‘Is my family odd?’ Yes, but that’s normal

My wife, Alison, was planting bulbs around a family grave in my home town. I wandered off, reading the words on headstones. One made me stop and stare. I had never seen a grave stone inscribed like this one.

Three things made it different from all others. Two of the three were truly remarkable.

First, though the headstone was not unusually large, there were more family names on that stone than I would have thought possible. Several generations were being memorialised.

Second, very strangely, the last name listed was someone not yet dead. The person who’d had all the family names inscribed on the headstone had added his own. His name and date of birth were there after which there was simply a space, presumably to be filled eventually with the date of his death.

Third, and most peculiar of all, was the inscription right at the foot. I had never seen anything like it on any grave stone anywhere, so I took a photograph.

The wording may not be readable, so here it is:

All of the above names and characters evoke a lifetime of memories / mostly really good – a few not quite so good / and some amazingly bizarre and in any normal life, unbelievable!

Gravestones usually have tender words, kind sentiments praising the life of the deceased. This inscription wasn’t unkind; just the most honest I’ve ever seen.

The truth is that all of us – or, at least, most of  us – belong to odd families. When Alison studied health science, including the sociology of health, her lecturer said most people wonder why they’re the only one to struggle with health issues, while the truth is that everyone has health problems. And, likewise, we wonder why our family is so odd compared to others, but actually almost every family has its share of mad, bad, sad and some glad individuals.

It might be the eccentric and extrovert uncle who embarrasses everyone at weddings with his off-key singing or crazy dancing, so dreadful the rest of the family pretend he’s not related to them. Or a brother who’s recently re-joined the family after several years of being accommodated by the government because he dealt in drugs. Or the sister who has been married and divorced so many times that everyone is terrified they’ll use the wrong name for her latest partner. Or the father who abused his daughters. No-one who knows what happened ever mentions his name. Or the niece who has been weak and ill almost all her life. Or the cousin who has changed jobs repeatedly and been spectacularly unsuccessful every time. Or another brother and his wife who lost their only child, killed by a drunk driver. And sometimes, one or more who have found happiness in relationships, success in career, and comfort and hope in their beliefs.

I can’t think of any family who has the whole package I’ve just described. But I also can’t think of any family without a substantial mix of stresses and struggles. Is it the norm to have a happy extended family with everyone friends and no serious problems? Absolutely not.

One of the most memorable speeches of Queen Elizabeth, who died in 2022, was given 30 years earlier when she described 1992 as an annus horribilis, literally a ‘horrible year’. What especially made it so horrible were family troubles:

  • February: The estrangement between (then) Prince Charles and Princess Diana became all too evident when she was photographed seated alone in front of the Taj Mahal.
  • March: Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced they were separating.
  • April: Princess Anne and Mark Phillips were divorced. They were already separated, and news had recently broken that he had fathered a child a few years earlier with a New Zealand woman.
  • June: the ‘tell-all’ book Diana: Her True Story, written by Andrew Morton, was published. It revealed Diana’s deep unhappiness, including an attempted suicide.
  • August: Photographs appeared in the press of Sarah Ferguson in an intimate relationship with her Texan financial advisor.
  • November: Windsor Castle, the beloved retreat of the Queen just outside London, went up in flames. A spotlight in Queen Victoria’s chapel had ignited a curtain, and the fire then spread to the roof and other locations. It destroyed 115 rooms, including nine state rooms. (The castle was restored at a cost of £36.5 million, a cost equal to almost £90 million in 2022.)

Only the last of these was not a problem of relationships within the royal family. The year was truly an annus horribilis for the Queen, sadly not her only one. There is no family without its troubles.

If worries and woes are the norm, what are wise ways to respond and cope? There are probably many, but here I’ll suggest four.

Let’s be honest. I like the inscription on the grave stone because of its honesty. Not everyone in the family had been good, and some were bizarre to the point of being unbelievable. I’ve sat through funeral services where the deceased person is made to sound like the greatest of all saints, except everyone knew he wasn’t. Someone might well have turned to his neighbour and asked, ‘Whose funeral was that, because the preacher certainly wasn’t describing Joe?’ Our family troubles shouldn’t be turned into headline news, but neither should we pretend everything and everyone is wonderful. A reasonable honesty about life and relationships is good.

