Podcast: How to Make Your Resolution Stick, with ‘Master of Change’ Author Brad Stulberg

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews best-selling author Brad Stulberg (whose books include Master of Change, The Practice of Groundedness, Peak Performance, and The Passion Paradox) on how to make real and lasting change in your life. Brad and Mike discuss why we resist change, elective vs. forced change, identity, and how to actually make your New Year's Resolution stick.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about law school, law school admissions, life, a little bit of everything. It is January 2nd, time for resolutions for many of us, and I have the perfect person to talk about this with. Brad Stulberg is the bestselling author of the book Master of Change. He's an executive coach, a faculty member at Michigan, and what Brad so aptly focuses on in this podcast is: change is inevitable, growth is not. But if you embrace change and embrace it in a certain way by being patient and not judgmental with yourself—look, you're going to have, on average, 36 life-disrupting events. It takes between 18 and 200 days for habits to develop. So what Brad does is, he walks us through the process of order, disorder, and then reorder. And how can we for the first time ever, if you're like me, you might set a resolution every week, or every morning about changing some habit. Doesn't quite seem to stick more often than not, most often than not. So let's make it together stick this year, and Brad's going to help us. I love his advice. I'm going to stay in touch, because the words he said stuck with me. Without further delay, here's my 40 minutes with Brad.

Brad, it’s great to have you. Thank you for making time over the holidays.

Brad: Hey, it's great to be on. Thanks for having me on your show.

Mike: So I'm going to go back in time just a couple of years. It's COVID. People are saying, "When are things going to return to normal? When are they ever going to go back to normal?" I'm guessing you probably percolated on this long before COVID, and correct me if I’m wrong, but your new book, Master of Change, the philosophy is, “Hey, there is no normal. And if you're expecting things to go back to normal, you're setting yourself up for a long [hard] life ahead of you.” You want to elaborate? Is that sort of the thesis of Master of Change?

Brad: You summed it up just as well as I could have. So that is indeed the thesis. And I write books fairly quickly when I get really curious about an idea, so I hadn't been thinking about that for that long prior to COVID. The idea for this book emerged as a result of reading countless newspaper headlines that were all framed in the spirit of, what will it take to get back to normal, when are things going to get back to normal, so on and so forth. And at the time, something about that just rubbed me viscerally the wrong way. I didn't know what it was. And that really started this intellectual journey that led to the creation of the book, investigating why we are so resistant to change, why we strive to go back to how things were before. And if there might not be alternative models that are both more accurate fits of what flourishing individuals do during change and also more useful.

Mike: That's interesting. You got curious. You're reading the headlines. I too am curious about something. You would think that for evolutionary reasons, we would freaking love change. We just interviewed Dr. Daniel Lieberman, who wrote the book The Molecule of More—dopamine craves novelty. It gets sick of the same thing very quickly. In your book, you talk about how you resist change, cortisol tends to spike, not good for your health. You embrace change, both physically and psychologically, probably going to be more healthy. Yet, as you've seen in your life, as anyone who's managed people or worked in an organization or been in a relationship or lived on this planet it seems—people seem to hate change. That's a paradox to me.

Brad: There's a tension that is inherent to any living organism between stability and change. On the one hand, you have a sense of safety and security and predictability, which our brain really likes when things feel very stable. And on the other hand, when things are changing, sure you might have some excitement. That can quickly turn into overwhelm. And I think that what's interesting about a molecule like dopamine, is you tend to feel the best when you get to these dopamine hits within an otherwise stable environment. So, like, if the holding container is stable, and there's these small little sources of novelty, that feels great. But if there's a lot of novelty or that novelty is negative, that doesn't feel so good. And we don't tend to move toward that, we tend to resist and shut down. And one of the really paradigm-shifting findings of this book is that this stability and change tension need not be a tension. The goal is actually to be stable through change. And that has this double meaning, which is on the one hand, again, it blows up the tension. You can be stable through change. And the way to be stable through change, is through change, is by changing at least to some extent. I think there's a lot of confusion when it comes to mental toughness and resilience, about really digging in, and that's only half the story. The other half is being soft and supple and adaptable and meeting the moment and being able to dance with your circumstances and your environment.

