Human history is littered with stories of transformation. Gandhi went from being an unknown lawyer to one of the key architects of Indian independence. Suze Orman, born on the south side of Chicago, went on from being a waitress to a financial guru. PD James, the famous English crime writer, did many jobs before starting writing in her mid-30s.
What makes people undergo transformation? Is it something achievable on demand that you can bring in your life?
One change is not Transformation
Social psychology informs us that social context can change people’s behavior. Across many social psychology experiments, people are shown to behave out of character. A philanthropic person may be nudged into behaving rude, or a crook into kindness.
This means, a single action of a person is not a deeper reflection of a permanent change. You may recall a moment when your behavior didn’t reflect who you are. In short, a single change in a behavior, feeling, experience doesn’t constitute change. Then what is change and transformation?
Trajectory defines change
I consider personal transformation as a change in a trajectory rather than a change at a point. What is a trajectory of a person? It is determined by the goals one pursues, the capabilities one possesses, and the self-identity one holds. If none of these three changes, a life’s trajectory doesn’t change. Even a massive lottery win would not make the trajectory change unless all three of these change. When all three change, it is transformation.
Once an individual pursues different or bigger goals, this can drive major change. To achieve those goals he will need new capabilities. He may go through trial and error to build these capabilities. He may also use a systematic and dedicated method to build these capabilities.
Gandhi’s transformation was most likely driven by the change in goals. When a powerful goal takes hold of a person, it can be transformational.
Sometimes individuals also go through capability building process with or without any goal. Many a musician became a world class player due to sheer practice which arose from the love of music. Development of a new capability may bring new goals in the line of sight. Such goals may have been unachievable until then.
Capabilities are often built through education and training. I have seen a mental transformation of students mid-thirties due to a training program. In fact, education is so transformational that it is often a social mobility vehicle. Someone born in a poor family can often use education to cross social strata.
If you look back at your life you may realize that education played a major role in your transformation. When I pursued a Ph.D. at Duke University, it was fairly transformational for me. I was a proficient problem solver in a corporate context. But the Ph.D. allowed me to identify classes of problems across companies and industries.
Self-identity is the third piece of the puzzle. It does not necessarily come before or after the other two. A radical change in the concept of self is transformational. With a new self-identity, a person pursues different goals and acquires different capabilities.
Self-identity is often connected with the web of expectations of self and others. For example, a move from one company to another can change someone’s identity. A hidden skill may become evident, or an opportunity to showcase a talent may appear. Tony Robbins shares stories of transformation that begin with a change in identity.
Why is transformation hard?
It should be evident that a change in all three of these drivers is quite hard. Capability acquisition is difficult job and many people give up. A massive goal can be daunting and appear unachievable. Identity may be the hardest thing to change without a change in goals and capabilities. Although the path to transformation is hard, it allows your to live a higher life. That is what makes transformation worthwhile.
In short, a transformation is a change in trajectory. This change is possible when someone changes the goals, capabilities, and identity. The start of a transformation can be any one of these three drivers. But all three need to change for transformation to be complete. There are significant barriers to changing these three and that makes transformation hard.
If you have gone through a transformation, which of these three drivers helped you the most?