Let’s be comforted. If it’s news to you that having odd, difficult or bad people in your family is normal, it may reassure you that, after all, your family isn’t unique. Over the years Alison and I have received Christmas newsletters which mention only great achievements for someone’s children and other near relations. We have looked at each other, and smiled as we said ‘our family is not like that’ and ‘we don’t believe that’s the whole story for their family either’. Sometimes the harder truths have emerged later, perhaps that someone’s marriage has broken up, or a family member has dropped out of university without any plan for what’s next. There is no place for rejoicing over anyone else’s troubles, but there is reassurance in knowing your family is not the only one with misfits and miscreants.

Let’s be caring. I was being humorous earlier about having an uncle so embarrassingly crazy the rest of the family pretend they’re not related to him. That’s not exactly true, but it’s also not exactly untrue. Sometimes families shun relatives who are weird, or super-needy, or old, or behaved badly, or who are simply unlikeable. Can that ever be right? I don’t believe it is. Yes, family members can be difficult or demanding, but they are family members and that relationship creates an obligation to care. The New Testament is very straight about family responsibility: ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ (1 Timothy 5:8)

My Aunt Milla was a nurse, her career spent mainly in challenging places with very disadvantaged people. She was hard to shock. For the last few years of her professional life, however, she was a hospital almoner (a social-service worker in a large hospital). Her work included liaising with families whose elderly mother had completed treatment, and was now fit to be discharged except she could no longer live alone. Would the patient’s family take in their mother? Most times the answer was a very firm ‘No!’ That did shock my aunt. Their children were grown up and long gone from home, so the house had spare bedrooms, but people would not look after their mother. They enjoyed their freedom, and caring for mother would restrict that. The only thing they were willing to do was put mother into a care home.

Family members are often not easy, but please let’s care for them.

Let’s be gracious. The word gracious comes from ‘grace’ which means undeserved favour. In the Bible parable, grace is what the father showed to his prodigal son, the one who took his inheritance early, then squandered it and nearly starved before coming to his senses and returning home. His father could have shunned him, but instead flung his arms around the boy and welcomed him back into the family.[1]

Our relatives know when they’re being shunned, or judged, or looked down on, or hated. I won’t pretend it’s easy to be kind to those who have hurt us in terrible ways. But – as far as possible – our goal should be forgiveness and restoration.

Some years ago, during long car journeys, I’d listen to the songs of Chuck Girard. One stood out particularly. Here’s the chorus: Don’t shoot the wounded. They need us more than ever. They need our love no matter what it is they’ve done. Sometimes we just condemn them, and don’t take time to hear their story. Don’t shoot the wounded. Someday you might be one. At one time Chuck Girard struggled with alcoholism. His song may reflect the need he once felt to be taken back into family and fellowship. What’s more, as Girard points out at the end of the chorus, one day we might be one of the wounded, and then long desperately for restoration.

Let me finish with this. Over the years I’ve often been tempted to label a colleague or a church member as a ‘problem person’, someone with a special ability to annoy me or make my life difficult. Then, one day, I realised something obvious: that if someone was a ‘problem person’ for me, I was surely a ‘problem person’ for someone else. That person would find things I said or did annoying, or my decisions difficult to accept.

The hard truth is that none of us are perfect. All of us need forgiveness and acceptance, not just from God but probably from our families too. The writer of the gravestone inscription didn’t think all his family had been good, and some were amazingly bizarre. He was a little odd himself, with the strange summary of his family and having his own name on the gravestone while still alive. But oddness is normal, and recognising and accepting that will make for happier families.

[1] The story can be found in the New Testament, Luke chapter 15. I wrote about the prodigal a few blog posts ago – see https://occasionallywise.com/2022/11/02/change/

Monkey Business

Probably less than five times in my life I’ve read something that stunned me, which made me realise I’d uncovered an insight into a problem I’d wrestled with for years. One of those five times was with the delightfully titled book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey.[1]

I believe there are now 18 books in the One Minute Manager series. I read the original, The One Minute Manager, soon after it first appeared in 1982. I was thrilled by its simplicity, insight, and practicality. So were many others. It has sold over 15 million copies, been translated into 47 languages, and described by Time magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Business Management Books.

