The Process of Change: Being a Learner

Why we savage our resolutions...and how to salvage them

Posted Jan 19, 2013

On trash pickup day this week, the remnants of a Christmas tree leaned forlornly against a fence, sparse brown needles revealing its scraggly branches. With environmentally friendly luck, it will be turned into compost. But it’s on its way out….Like your New Year’s Resolutions?

Did you plan to lose weight this year? Start exercising? Those are the two most frequent annual goals. But by now, nearing the end of January, almost 1/3 of us have already fallen off the resolution wagon.


I could talk about goal setting that helps improve your likelihood of sticking with your plans. (If you’re interested in goal setting—especially regarding weight loss-- you may want to read two blogs I wrote on the subject: one on setting useful goals and as a follow up, one on dealing with relapse.)

This time, though, I want to explore at least one aspect of the “why” question: Why will only 46% of us still have stuck to our resolution come the heat of summer?!

Yes, good goal setting is important. Making accurate predictions helps. But New Year’s Resolutions are a high-stakes gamble about change. As adults, our drop off and drop out may relate much more to an internal challenge that we face. We’re not just committing to change—difficult enough in and of itself—we’re committing to learning. We’re committing ourselves to not knowing. We expect our children to be learners—but somehow, once we’re grown up, we think that we are supposed to KNOW. If we don’t know, if we need to LEARN, we feel vulnerable.

Let me give you an example of someone who is fearless in this regard: Dr. Colleen Hacker. You may know—or know of—Dr. Hacker because of her pivotal role as Mental Skills Coach and Performance Enhancement Specialist with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. (The National Team won the first Gold Medal awarded in women's soccer at the 1996 Olympic Games; and then there’s their famous U.S. overtime win at the 1999 World Cup.) Dr. Hacker is also remarkable in her teaching, research, writing, athletic accomplishments, and consulting. (…and in her personal style, enthusiasm, joie de vivre, scholarship …I could go on.)

Here’s what really leaves me in awe about Colleen Hacker, though: Every year, she decides to learn a new sport. She describes the process as organic, one in which the activity captures her attention. What has she learned? Among other things, outrigger canoeing; running; taking a high ropes course; hot yoga; inline skating. For 2013, she has chosen ice hockey. Next year may be paddle boarding.

Colleen Hacker is highly competitive: She wants to see how good she can get. She qualified for Nationals in inline skating, for example. She’s now a regular long distance runner. On the other hand, she decided she really did not like hot yoga.

Along with being passionate about physical activity and engagement, Dr. Hacker is utterly comfortable with the understanding that she can be a beginner. She gives herself permission to NOT know—but to learn. Every expert, as she points out, was once a beginner.

Or, as another sport psychology colleague, Dr. Bob Rotella, famous especially for his consulting work with top golfers, commented: “25 years ago, even I wasn’t Bob Rotella.”

I spoke recently with a professional musician I know regarding thie challenge that comes from being someone who is skilled and yet allows the vulnerability of not knowing and learning. This musician is not a neophyte: With a Master’s degree in musical performance, she teaches at a collegiate level, and performs regularly. Yet she decided to be a student again: She attended the Tafelmusik Winter Institute, a competitive auditioned week-long training experience designed for advanced, skilled musicians. Although she’s playing her same type of instrument, she’s learning a method that is “historically informed.”

This isn’t just a matter of building on a skill that she already has to a high degree. “I found it necessary to think about Baroque playing as though I were approaching a new instrument entirely. I think of my Baroque playing as a sort of professional development project.”

What has made it possible to let herself be in the position of learner? “It’s easy when you truly respect the people you’re learning from.” She contrasts this with the process of returning to graduate school for a doctoral degree in music performance. “It’s challenging to find a balance: Am I a student or a professional? Institutional bureaucracy is an annoyance. And sometimes I’m working with faculty members who are less talented or experienced than I am! On the flip side, I find that as an older student, I am much more efficient with my practice and study time. In some ways, I take a more serious approach to classroom learning.”

“When did you start running?” someone asked Olympian runner Wilma Rudolph. Her response came quickly: “When did you stop?”

Colleen Hacker and the musician are actively and intentionally engaging in the process of learning, growing, and changing in ways that are meaningful to them. Like Wilma Rudolph, they see life as a continuous process of engaging in (metaphorical or actual) running.

What are you learning? How is it going?

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