Mike: I think you're hitting a little bit on what you talk about in the book, too, which is "tragic optimism." They almost sound at odds with themselves, but they're not. I see tragic optimism—I'm not sure if you're familiar with the term; it's new to me—as a resiliency factor.

Brad: Yeah, I mean, it is a resiliency factor. The history of the term is, I think, useful here. It was first coined by Viktor Frankl, who is most known for his work Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a survivor of the Holocaust, lost essentially everything he had, made it through, went on to be a really once-in-a-generation kind of psychologist and psychiatrist. Again, Frankl, very much known for his work on finding meaning in the suffering, but he wrote this essay called The Case for Tragic Optimism, which is much lesser known. And in it, Frankl essentially says, just inherent to even the most average human existence, there are three kinds of tragedies. We're all going to experience this.

The first is physical pain, because we're made in flesh and bone, and at times that flesh and bone is going to degrade. It's going to be ill and injured, and that's going to hurt. The second tragedy is the fact that we have these big, large, prefrontal cortices in our brains that allow us to make all of these plans. And sometimes our plans don't work out and we're frustrated, or we're striving for a goal and we fail. That's going to happen to everyone at one point or another. And then the third tragedy is the fact of impermanence. Everything that we love and that we want to hold on tightly to is eventually going to change. And at the extreme, we're really the only species that can contemplate its own mortality, the fact that we're going to die.

And Frankl says, there's no point in sugarcoating these tragedies. He would not be a fan of "toxic positivity." We've got to accept these things. And yet, the work of a mature adult is to accept these things and to still maintain a hopeful attitude nonetheless.

And to me, what tragic optimism does is, it gives us permission to experience such a wide range of feelings and not judge ourselves for feeling any given thing, and not to have to choose between positivity or negativity, between nihilism and despair or being a Pollyanna, but to acknowledge, actually, we can exist in the middle of these emotions, and we can broaden our aperture and feel them all. And especially for the times that we're living in now, where there's so much that is genuinely terrifying and broken about the world but there's also still so much that is beautiful about being on this planet, about being a human, having the framing of tragic optimism is just so important and helpful to navigate the ups and downs of life.

Mike: You mentioned so much changing. Are times changing more rapidly, or is that just what every older person says to every younger person every 50 years of the turn of a generation?

Brad: The answer is yes, to both.

Mike: Okay, fair.

Brad: So I think that there is definitely the generational component of it where every generation feels like the times are changing. It's one of the most popular well known songs, right, Times Are A-Changin', and that song’s not brand new. However, I do think that basic computer science and the philosophy of science, Moore's Law, would say that computing power really does exponentially increase the rate of change and innovation. And our last two or three decades have been defined by computing power. So yes, I would say that it's pretty empirically true that things are changing faster than they ever have before.

Mike: I posited, reading your book—but this is purely based on me, so nothing in your book; it just got me thinking—of my lifespan, when I'm most adaptive and when I embrace change, I’ve thought of it as an inverse U. When I'm a child, I'm just following directives. I've noticed I'm getting more set in my ways. I'm not experimenting with biphasic sleeping like I tried in my early 40s when I was really into change. Is that maybe accurate or is it individual? Because I do know people are the most risk-tolerant in their late teens, early 20s, which would track with that inverse U, if people are more willing to embrace change in sort of the mid-stage of their life.