The One Minute Manager books typically involve dialogue between a storyteller and a perhaps fictitious leader that everyone called the ‘One Minute Manager’ because he got great results from his people with apparently little time and effort on his part. The books are littered with smart sayings or questions, such as this one early on in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey: ‘Why is that some managers are typically running out of time while their staffs are typically running out of work?’ When I read that, it landed with a thud in my thinking. Yes, why is that true? It made me read on.

The book begins with a description of the storyteller’s frustration that even when he worked extra hours every weekday and all weekend, he could never get on top of all his work. It seemed he was doing more but accomplishing less. Getting desperate, he attended a time management seminar, which made him more efficient, but that increased efficiency merely made room for more work. His staff always seemed to need something from him before they could move on further with their work.

When the storyteller met with the One Minute Manager and poured out his troubles, he was soon made aware that he was the problem. Or, more specifically, his problem was MONKEYS! These are not monkeys who live in a jungle or zoo. Rather, the One Minute Manager’s definition of a ‘monkey’ was ‘The Next Move’. To explain what that means, the One Minute Manager gave the example of walking down a hall, and being stopped by one of his staff who wanted his input on a problem. He likes solving problems, but that discussion lasted for half an hour. Now the One Minute Manager is late for a meeting, so promises to think about his colleague’s problem and get back to him later. So, what happened there? Until the hall meeting, the monkey (next move) was on his staff member’s back. During the discussion the monkey was on both backs. By the time they parted, the monkey had moved from the subordinate’s back to the manager’s back. No longer was the next move the subordinate’s problem, it was his boss’s problem.

The One Minute Manager points out that two things can be assumed: 1) the matter being considered was part of the staff member’s job; 2) the staff member could and should have offered solutions to the problem. Thus, what the manager allowed during the hall conversation was for him to do two things his subordinate was expected to do: 1) accept responsibility for the problem; 2) promise to bring forward a progress report, in his case to his subordinate. In other words, they had switched roles: the manager took on the worker’s role, and the worker took on the supervisor’s role. Unsurprisingly, the worker now follows up on his boss to see if he’s made progress, and thus pressurises him to do more on what was actually his job.

The example of role-reversal triggered several examples from the storyteller of how he had acquired ‘monkeys’ from his staff – tasks he’d taken off their shoulders and put on his own. Some were straightforward, such as Maria who enlisted her boss’s help because he had a better understanding of certain problems. Maybe he did, but he was now doing her work. He also described ricochet monkeys, for example criticisms from staff about Maria’s work and style because these things caused problems for them. They complained to the storyteller who promised to follow up and report back to them.

Then there was Ben, who was very creative, always generating new ideas, but poor at turning them into finished products. So Ben would submit proposal after proposal, many of which had potential, which he, the boss, would then try to do the work of turning them into viable projects.

These – and many more – should have been handled by the staff themselves. But in each case the storyteller manager had allowed the monkey to climb onto his back. The biggest part of his work overload were those monkeys. Because he was doing large parts of his staff’s work as well as his own, he’d begun to steal time from his personal life: exercise, hobbies, family, church, etc.

Eventually he had run out of time completely, yet monkeys kept coming his way. All he could do was delay, promising he’d eventually get to every task. He was procrastinating; his staff were waiting. Which meant no-one was progressing the monkeys.

What surprised the storyteller was what the One Minute Manager said next – that he had once had the same problem of overwork, except much worse. But then – out of desperation – he attended a time-management seminar. And there, thankfully, he learned about monkey management.

The seminar leader was Bill Oncken, and he told a remarkable story that paralleled the One Minute Manager’s situation near exactly. And what follows is the story that astounded me.

Oncken described working long hours but never keeping up. Early one Saturday morning he got ready again to head for his office, telling his disappointed wife and children that he was sacrificing himself for their sakes. The office was gloriously quiet, no-one else there, and he poured into his work. Finally he paused. His office window looked across to the neighbouring golf course, and there he saw his staff getting ready to start their round. Oncken said: ‘They were teeing up, and I was teed off!’ He looked down at all the work on his desk, and gasped. These papers were not his work; it was their work he was about to do. With a jolt as if struck by lightning, it hit him: ‘They’re not working for me; I’m working for them!’ And with four of his staff producing work but passing it up to him, he’d never get caught up. The more he did, the more they would give him to do. He wasn’t behind with his work.  He was behind with their work.

