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What Tolstoy could teach us about change

What Tolstoy could teach us about change

by Moyra Mackie on October 4, 2013

How many times have you tried to change something in your work or personal life, only to find yourself drifting back to your old habits?

Even when we know that the change we want to see makes logical, rational sense – giving up smoking, exercising more, balancing work and life – we often fail to make the change.

Why do we act against our own best interests?

Well the answer came when I was handing out these postcards this week.

Change Ninja, making change happen

The Tolstoy quote has resonated with most people, but one conversation in particular stands out.  On seeing the quote one of my clients said:

“small changes…that’s so true.  Except that I usually make big changes.”

“And how does that work out?” I asked.

“Well sometimes it works, many times it doesn’t and sometimes it’s chaos.”

Which is an answer Tolstoy, a master of observing the small details of peoples’ actions and attitudes, could have predicted.

So how can we make change stick?


Almost 100 years after Tolstoy’s death Richard Boyatzis developed a framework –  Intentional Change Theory – that can be used for achieving work-related or personal goals or for changing habits or beliefs that are holding you back.

Boyatzis’s five steps seem like common sense, except very few people, teams or organisations appear to follow all of them, which is essential to lasting change.

1.       Discover your ideal self

What is the gap between who you are now and who you want to be?  Invest time in exploring your hopes, aspirations, dreams (and fears).

Don’t reject items just because they seem far-fetched or unattainable. They are dreams and they might become attainable goals if you remain open-minded and attentive to your inner processes.

As you consider your options and time-frames, pay attention to how you FEEL about the choices you are making, the visions you are conjuring up.

Discard goals that you don’t feel passionate or excited about and keep exploring until you have a clear and precise vision of the ideal you.

 2.      Discover your real self

This is harder than it seems, as most of us have difficulty achieving the right level of emotional objectivity to accurately assess our strengths and weaknesses.

So seek feedback from friends, family and work colleagues. Take that information and spend time exploring your attitudes, assumptions, behaviours and habits.

Ask yourself what you are happy with and what you think needs to change?

 3.      Create your learning agenda

In large companies this is often what is referred to as your Personal Development Plan.  Except it’s often completed without proper regard to stages 1 and 2, and therein lies the source of failure.

The purpose of this step is to align your goals and vision to reality and to establish who and what you might need to help you in this transition.

Make sure that you apply SMART principles to any goals you are setting and break each stage down into Tolstoy’s tiny steps.

Most people will need someone to act as a mentor or coach who can support, challenge and guide you in this phase.

I’m an executive coach but this is not a pitch for work – you might have a friend, partner or colleague that could help you here.

 4.      Experiment and Practice New Habits

Whether you’re learning a new skill or changing an attitude or belief it’s important that you do something every day, which means building in small wins that reinforce your new habit and give you motivation to continue.

It helps to approach this phase in a spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Try out new ways to learn, remain as open-minded as you can about the HOW on the path to the new you.

5.      Get support

You will actively need to seek what I call “permission to change.”  Some of those nearest and dearest to you may well – consciously or unconsciously – sabotage your change process.

This is because their equilibrium may be disturbed by your new change.  We’re all familiar with the challenges of not smoking/drinking alcohol/ eating meat when surrounded by people urging us to join them in the habit you wish to break.

It might sometimes feel as if you are the only one going through this process, but objectively you will know that you are surrounded by people who are struggling to change. So share your plans and seek support from those you trust.

And if all else fails, you need a Change Ninja

The Change Ninja you see quoting Tolstoy was born because I’ve spent 15 years guiding people through change processes.

One thing is clear – staying on a change path with all the distractions, pressures and competing priorities in our lives is tough.

So perhaps it’s long overdue that we all had a Change Ninja by our side 24/7 to help us see the change, and then be the change, we have always wanted?

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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