Brad: I think that there's a lot of change that happens in the mid phase of life for a lot of people because things aren’t as crystallized yet. So relationships, family formation, career progression, geography, where you're going to live, you're not making those decisions when you're four or five years old, and most people in their sixties and seventies have already set themselves up in those big areas of life. So I think that some of it is just a factor of the natural seasons of life. In midlife, there is a lot of change. I don't know of any research that shows that necessarily means that people in midlife are better at change. What there is, is some really interesting work that shows that, around age 25, our fluid intelligence peaks. And fluid intelligence is just a fancy word researchers use for our ability to be really clever and problem-solve on our feet. And then from 25 on, for most people, it starts to decline. However, what rises over time is our crystallized intelligence. And this is our ability for pattern recognition or what you might even call wisdom. Our ability to see across—to have some lived experience and make sense of things. And you could slice this both ways, because you could say, yeah, you need fluid intelligence to change, you need to be really quick on your feet. But I also think you need a lot of wisdom to be a tragic optimist, to be able to say, hey, that the world has been turned over before, and it's not easy, and I don't have to like it, but it settles back down again. And to have that wisdom and not to have constant freak-out moments. It's like these two competing forces, and it's going to probably differ for each individual as to when they're most fit for change.

Mike: Our listeners are primarily around 19 to 26, they’re college students and graduate students. So this is very helpful for them. I can assure you I am a lot less witty now than when I was 25. And the comments on our YouTube or Spotify will be a lot more witty than I could come up with because our listeners are 25.

Let me go back. You mentioned Viktor Frankl, whose book was Man’s Search for Meaning, I think it's a required reading in a lot of countries. The change that he incurred was forced upon him; it wasn’t his choice. And I have a close friend who—maybe we can talk about identity in a little bit, but she developed a very rare aggressive neurological syndrome. Forced. But we also have this temporal date, January 1, coming up. And I think of these two things as elective change and forced change. You would think that elective change might be easier to maintain, but the data doesn't seem to show that. Are they entirely different beasts, can you sort of help me sort these two things out?

Brad: So they are in some ways very similar, and then in other ways very different. So let's start with how they're different. Elective change, generally, at the outset, you are hopeful that the change is going to be positive for your life, for those around you, so on and so forth. Non-elective change, sometimes it's positive, you win the lottery, you get a promotion you weren't expecting. But oftentimes it's negative. Health diagnosis that you don't want to have, war, relationship falling apart, so on and so forth. To me there's no comparing, like, a positive change that you're running toward versus something that's been thrust upon you that is really terrifying and perhaps very tragic. However, what is similar about both voluntary and involuntary change, is the general pattern or cycle that someone goes through to come out the other side. You start with stability or order, you move to instability or disorder—things are falling apart—and then you come back together reordered. So you have that stability, but it's somewhere new. It's a different stability. So this cycle of stability, instability, re-stabilit—or order, disorder, reorder—that is true regardless of the change being self-driven or forced upon you. And having this concept and framework is really important, because you can't get to reorder without going through disorder. And you have to know that and expect it to be challenging and spend some time in the murky middle only before you reorder. And I think on the topic of New Years, so many people fail their New Year's resolutions because they just expect to immediately get to reorder. They don't realize that the disorder phase stands in the way, and the disorder phase is a struggle, and it's challenging, and you often take 2 steps forward for 1.75 steps back, and you have to be so patient with yourself. People just see change, especially self-driven change, as X to Z. They don't see it as X to Y to Z, and Y being at times really gnarly and hard. Research shows it takes anywhere between 18 and 200+ days to form a habit. That's a pretty large stretch. A lot of people think they're going to make a change and it's just going to feel pretty good in two weeks. That's rarely if ever the case.

Mike: I'm guessing it's contextual, but that disorder stage that you talk about in the book so eloquently, on a scale of Ryan Holiday or stoicism—Ryan, I don't know him, but he would probably say there's your path right there, is that disorder—but you do talk about in the book in the context of Frankl too, suffering, like, don't invite it into your life. So I think it's contextual, but in some contexts maybe one is forced upon you, you want to get over that disorder stage as quickly as possible in a healthy way to get to reorder. It sounds like you're saying, just embrace the fact that it's going to take a while.