Oncken finished his story by relating how, after realising whose work he was doing, he fled from his office, drove home and spent the rest of the weekend with his family. That Saturday night he slept so deeply that twice during the night his wife thought he was dead.

By now, you’ll have grasped the core theme of The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. I’ll stop summarising now, though I’ve given you only the highlights of just over one quarter of the book. I encourage you to get a copy and read it all.[2] It’s full of thoughtful insights and much wise guidance.

This blog post is the follow-up to my previous one on delegation. (See https://occasionallywise.com/?s=delegation) So, in what remains, I’ll add further comments on that subject, including some arising from points raised above.

Bosses must resist the temptation to go back to doing the fun work    The best managers are often people who’ve worked their way up through the ranks. They understand the issues at ground level, the place where the company’s work interacts with the concerns and wants of its customers. When they did that work, they performed well, so they were promoted and began overseeing the next generation of ground level workers. That is exactly as it should be, but it often leads to two problems.

  1. The leaders loved the down-in-the-trenches challenges of aligning products or services with customers’ needs and problems. It was tough but stimulating, and when it all went well generated a wonderful sense of achievement. Then they moved up the company hierarchy, and they lost that satisfaction. They’re sent reports of successes, but reports don’t generate gratification like they felt when they handled those contracts themselves. Therefore, managers face a massive temptation to dive back into the detail work their staff member should be handling. Such leaders tell themselves they’re just lending a hand, but their motives are suspect, and hijacking their subordinates’ jobs keeps them from their own work and deprives their staff of the experience and satisfaction which rightly belongs to them.
  2. The leaders I’m describing won their promotion to management by being good – really good – at their work. Perhaps they were the best sales person, or highest achieving accountant, or best machinist on the factory floor. Now, as managers, they see the workmanship of their staff and think, ‘I know the best approach’ or ‘I could do this so much better myself’ and, next thing, they’ve taken over the work. Again the result is that they’re neglecting their management-level work, and robbing staff members of the experience that comes only from trial and error learning moments.

It’s very hard for leaders to concentrate only on their own work, but they must.

There’s a real danger that a leader becomes a rescuer    The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey book defines a rescuer as ‘someone who was doing for others what they could do for themselves’. That has all the dangers I’ve just mentioned above, but also delivers a negative psychological verdict on their staff member’s work. When I rescued my two-year-old daughter who was out of her depth in a swimming pool, I did that because otherwise she’d have drowned. I had to save her because she couldn’t have saved herself. That’s exactly right. But what’s not right is taking over work someone is capable of doing. As the storyteller in the book says, when we do that we send the message to them they are ‘not okay’, that they’re so unable to handle a problem you have to take care of it for them.

They may not yet be as capable as their boss, but they’ll never have equal ability if the boss does their work.

 What if the staff member can’t handle the task you set?    In the last blog post I said delegation can happen only when someone is available and suitable. Here the issue is about suitability – a subordinate having the skills and experience necessary to do a job. If they don’t, and you still delegate to them, several questions are raised:

