When I was in the army there were always three ways to do anything. There was the right way, the wrong way, and the army way. And whenever we were engaged in performing some mundane detail, like KP or motor pool maintenance, someone would invariably shout out sharply, "Attitude Check!" There would then follow the predictable resounding chorus, long and drawn out—"Fuuuuuuck it! To say the least, the army way was not the most efficient, interesting, democratic, or fun way to do things.
That was my first experience with the concept of attitude. Oh, I was familiar with the term, of course. My parents, teachers and other authority figures had been saying to me for years, You better change your attitude, young man. But until the army, my attitude was never a problem—to me. It was always someone else's problem. The army changed all that. Feeling like a petunia in an onion patch, I quickly learned that in order to get ahead—indeed to stay alive during the Vietnam era—I would either have to change my attitude or learn to fake it.
Miraculously surviving in the army, I soon became interested in self-improvement. I read all the pop-psychology books of the day and even some of the serious stuff. I was trying to find myself. You know, Has anybody seen Richard? I eventually wound up in sales, the ideal profession for someone thriving on Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Now I was exposed to a whole new wonderful world of self-help that I had completely missed in my previous quests for enlightenment. This was the world of self-help gurus, motivational speakers and sales trainers.
Needless to say, I did not set the world on fire with my selling ability. Sales, I quickly found out, was all about that damned attitude thing again. So I became (what else?) a sales trainer. I was a classic example of the cliché, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Except that, ironically, I did turn out to be a pretty good teacher. It was always amazing to me that students would come into my classes—after being beaten up all day by their customers—and suck it in for another three-and-a-half hours just to learn how to more effectively go out and take the same abuse again the next day. And they paid money for this.
Sales people, sales trainers, motivational speakers, inspirational writers and all the other self-proclaimed gurus of happiness tend to be very glib about attitude. I once heard a famous sales trainer and motivational speaker say that it took three weeks for a thought to go from one's conscious mind to one's sub-conscious mind. Even if you could understand what he was talking about, it's bullshit. It's pop-psychology clap-trap. It sells tickets. How could your mind and my mind possibly be the same? Twenty-one days, this guy actually had the audacity to say!
I find myself constantly amazed at the way so many people seem to crave pearls of wisdom from a teacher/preacher/guru—in an audience-type setting—to make it all happen for them. People just expect to sit there and "get it." It doesn't work that way. And now, lucky reader, I'm going to reveal to you the true secret of Attitude Adjustment.
Let's agree that personal change is what people are looking for when they read a self-help book or take some kind of training. That may not always be the case, but for the purpose of this discussion we'll have to start with that premise. Based on my experience working with sales people and observing which ones actually do make a change, I have come to two conclusions: One, if a person is not willing to take a close look at himself he's never going to figure out who he is, where he wants to go, and what's holding him back. And two, people change only in proportion to their willingness to look inside themselves and to invest the effort to form new habits. Habits are the building blocks of attitude.
After a person has done the introspection he must take the action necessary. The action is very important. It can't simply be a more polished version of the same action as always performed in the past. That would just get you more of the same thing. Duh! "If you do what you always do, you'll get what you always get." It's a no brainer, but you'd be surprised at how many people try to do it that way.
Instead, there has to be a basic change in the habits—those things that a person does unconsciously. It's the unconscious things we do that largely run our lives. So, change the unconscious, change the habits (to better habits, obviously) and we can change ourselves. Example: A salesperson needs to ask for referrals. He's not in the habit. Therefore he must consciously work at asking for referrals until it becomes a reflex action—part of his unconscious (sub-conscious). Then he will no longer think about it and he will automatically get more referrals.
Let's look at a couple of examples related to everyday living. I'll begin in the area of human relations, since I know something about that. Action habits. Probably the simplest is smiling. Smiling is not only active, but it is also reactive. One wouldn't usually smile unless there was someone to smile at. If you go around smiling at everything people will think you are weird. I would think this would be the easiest human relations habit to consciously develop. I have a pretty good smile and smiling is not one of my weaknesses but if it were I would set up a system for myself where each day I would smile when I first see someone (whether I know him or not) and smile again when I see him after a few hours absence. So you can readily see how smiling could become a habit—an unconscious action—that could be ingrained in a relatively short period of time.