Brad: Yeah, you gotta be patient. Again, talking about self-driven change, because what you don't realize is the things that you're working on, are also working on you. Observable progress often trails effort. So it often takes a lot of effort before you start seeing progress. And that to me is what's happening in the disorder phase, whether it's starting a new exercise habit or a reading habit or studying for exams in a different way or trying to eat a certain way, trying to meditate, whatever it may be—you don't start seeing the fruits of your practice until you've been practicing for a long time. And per our earlier tangent on dopamine, dopamine is really triggered when you're in the pursuit of goals and there's a tight reward cycle. So you chase, you strive after something, and then ding, you get a little hit because you achieve it. And then boom, it makes you want to chase even harder. But with significant change, that reward cycle’s often not so tight, and you gotta put in a fair amount of work before you start seeing the rewards. And having the expectation of that upfront is really helpful. It's like, yeah, you're going to feel better if you start an exercise habit, but you're going to feel worse for about two months before you start feeling better.

And imagine if everyone knew that—I feel like more people would stick to New Year's resolutions. And the data shows that something like 80% of people are off the bandwagon after one month. And my sense is, it's because 80% of people, they haven't hit reorder after one month, like, they're still in that disorder phase, and if they would just be patient, have that expectation, that expectancy, the result might be different.

Mike: Well, I'm glad you brought up 200 days because, I think it jumps to 96% after two months, giving up.

Brad: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, right.

Mike: You hit on this reward system. My doctoral work was on goal setting. This is long ago when dopamine was thought of as the pleasure molecule, and Locke and Latham were literally the only two people writing about goal setting. The world seems to have changed a lot now for our listeners who have these aspirational goals, be a Supreme Court Justice, run a company. Are you a fan of goals at all, or are you more a fan of the process?

Brad: I think that you need both. Goals are like the peaks of mountains, and they are really aspirational, and they can be motivating, and they give you somewhere to go. But you wind up spending all your time on the side of the mountain. So the person you become doesn't happen the day you get the promotion or the day that they put the gold medal around your neck. The person you become is the lessons that you learn in the striving. So I think goals are really important, but I think they're less important, because you're going to accomplish them or not, and more important because they structure how you spend your time and who you spend your time with.

Mike: James Clear brought up in Atomic Habits—and this is going to track well with a story I think you really like—everyone in the Olympics has the same goal, to win the gold medal. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were just, you happened to come across, I think by chance, but maybe someone pointed you in the right direction. Is it Nils van der Poel, the Swedish—

Brad: Yeah, Nils van der Poel.

Mike: We might try to get him on here. I actually speak a little bit of Swedish. So speaking of this identity I said I would get back to, my friend identified very much as a doctor. She had other identities too. One of which was a runner. So she develops this rare auto-immune condition, and currently she's no longer able to practice medicine, and she went through a period where she wasn't able to run. You talked about this in multiple times in your book, which I love. One is "rooms in a house," and the other is the 45-page PDF that van der Poel put online. It'd be better coming for you than me, if you want to tell our listeners about each.

Brad: So van der Poel is the world record holder in long form speed skating. He won two gold medals in the 2022 games. So he's the best speed skater to ever set foot on the planet. He was under-performing a bit in the lead-up to the games, and he realized that the reason why is he was feeling a whole lot of fear, every time he stepped into the oval to compete and even sometimes during big training sessions. And then he asked himself, “Why am I feeling all of this fear?” And he linked it back to the fact that his entire identity was fused with being a speed skater. So there was no Nils van der Poel outside of Nils van der Poel the speed skater. And that made him really fragile. Because one injury, one misstep, every four years and that's it. Or the inevitable aging that comes for all athletes. “What's going to happen when I age out of top fitness? Who am I if I'm not a speed skater?” So what van der Poel did once he realized this is something that no other world-class athlete that I'm aware of has ever done, which is he took a completely normal weekend. So starting Friday afternoon to Monday morning, van der Poel did nothing related to the sport of speed skating. He didn't train, he didn't study film, he didn't wear Normatec recovery boots or go get eight massages. He just lived like a normal person. He went bowling, he went out for pizza and beers with his friends, he went on hikes, he started reading, he got more involved with his community. And what he was doing was he was diversifying his sense of identity. So he had other sources of texture and meaning in his life beyond speed skating. And what he says is that, by doing that, it allowed him to drop the fear or to drop that pressure, that weight that was on his shoulders. And as a result, he competed so much better and found so much more joy in competing, and the rest is history. In this case, literally he ended up making history, not by training more, not by focusing harder on speed skating, but by making sure there was more to his identity than just being a speed skater.