  1. Why are you delegating the job to someone who can’t do it?  If the task is outside someone’s skill set, they don’t fail. You do. Requiring them to do what you knew they couldn’t do is bad management. You have one less job in your in-tray, but the botched work of an inexperienced colleague will make everything worse. The badly done job won’t please you, or your boss, or your client. In fact, the client may move their work elsewhere, and you may soon be working elsewhere too.
  2. Why didn’t you know what your staff member was capable of doing?  Let me be charitable that you didn’t intentionally cause your colleague to fail. I’ve seen that done in order to have a reason to fire that person. It was not only wrong but also cruel. But, let’s assume you simply didn’t know the person’s capabilities. Well, you should have. If there’s a good reason why you can’t know their skills – such as when someone has only just joined the company – then either don’t delegate to them yet, or delegate only light tasks and gradually make them more substantial as you discover what they can do.
  3. What if they are capable but simply didn’t do the task or turned in sloppy work?  A case like that needs care. What if there’s some crisis at home for that employee? Or they’ve just been diagnosed with a serious medical condition? Or this poor piece of work is a complete exception, and everything else they’ve done has been very good? We need to think about Issues like these before we react. But let’s assume you have every reason to believe your staff member didn’t care, or gave scant attention to the task, or pretends they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. I’ve known employees like that, guilty of culpable ignorance or culpable inability. Given the position they held, they should have known what to do and be able to do it. So, when work is either not done or done badly, that’s not a time to pretend it doesn’t matter, nor should we avoid confrontation by taking the job back and doing it ourself. One of the other One Minute Manager books makes it clear that if it takes two people to do what should be done by one, then someone is unnecessary. With your incompetent employee, you may wish to give another chance; you may be required to issue an official warning; you may be allowed and deem it necessary to bring their employment to an end. Whatever is appropriate, do it. Avoiding the issue is the worst of outcomes.

So, to finish, three last quick statements about delegation:

Anyone who tells you that delegation is simple doesn’t know much about delegation.

Done well, delegation puts the right work in front of the right people, which is good for job satisfaction and excellent workmanship.

Never feel guilty at giving work away, but you are guilty if you take work away from the person who should be doing it. That’s not good for you, nor productive for your business.

I wish you well in delegating wisely and often.

[1] Blanchard K, Oncken Wm, Burrows H (1990), The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

[2] At the time of writing, it’s available in paperback for £6.99 in the UK, and used from $4.39 in the USA where the paperback version no longer appears to be for sale.


Every department head, manager, director, or CEO experiences workload pressures. Sometimes my wife, Alison, would arrive at the office with a sandwich to keep me going while I worked late. The uninvited advice on workload various people gave me was: delegate more. They made it sound so easy.

Those advice-givers were well-meaning, and delegation is certainly good management practice. But those who said ‘delegate more’ had little knowledge of my work situation, were almost never leaders themselves, and spoke as if delegation is a simple and effortless way to offload work. In fact, delegation is neither simple nor effortless.

In what follows I’ll describe obstacles to delegation, but also suggest ways in which it can be done effectively.

First, you can delegate only to people who are available and suitable. I’ll explain why I use these two terms one at a time.

The availability issue is at its most obvious if we picture someone running a one-person business. That boss can’t delegate because there’s no-one to give the work to! They could out-source some tasks, which is often a good idea but only when the work can be done equally well by someone outside the business. Most work, though, requires in-house knowledge, and that can’t be delegated to non-existent colleagues.

And even when there are colleagues we can’t assume anyone is available. Let’s imagine Josh started his business alone, but now employs six others because the there’s plenty work. Josh’s phone rings constantly, electronic orders pour in, the despatch team keeps shipping out products. It’s all good; the business is flourishing. But it’s not all good. Josh is exhausted, and, like him, his team often work late to meet demand. Then someone, seeing how tired Josh is, whispers in his ear: ‘You should delegate more’. Really? Who can he give his work to? There is no-one in his six-person team who’s employed full-time but has only a part-time workload. Josh would love to delegate, but there is simply no-one available who has spare capacity. (Should Josh hire more staff? Ideally that’s exactly what he should do, but for many small businesses payroll costs are their most expensive overhead, and employing even one more person would eradicate his profit and jeopardise the company’s viability.)

Suitability is the other essential for delegation. Let’s imagine that Jerry – who has a small construction company – also has six employees. Jerry’s team do excellent work, so previous customers generate new clients by word of mouth recommendations. Every new client, though, means a site visit followed by preparing and sending a cost estimate, and, when the estimate is accepted, every job involves background work such as securing building approvals, scheduling the work, ordering materials, and hiring specialist equipment. And of course records must be kept, which must be made ready for tax payments and audit. Jerry handles all that. Why doesn’t he delegate some of it to one of his six colleagues? They’re fine workers, but they’re builders and none has the skills necessary for preparing estimates, accounting for finances on spreadsheets, or any of the other background work Jerry does. They’re highly skilled at what they do, but not at all skilled at what he does. Even if one or more was available, they wouldn’t be suitable. And, no matter the size of business, the suitability issue is always relevant for delegation.

