Laura and I were talking while we were driving today and it got me thinking about a truth that I had recognized a couple of years ago. As I reflected on my own personal growth in a variety of areas, and in consequence of a recent change that I had made at the time, I realized that real personal improvement – the kind that lasts – is not a result of sheer willpower. Real, lasting improvement is a matter of some inner change that is not entirely within our control. We certainly have some influence because we are not going to make a change to improve ourselves if we do not have any desire to improve, but desire alone is not enough. My recognition of this was solidified two years ago when I actually recognized my brain making that quantum shift as it occurred.
I was driving between Columbia Missouri and St. Louis nearly 2 years ago and the thought passed through my brain, “Why are you driving so fast, you have nothing to prove to anyone. In fact, you are strong enough to drive the speed limit even if other people are passing you.” I slowed down and have driven the speed limit ever since – even on the roads where the speed limit seems slower than it should be. (The exception was when I was going to the hospital for the birth of my fourth child – Laura told me to speed. The hospital is a 20 minute drive from our house. Isaac was born less than an hour after we arrived at the hospital.)
This change was not the result of a goal, or persistence on my part. I have a basic desire to obey the law. I was conscious that I had held the speed limit in low esteem (except school zones). But I was not actively working to quit speeding. I admit that normally I find that this change of self occurs in relation to something that I am actively working to change, but the change is something that I cannot control.
I have heard it said that if you can keep a habit for a given period of time or a given number of repetitions then it will be established. I think that repetition makes things easier, but real change (the religious term would be conversion) is where your very nature is changed such that the old habit no longer applies. It is the reverse of therapy by which you become changed through the changing of your habits. This is where your habits change because you have changed. That type of change is not strictly a matter of willpower and repetition.