Mike: You know what is so amazing to me is he’s 27 years old.

Brad: Yeah, he's thoughtful.

Mike: Right, I mean how introspective can you be? I wasn't that introspective at 25 when he wrote the document or whatever. I listened to you on Rich Roll, I’m a big fan. Rich often talks about—and maybe he and I are just parsing words—he often talks about hitting rock bottom. I think maybe this is just semantics. I've often been curious, do you really need to hit rock bottom, or is that actually more deleterious to the notion of change? To me, rock bottom would be death. I think Rich would define it as, the negative consequences of doing the same thing start overriding the fear of change. So that would be a better way to describe. But I've always, in fact, I heard an expert once say, like, the time to change is now and not when things are getting worse. So I'm curious about this, you can bounce higher if you hit rock bottom? Versus no, the sooner the change, the better.

Brad: Again, I think it's one of these chasms that's not really a chasm, where the answer is just yes to both. Of course, you don't have to hit a rock bottom or experience pain before starting to change in a positive and productive way. I also think that pain is a really good motivator and teacher. Experiencing pain, hitting rock bottom, having something the consequences of something be really painful, that can help spur you to make a change. And I've made changes as a result of pain, but I've also made changes as a result of hope from a place of strength in a position of being just great. And I think that you can do both.

I'm with you on the fact that, don't wait, get out ahead and try to do this for the voluntary changes. And then the involuntary stuff, you have no control over that, but you're going to face it, so you might as well prepare and try to have a vocabulary and a set of tools around it, because everyone goes through it. There's research that shows that the average adult, so starting at age 18 to the end of life, experiences 36 major disruptions. 36. Starting school, graduating from school, meeting a significant other, breaking up with a significant other, getting married, having kids, leaving the house, getting divorced, major health diagnosis, recovering from a health diagnosis, making a new best friend, distancing from a best friend, so on and so forth. So we think that change is the exception, but it's the norm. It doesn't wait for you to hit rock bottom; it happens.

Mike: What was the Buddhist quote from your book? "We have 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys in front of us"?

Brad: Yeah, that's it.

Mike: The identity thing—do you think, and I would love to hear your "rooms in a house" analogy because I think it's great—but do you think Tom Brady would have done better if he had taken two days off a week, or is that an idiosyncratic thing as well?

Brad: I mean, it's hard to say that Tom Brady would have done better if he would have done anything! I do think that phenomenal athletes are phenomenal in spite of themselves. So I am not going to sit here and give Tom Brady advice on anything; he's the greatest quarterback to ever play football, bar none. However, I have a background in public health, and I can tell you that strawberries are not toxic. And for a period of Tom Brady's career, he was convinced that strawberries were toxic, and by not eating strawberries that, like, unlocked lower levels of inflammation. He essentially got really into bio-hacking, which is to be quite frank a bunch of BS. Now, did that make him a worse football player? No, probably not. I think Tom Brady is so damn good at football it doesn't matter what he does, so long as he nails the basics, which of course he's doing to be at that level. I do think there's obviously some idiosyncratic nature to this, and I think when you really look to people who are so great, especially in sport, like as someone that's been around world-class athletes, I think a lot of people don't realize how insanely talented these people are, and they can get away with so much just because they're insanely talented.