These two problems – availability and suitability – are real. I know of the demoralisation that followed when a boss dumped his work onto a colleague who was already over-worked. Within six months the overloaded employee was an ex-employee of that company. And I know of the consequences when work was given to someone untrained and therefore unable to handle the task. They didn’t resign, but the work was done poorly. The employee was blamed for doing a bad job, but the blame really belonged with the unfair and unwise delegator.

One – almost amusing – final comment on the availability and suitability matter. I’ve read accounts from management gurus who’ve discovered real competence and authority at the top of a company – except not right at the top. The Personal Assistant (Executive Assistant) to the Chief Executive managed her boss’s calendar, decided which meetings he’d attend, controlled staff access to him, selected the business papers he would read, wrote his speeches, and drafted important documents for the Board. The management gurus remarked that you wondered who was really running the company. Almost always the boss was male, and the assistant female, but she had the greater knowledge and expertise. Management culture is changing – albeit slowly – and hopefully such competent assistants will increasingly become the CEOs.

Second, delegation without supervision or accountability is particularly dangerous. One department leader told me: ‘I’ve given out tasks to my staff, and I don’t want to know anything more about the things they’re now handling’. Gently I informed him that was not an acceptable approach to delegation. Why not? After all, isn’t delegation about letting go of work to others? It is, but what you can’t delegate is your responsibility for what’s done. You’re responsible to ensure the project goes in the right direction. You’re responsible for the standard of work being satisfactory. And you’re responsible that the deadline is met, for the conclusions reached, and so on. Hence my department head – not the staff working under him – was accountable for all these things, and a completely hands-off approach was an invitation to chaos. Delegation of work is good, but delegation has limits.

Third, here are four further guidelines for good practice with delegation.

Clear expectations    No-one should be given a task without clarity on key points like these:

  1. What exactly do you want done?
  2. When is the work due?
  3. Do I show you this work when complete, or do you want to see drafts at earlier stages?
  4. What is the budget for this?
  5. What extra resources or support will be available to me?
  6. Are there special factors, such as keeping this work confidential?

And even:

7. What work would you like me to stop doing in order to take on this new task?

As a boss, I learned to be clear on all these things, and especially numbers 3 and 7. With 3, I discovered that staff liked to surprise me by submitting what they considered a finished product. Sometimes they virtually said, ‘Don’t ask me to change anything now!’ To prevent that I found I had to be crystal clear from the beginning that I wanted to know the direction their work was going long before they finished. With number 7, I realised that at the outset I had to discuss with my staff member what work they could set aside in order to do the new thing. Perhaps there were no existing tasks the employee could completely postpone, in which case there were only three options: a) get another person to take on the employee’s existing work; b) scale back the timetable for the new work; c) delegate to someone else whose existing work could wait.

Sensible and sensitive supervision    I’ve touched on supervision earlier, so here my emphasis is on the words ‘sensible and sensitive’. Sensible supervision means constructive support as they do the work. What it’s not is doing the work for your colleague. If you have to do the thinking, the research, the calculations (or similar tasks) then you’ve not delegated to the right person (or you, the boss, don’t understand delegation). Sensitive supervision is knowing when to check on progress and how to comment on progress. It’s finding the right stages or time intervals for updates – never repeatedly looking over your colleague’s shoulder, and never being too busy to give them time.

Having a reserve plan    If the delegated work is ‘mission critical’ – a task the company must have done – then the boss needs a plan in case the person handling the work falls sick or leaves. Since this is essential work, it can’t be abandoned, so either it can be passed to another staff member or the boss must take it on. In an emergency, either of those options requires a clear idea of what’s already done and what’s still to be done. The wise boss already knows that, and the perfect boss has kept a record. If the person who was handling the work has taken seriously ill or left the company, that record may be the only guide to what’s still to be done by whoever picks up the project.

Your delegation is someone else’s preparation    I got two reactions from colleagues when I delegated work to them. Some disliked it, either because they felt busy enough already or because they didn’t welcome unfamiliar work. Other colleagues jumped at the chance, even if their workload increased. They enjoyed the challenge and the new work would broaden their experience. After all, their hopes of a more senior position might depend on the importance and extent of their previous work. A foolish and weak leader is threatened by preparing those under him for leadership. Perhaps they’ll perform better than their boss. A wise and strong leader actively mentors colleagues, develops their careers, and trusts them with responsibility. That’s good for both the employee and for the company.

