back to the exact same lifestyle that caused the heart disease in the first place.  About 50% of the time, the bypass grafts clog back up within a few years and the angioplasties with a few months.

So why don’t people make the changes necessary to live?  Because change is often scarier than death.  Because change is hard.  Because the status quo is comfortable…it’s known and predictable.  Because the longer a person behaves in a particular way, the harder it is for him to change.  At some point, his behavior ceases to be just a behavior and starts to become part of who he is.

The moral of the story?  If you want to help people to change their negative behaviors, intervene early…while they are just behaviors.  The longer you wait, the more those behaviors become a habit.  And the longer a habit is practiced, the more it becomes a person’s character.  Character is interwoven with our self-image, and there may be nothing more difficult or time-consuming to change than the way a person (or a people) sees himself.

(Info source – Deutschman, Alan, “Change or Die,” FastCompany, Issue 94, May 2005, Page 53)

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Filed under Change, character, comfort zone, Denial, habits, Identity, self-image

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