Using people's names would be another human relations action that could be "habitized" rather painlessly. This is an area that I could improve on. Not only do I not know many people's names, but I don’t use people's names very often even when I do know them. You see, I have an "attitude" about name use. It probably goes back to my childhood—or maybe the army again—when my name was usually only spoken as a prefix to a command. So today, when I use people's names, it's usually to get their attention. I guess I should work on that. I'll make this a goal, in fact.
Thus far, these are two types of human relations habits that are what I define as "reflexive" habits—automatic ways of responding to other people. For example, you encounter someone, you smile. You meet someone you know, you use her name. Good human relations reflex habits.
But what about "non-reflexive" human relations habits, say being genuinely interested in other people? This kind of habit is slower in forming and can't possibly be changed until there is a basic change in the user's outlook on people in general. Is it indeed then a habit? It is, but it is a habit of sub-conscious thought. In other words, IT IS ATTITUDE!
It is a mistake to tell people to change their attitude without changing their habits. Oh for sure, you can change your attitude for awhile, maybe for a few hours or even a few days. But sooner or later one always comes back around to the old habits—and there goes the attitude! Amazing, isn't it? One has just been jerking his own chain—trying to stronghold his attitude by sheer will power. He hasn't done anything to make that change in attitude lasting. No physical (reflexive) action. Attitude is nothing more than belief, or or a form of faith. And as Jesus said, "Faith without works is dead." Modern day translation: "ATTITUDE WITHOUT HABIT SUCKS."
Continuing with this theme of change, we move next to practice. After we change our habits, our attitudes will be changed and then (and only then) can we permanently change our activities—what we practice.
So say a person perceives a need to change his practice and develop better human relations. Say he decides to start practicing genuine concern and interest in other people, but of course he is not really, at present, interested in other people. Nevertheless, the person knows this and wants to work on the practice because not doing so is holding him back in some other aspect of his life's goals.
How does he do this? As mentioned earlier, he can try to change his attitude—but it won't result in a lasting change unless he first changes some habits.
So to summarize our sample human relations case, our person first must start with habits—like learning to smile and use people's names—then there will be a change in attitude—feeling better about having good human relations, and as he feels better toward people he will start to become genuinely interested in them.It all starts with habits.
(which lead to)
If you've followed me this far, I'll leave you with one final thought. You can try this at home.
Remember the sales trainer who said it took twenty-one days for a thought to go from your conscious mind to your sub-conscious mind? I decided to see if that was true. And if it wasn't true, just how long did it really take for that transferal to happen?
I started to look for a habit of mine that was very deeply ingrained. Something that was not only a habit—and hence a function of my sub-conscious—but also a habit that I exercised frequently during the day. It also had to be a habit that I could readily put a roadblock to. I figured if there was something I did dozens of times a day—and I could no longer do it the same way—eventually I would automatically start doing it a new way. The amount of time—from the setting of the block to the first new reflexive action—would be a measure of how long it takes me (and me only) to change a habit.
The solution lay in my wristwatch. I wear my watch on my left wrist. I look at it dozens of times every day. I don't go, Oh gee, I think I'll check the time, which wrist has my watch on it? It's a deeply ingrained habit. When I want to know the time I raise my left wrist. What, then, if I put my watch on my right wrist? How long would it take before I stopped looking at my left wrist and started looking at my right—automatically?
Well, It took seven weeks. Forty-eight days to be exact. For the first couple of weeks I would raise my left wrist whenever I went to check the time. Then, of course, I would see that my watch was not there and I would consciously bring my right wrist up to look at it. After a couple more weeks I would still begin to bring my left wrist up and then something would click in me and I would immediately go to my right wrist. Finally, on the forty-eighth day, I looked at my right wrist without my left wrist being involved at all.
It hit me a minute later what I had done. I had finally changed my left wrist habit to a right wrist habit. I kept the watch on my right wrist for another two weeks to make sure the habit was truly in place. It was. The only reason I changed the watch back to my left wrist is that I am right-handed. It was so damned hard to buckle my watch onto my right wrist using the fingers of my left hand! By the way, it only took a few days for me to get back into the habit of raising my left wrist again.
Regarding the army, I never did change my attitude. I faked it.
© Copyright 2000, Richard Bradley. All rights reserved.