I’ll leave this post on delegation at this point. But I’ll return to the subject in the next post when I’ll describe the odd but not uncommon phenomenon of delegation in reverse.

Change that lasts

I was 18, renting one room from a delightful New Zealand couple, Brian and Sally. For a reason I don’t recall, I went shopping with my landlady. We bought various things, and then Sally said it was time for a coffee break at a nearby café. For her, it was far more than a coffee break, as I watched her also order a large piece of cake smothered in cream. Now, Sally was considerably overweight and, I thought, on a strict slimming diet. I said nothing, but she saw a puzzled look on my face. ‘You mustn’t tell Brian,’ she said. ‘He thinks I’m sticking rigidly to my diet.’

During the time I knew her Sally never lost any weight, and I suspect Brian was well aware of what his wife was doing – sometimes sticking to the healthy-eating rules, sometimes secretly yielding to unhealthy-eating habits. Thankfully he loved her whatever her weight.

In the last two blog posts I’ve written about change. In the first, about a dramatic change in the life of a convicted murderer, so great a change that after prison he studied theology and became a church pastor. In the second, I outlined four important steps for personal change.

However, here’s the problem with change: often it doesn’t last. By a few weeks into January most of us have broken our New Year resolutions. My one-time landlady Sally couldn’t sustain a lower weight. She was a yo-yo dieter: the weight would go down (when she controlled her eating) and then up again (when temptation took over).

It’s important that changes ‘stick’, because when they don’t the effort is wasted, the experience is depressing, and we’re tempted to think ‘I can never change’.

So, how do we make change last? Inconveniently, the answer to that varies from person to person, and is different from one situation to another. Which means there is no simple answer. However, some principles or practices help. I’ve listed seven below.

Determination   The decision to change must be much more than wishful thinking. All of us would like some things in our lives to be different, but often the idea is little more than a fleeting desire. And that won’t do. Change demands effort well beyond the thought that we’d like to live or work better.

Sandy had a hot temper which upset everyone on whom he vented his anger. It nearly cost him his job. He promised to change, and believed that recognising his problem and resolving to be different was all he needed to do. But next time the red mist came down, his anger flared, and terrible words were shouted. He was no better. Simon had a hot temper too. He caused damage every time he inflicted his rage on family and his business customers. Simon also knew he must change, but Simon’s advantage was a determination which verged on stubbornness. He absolutely resolved that his temper would not control him. When he  felt his anger building, he’d pause, calm himself, and control what he said and did next. And the change ‘stuck’. Simon was no longer the man with a fiery temper. Deep determination to be different is a necessary part of lasting change.

Vigilance    Those who make change last are vigilant in two ways.

First, they recognise and avoid situations where temptation might get the better of them. For landlady Sally that would mean not entering a café where she’d have to walk past a counter of super-fattening delicacies. For Murray, it meant developing a social life outside his home. Why? Murray was in his thirties, lived alone, and found little fulfilment in his work or anything else. His loneliness led to evenings of accessing extreme social media sites and online porn. Eventually that diet of evil made Murray feel even worse. His decision to change involved joining a volunteer group which maintained the homes and gardens of those too old or infirm to cope, and becoming a member of a computer club where he learned programming. He made friends, attended football matches with them, and afterwards joined them for meals and a drink at a local pub. In time Murray’s life became enjoyable and purposeful. He’d recognised and avoided the circumstances that generated his bad habits, and created a rich and pleasant set of friends and activities.

Second, change also requires vigilance to notice tendencies back to old habits. That’s what Simon – the man with the fiery temper – learned. Spot the problem when it’s only a small problem, and prevent it becoming a big problem. A couple I knew got into deep debt simply because they loved buying things. Debt collectors came to the house, sometimes very late at night. The couple hated how bad things had got, said they’d change, but they kept their sales catalogues (there was no internet back then). Inevitably when the old desires stirred, out would come the catalogues which they’d scour for goods, buy things they could not afford, and thus get into yet more debt. Change requires vigilance to recognise and deal with old patterns before they do damage.

