How Personal Change Works

I think this poem sums it up pretty well:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

I love that poem. I’ve been in and out of the holes at every stage, and I’ve managed, on occasion to walk down another street.

For example, I used to drink more beers than I felt was any good for me when I went out at night in Madrid. In the painful morning hangovers I used to think, “what can I do? This is just the cost of a social life in Madrid!” Then later I got to the next stage and thought, “I hate these hangovers, and it’s all my fault, but I keep doing it!” and eventually after watching myself fall in over and over again, I got to stage V, made the necessary changes, and the hangovers were gone. But it took about 2 years from ‘pretending not to see the hole’ to finally walking down that different street.

I still have lots of personal holes that I fall into. Working too much on the computer without breaks until I’m mad with stress, doing too many projects at once (“why can’t I just do ONE thing!? Write ONE blog?!” I ask myself in desperation, “life would be so much easier!”)

As far as I can tell, the secret to walking down the different streets is once again self-awareness – getting to know myself as well as I possibly can. I have to constantly stop and look at what painful habits I can’t seem to shake (too much computer, too many projects, not getting out enough during the day), and ask myself again and again what the payoff is for carrying on with these habits. Eventually, when I catch myself doing something over and over again, I manage to change it.

So the more we keep a kind, caring eye on ourselves, the less we keep falling into the same old holes.

But I think it’s important to remember not just to focus on what we still have to change, but also to focus on the changes we have made too. Not just looking at the holes, but at the new streets I’m walking down. All the good changes I’ve already made in my diet, work habits, parenting, all the new streets I can feel good about. Make a list and celebrate them! If I only look at the holes I keep falling into, change is a lot harder, life seems a lot tougher.

Yesterday I walked down a different street and I feel great about it. To clear my head of rising stress levels over all the projects I’ve been turning over in my head at once (the ‘constantly worrying about what to do with my future’ hole in the sidewalk) I took the morning off to go up to the mountains instead of spending more time going crazy in front of the computer with unclear goals.

It changed everything but I nearly didn’t do it. About 95% of me was ready to forget the idea and stay at home and suffer even more stress again. But something inside said, ‘go on, you know it’ll do you good, make the change’, and for once I walked smiling down a different street – or in this case, mountain path, and that is certainly something to celebrate.

5 thoughts on “How Personal Change Works

  1. Hi Ben,
    thanks for the post. Feel less stupid now. I like to fall into the same holes over and over again. I have an day-to-day example for you: I drink ways too much coffee. Every chance I get. Worst thing is I buy the disgusting cheep stuff, too. And then it occurs to me, I need to drink less bad coffee. “Stay with the good ones, one a day.” And when I do I feel great. And next week I go and think, “oh, what about coffee? Let’s have one or two more. I can treat myself because I had less coffee last week”. Arrrgghh!. I wish I had more discipline to stop or change that habit. I quit smoking after 8 years, so why not the coffee? Its nervracking. (And, by the way, I have at least five or more projects going on at the same time and nothing is ever finished. it’s just crazy!)

    hasta pronto


    1. Hi Nicole, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with so many projects going on! As for the coffee, it seems you are more than aware of the situation, so I’m sure you’ll get there sooner or later!

      Un saludo,



  2. Hi Ben–

    Just a quick thanks for this blog. You really encouraged me to get more creative. I have been talking about buying a piano for months, but when I read about your pursuit to be more creative, I finally went out and bought one. I love it! All those years of lessons when I was young were worth it. My two boys are loving it too!

    Your most influential post was the one about it being Innate to create. Although I admire art and love going to museums, my creativity is limited to writing (I actually get paid for it too!) and music (just a hobby). I never even liked coloring as a kid. After reading your post, I decided to incorporate some art into my Spanish class. Previously I had always thought it was a waste of time to do art projects when I should be teaching Spanish. I was so wrong! I collaborated with the art teacher to come up with an appropriate project for our school-wide Day of the Dead Celebration. (Mexican holiday) What a difference I saw in my high school students. They loved using art to display their Spanish poems. One student in particular, who used to always look mad in class, came in at lunch to continue working with the art supplies. She now comes to class smiling. I was so encouraged by the reaction of my students, I wrote a grant that was funded. This has given me some money for purchasing some more art supplies. Thanks for encouraging me. Your post has helped me to reach more students with both Spanish and art.

    Keep writing! You have a gift. I love your blogs and Notes in Spanish! Thanks again for the encouragement and inspiration! You have had an impact on me and my students.



    1. Hi Susan,

      You’ve made my day, thank you so much for letting me know about all this. I can’t believe that you both bought a piano and incorporated art into your Spanish class – that is so fantastic! Best of all is the story about the student who stayed later to do more art “One student in particular, who used to always look mad in class, came in at lunch to continue working with the art supplies. She now comes to class smiling.” Wow, that is so fantastic. Not long ago I still wasn’t 100% sure about the therapeutic power of art, but from my own recent experiences, and what you write here, not any more. And any lingering doubts I occasionally have about writing this blog have melted away. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

      Un saludo desde Madrid, and hi to your wonderful students!



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