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A Thirsty Horse Willingly Drinks: The Key To Influencing Change

May 18, 2015


I was fifteen minutes early for my appointment. While sitting in the cavernous waiting area, I noticed two men, one older and one younger, emerge from the elevators. As they walked by, I heard the younger of the two say: “Well, you can lead a horse to water, but, you can’t make him drink.” To this, the older man replied: “Your job is not to make them drink; it’s to make them thirsty.” This is an old line; it’s also a good reminder.

Until I learned how our minds deal with change, I followed the commonly tread path of attempting to convince myself, and others, to change by focusing on the benefits of a change. I tried convincing people to drink whether or not they felt thirsty. While this can work, I find it works far less often— and, with a great deal more effort than necessary.

Years ago, I graduated college into one of the most dismal job markets in recent history. I worked for over two years as a bartender. I worked five nights a week until the wee hours of the morning. During the day, I lay on the couch, eating junk food. I gained a good deal of weight. I fell badly out of shape. One day, I was invited to play racquetball. I had an epiphany fifteen minutes into the first game. I was clutching the wall, gasping for breath, when it hit me— “I have to loose weight!” Before leaving the club that day, I bought a one-year membership. I was well on my way to health and fitness! Or… so I thought.

I spent the next year in a mental battle. At the time, I didn’t know the identity of my unseen foe. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was involved in a cold war with my subconscious. Foolish me, I thought we were on the same team! Each day, I’d wake up, determined to work out and eat right. I am by nurture a willful; some may say stubborn, person. I was determined to lose weight and get into shape. Yet, despite my willfulness, I went to bed most nights frustrated with myself for not working out— nor eating right. While my conscious self was determined to change, my subconscious was determined to keep me right where I was— in my comfort zone.

One of the key functions of our subconscious mind is to act as an Autopilot. The Autopilot’s mission is to keep us in our comfort zones. It accomplishes this by keeping our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and controlling all of the automatic functions of our bodies. One of the most challenging of these automatic functions is our collection of habits. Our habits are made up of all the things we think, feel, and do throughout our day— without giving them a second thought. Are habits are an integral part of our comfort zone. There is research that indicates we spend upwards of 90% of our day operating on Autopilot.

In my case, my Autopilot was working diligently to keep me in my comfort zone— eating bad food, and lying on the couch. My Autopilot responded to my conscious intention of working out, and eating right as a threat to my comfort zone—a zone it is sworn to protect! My Autopilot waged war against this threat as if it was a microbe invading my blood stream. Our Autopilot perceives change as a threat. The more the perceived change impacts the comfort zone, the bigger the threat perceived by the Autopilot.

My Conscious Will and Subconscious Autopilot waged battle with each other— until one fateful day. It was a beautiful, late spring, afternoon. My Dad and I were working on my VW Bug. All of a sudden, my Dad threw down his wrench and stormed into the house without a word. I knew something was wrong; he never acted in this manner. A few minutes later, my Mother called me into the house. I walked into the bathroom. I found my Dad sitting on the edge of the tub clutching his chest while running a bath. He insisted he would be fine. After much convincing, I took him to the emergency room.

I was anxiously sitting in the emergency room waiting area when I got the news. My Dad— 58 years old, always in great shape, and never overweight, had a heart attack. In that moment my life changed. Prior to that moment, my desire to get into shape was a conscious concept—a mental thought. Sure, I had moments of feeling my poor condition at a deeper level—but, I wasn’t thirsty for the change. Now, I was dying of thirst!

From that day on, I began to make the changes necessary to truly get myself into shape. These changes have lasted 30 years. Sure, I may not be able to fit into a size 32 inch waist, nor run 10 miles like I could at my peak; but I have maintained a healthy weight and level of conditioning. In two weeks, I turn fifty-five. Fifty-five is an age that I never thought I’d reach as I sat in that waiting area all those years ago. It all came down to my becoming thirsty to make a change.

I’ve spent the last 15 years helping my clients influence change in others and themselves. In that time, I’ve come to believe in one inescapable truth: True change won’t occur until someone is truly thirsty for that change. Fortunately, change doesn’t need a heart attack to occur. I’ve found the following steps to be the key to awakening thirst:

Identify The Comfort Zone

Our comfort zone is the way things are now. It includes what we think, feel, and do on a regular basis. It includes our state of being, and the environment in which find ourselves. In my case, my comfort zone included eating too much junk food and lying on the couch all day.

Establish a Strong Emotional Connection to the Desire Zone

Our Desire Zone is the way we wish things would be. In my case, my Desire Zone was to be in good shape and to be at a comfortable weight. It was only when I formed a powerful emotional connection to my Desire Zone, by realizing the potential for a fatal heart attack, that I had the emotional connection necessary to truly change.

Position the Proposed Change as the Path to the Desire Zone

A few days after that moment in the hospital, I was at the gym. One of the personal trainers approached me and said: “I can help you get in shape faster.” That’s all I needed to hear. I hired him on the spot.

Establish How Not Making the Change Will Threaten the Comfort Zone

The most powerful realization I had that day in the hospital occurred when the Doctor told me: “Your Dad came through the attack remarkably well. If he had not been in such good physical condition, his heart attack could have been fatal.” In that moment, my Autopilot realized that getting into shape was no longer a threat to my comfort zone; it was crucial to my being able to stay in my comfort zone—Living!

Shrink the Change

There’s an old saying: “How do you eat an Elephant?—One bite at a time.” What is true for Elephants, is true for change. Rather than presenting, or thinking about the entire change, break the change into the smallest steps that make sense for that change.

One of my early goals was to be able to run a 5K race. When I started, I could barely run a half-mile without gasping for breath. I went from my half-mile to 5K, and ultimately 10 miles, by increasing my runs by small, incremental, distances. If the point at which I would turn around for home was a particular driveway, I’d increase my run to include the distance of the hedge that ran from that drive to the next yard. You’d be amazed at how quickly consistent small changes add up.

After making many mistakes throughout my life and career, I learned the best way to influence change in myself and others is to put my energy into helping all of us to realize that we are thirsty. A thirsty horse willingly drinks.

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