The Mundanity of Dramatic Change

I have seen many people make dramatic changes. I work in the fitness industry. I am in long-term recovery from addiction. I have seen people undergo physical transformation. I have been witness to spiritual awakenings. In all such cases, I find a common thread, an essential component to lasting dramatic change: mundanity. The practice of undergoing a meaningful change is largely comprised of mundane events and choices.

The imagery and testimonials in various media forms, however, present a different story. According to many soothsayers and sages of nutrition, physical practice, meditation and (gasp) self-help, there are books, diets, and mindsets that will instantly change your life. Of course, this is what we want: an instant, bloodless revolution that will lead us to a new physical and psychological freedom. A bolt of lightning, a flash of light, a moment of clarity that will forever change the way our lives are lived. I’ve witnessed moments that seem like that, even experienced mild versions of the sort, but they’ve never had the deep effect of a true dramatic change.

Let’s look at the common example of someone who wants to lose weight. Someone with the dramatic goal of losing one hundred pounds. A generally accepted healthy rate of losing weight is one to two pounds per week. That’s it. One, maybe two pounds. Over the course of seven days. A sustainable and healthy change of behavior that leads to the loss of one pound, maybe two over the course of seven days can be very small at first. It’s not a radical elimination of a class of food or enrolling in the most grueling exercise regimen there is. It is a small behavioral change that is repeated over the course of seven consecutive days. If someone is able to keep this sort of behavioral change up for an entire month, they will have lost somewhere between four and eight pounds. For someone who wants to lose one hundred pounds, this will not even be noticeable on sight. For thirty days our subject has made small decisions each day that has led to the loss of weight that will not even be noticeable to others.

What will happen though is that after a few months of diligent work to making small behavioral changes, there will be moments of recognizable progress. Maybe the first one is about three months in when an article of clothing fits noticeably different. That’s ninety days. Ninety days of decisions to go left or go right. To take the stairs or the elevator. Add cheese or not. Drink soda or water. Take a walk or stay home. Day after day, for the one day when a shirt fits differently. This fitting will feel profound and perhaps provide motivation for the next ninety days of continued mundane decisions.

If our subject stays on the path for a whole year, they will hit their goal and lose a total of one hundred pounds. The decisions will vary. Some will be more difficult than others, but the end result will be a completely different person. Perhaps an outsider will see a picture from one year’s Christmas party to the next and be astounded by the dramatic change. They will assume that there must have been a drastic change and serious tumult for such a change to result, but they will be wrong. The number of profound moments will be dwarfed by the number of small, mundane choices.

I sit here writing this with over nine years in recovery, working on ten. From the perspective of the self-destructive, everyday-drinker, that is miraculous. What a dramatic change, but that is only looking at the two data points farthest from each other. Day one was not incredibly dissimilar from day two. Yesterday was not much different from today. I like to say that the night before I got sober, I got drunk. There was nothing in the night of my last drink that I hadn’t continued to drink off in years past. The difference is, the next day I didn’t. I went to a place where people get help to stop drinking and got help. It was harder at first, and got easier as time went on. I was told that it would get better, and it did.  

There have certainly been moments of profundity during my recovery, but most moments have been made up of mundane behaviors such as going to work, going to the grocery store, putting on a nicer sweater than normal for a family function, nothing in and of itself revolutionary. It was just one small step at a time. No step a large departure from the preceding step. I know predicate felon heroin addicts who now have good jobs and warm families. They did the same thing I did. It’s not a unique story and the steps taken are not mysterious, mystical, or ethereal; they are concrete, logical, and well established.

While the notion of dramatic change through adopting one extreme practice that leads to incredible results is appealing in the short term, that is not what I have seen work. What I have seen work is plain work itself. More people fail from boredom than from lack of ability. The exciting choices don’t last. It is the dull day in and day out commitment to simple practices that lead to dramatic change.