Rooms in a house—it's been a very helpful metaphor for me. Essentially, if you've got a house, and it just has one room in it, and that room floods or catches fire, you're in really big trouble. You've got nowhere to go. Very disorienting. If you've got a house that has a couple rooms in it, and one room floods or catches fire, you can go seek refuge in the other rooms while you work out the flood or the fire. And I’d like to think of our identity as the same way. If you've only got one room in your identity house, and there's change in that one room, it's going to be really, really hard. But if you can add a few rooms to your identity house, then you're better able to withstand change. And it doesn't mean that you have to spend the same amount of time in each room, you just never want to let important rooms get moldy. So in my own life, my big rooms are my family room, my craft room, which is writing, my athlete room, and then my community room. And there are seasons of my life where I've spent a lot of time in only maybe one or two of those rooms. But I've never completely left the others behind, because I never know when I'm going to need them.

Mike: I agree so much. Twelve years ago, I started a company. It was just me. I ironically called it Spivey Consulting Group, but there was no group. And now we're 40 consultants and people reach out to me on LinkedIn all the time, “It's so great what you're doing as an entrepreneur,” and I don't think of myself as an entrepreneur. That is a room in the house, but like you, I have a family and friends room, a writing room. We do these podcasts for a reason; they're to help myself, and the best version of myself can help others’ rooms, too. And if my firm were to be just yanked from under me, these other rooms are just as great if not better. They're actually better. So it's nice to have that balance. I'm also with you; I hate this concept of "hacks" in general. Like every time someone tweets, “Here's a life hack,” I cringe. But to end on a sort of New Years—who's the psychologist who you sourced as talking about, resolution can serve as a psychological fresh start, temporal, sort of, fresh start?

Brad: Yeah, Katherine Milkman, Katy Milkman.

Mike: So maybe there is something to having this clean slate, and yet so many people fail. Any philosophies you want to leave us with so that this year, the people who listen to this who do have resolutions can actually stick with them and nail them?

Brad: I think it traces back to what I said earlier, which is you have to be patient, and you have to weather a period of disorder before you get to reorder, before something becomes habitual. And it's really more important to focus on showing up and being consistent than it is on intensity. So many people say, "I'm going to start eating in a more healthful way," and then they have a super restrictive diet that is unsustainable. They burn out. Or, "This is the year I'm going to prioritize my physical health," so I make four doctor’s appointments, and I go to the gym for two hours a day, and then I burn out. That, to me, is heroics and intensity. What consistency looks like is, “Hey, I'm going to try to eat a little bit less ultra-processed food. I'm not going to go to fast food restaurants.” Or, “I'm going to start with a brisk walk for 40 minutes a day, and then do that every day for a month before I even pick up a weight, to get in the rhythm of a brisk walk." It doesn't look as good on social media, it's not as fun to talk about, but these small consistent efforts, if you stick with them over a long period of time, that is the route to sustainable progress in just about anything.

Mike: I'll add one from my own. I can't possibly do what I used to be able to do. I've had multiple injuries from being a competitive athlete. I've had a three-year stretch fracture. So I try not to judge myself. If I have a bad day, I try not to have two bad days in a row. I stole that from Peter Attia, but it's true. But I try not to beat myself up, particularly if it's forced upon me. So non-judgmentality I think is it, if you would agree. I hate giving any advice on this; you're the expert.

Brad: Yeah, I would completely agree. You gotta be kind to yourself and have your own back. Because it can be really freaking hard to be a human. And if you can't have your own back, it just makes it harder. So you might as well learn to be your own friend and not judge yourself and recognize that any path is going to have highs, lows, plateaus, and everything in between.

Mike: Your book, Master of Change—I haven't read your others yet, but—it makes it a little easier to be a human. I thank you for that and your time. Everything you've said in this resonates, and I hope our listeners have a great 2024. And I hope a small part of that is the 40 minutes you spent with us. Thank you, Brad.

Brad: Yeah, thanks again for having me, and thanks everyone for listening along.