Timing    Imagine this scenario:

  • there’s a deadline for the most major work project in which you’ve ever been involved. You feel stressed and exhausted
  • your son has failed his university exams, and come home depressed with no idea now what he’ll do with his life
  • your wife is ill, going through tests, with the potential that her condition is terminal
  • your car keeps breaking down, and you should buy a better one but there’s no money for that

Given these circumstances, is this the time to make another attempt to stop smoking? Quitting cigarettes is entirely a good idea, but is it realistic when faced with serious life-pressures?

In fact, sometimes what I’ve called ‘life pressures’ are exactly the things that cause our bad habits. Drinking too much alcohol, over-eating, being irritable, are often responses to negative events around us. Certainly, such bad habits need to go, but we may have to delay the challenge until some of the stress-causing events of life have eased. I don’t like writing that, but I think it’s realistic. You can’t plant a tree and expect it to grow if it’s placed in the middle of a building site with earth-moving vehicles heaving up the soil almost every day. Likewise, change that lasts often requires other things in our lives to be relatively settled, thus allowing the change to grow and take root.

Habits    We think that change means giving up bad habits. But lasting change means picking up good habits. We can liken this to ways of improving memory. When I’m setting off to play a golf match, I must take ten different golf-related things with me. Several times I’ve forgotten one of those ten, but thankfully the course where I usually play is only two minutes drive from home. If there’s time, I come back for the omitted item. If my tee time is imminent, Alison (wonderful wife that she is) will bring it to me. But now I’m almost never without all ten golfing essentials. A miracle? No miracle, just that I’ve developed a routine – a habit – about the order in which I put the ten in the car. So, the sequence for the last five is this: electric trolley, trolley battery, golf shoes, bag of clubs, and last my driver and fairway wood because they’re the longest clubs and they rest on everything else. My sequencing isn’t evidence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – I don’t do this with anything else – just a way of ensuring I have everything I need to play golf.

Developing good habits – ways we should think or act – serve a similar purpose. If what we need to change is that we don’t get enough sleep, then the practice of making, say, 10.00 the latest stopping point for work or watching TV, and then being in bed by 10.30, is a good  habit. It’s an aid to sustain our goal of sleeping better and longer.

Baby steps    Every parent is excited when their child takes his or her first steps. Suddenly your little girl is standing up, moves one leg, then the other, perhaps one more step and then… she falls over. Hopefully she’s not hurt, and she’s up trying out her walking skills again. Parents hug and congratulate their child when those baby steps are taken. What they don’t do is announce: ‘Great, you’re walking now. We’re going for a hike over the hill.’ One day that hike will happen, but right now parents and child have to be content with just two or three steps across the lounge.

I could give plenty more examples where there’s value in starting gradually, such as someone training for a marathon beginning with a gentle jog and not attempting a 26 mile run. But you get the point, which is that some (not all) changes shouldn’t be attempted in one super-ambitious effort. The person spending more than they earn might be wise to lower their purchasing budget by only ten per cent per month, and, when that’s accomplished, to then lower it a further ten per cent, and so on. The person working well beyond their finishing time might be wise to start by working one hour less, and cut out another hour only when the first goal is settled. For most, attempting too much too soon is a recipe for failure, and thus discouragement and giving up.

But are there some changes which shouldn’t be done gradually? Yes. I won’t spell them out but they’d fit under the headings of law-breaking or immorality. Those demand immediate attention.

Persistence    My landlady Sally had tried dieting many times. She wasn’t grossly obese but certainly overweight enough to be damaging her health. But every time the weight-loss plan failed, she gave up. She stopped believing she could ever change; she’d always be large. After a year or two, though, the guilt and concern of being overweight would lead to another diet, and then the recurring cycle of failing, condemning herself, deciding she could never be slimmer, and giving up for at least a year.

It didn’t have to be like that. Sally needed to know six things:

  • Most people fail in the early stages of change.
  • The best response to failing is to return immediately to doing what’s right. One lost battle doesn’t mean you can’t win the war.
  • Set a new and realistic time target for sustaining the changed behaviour (healthy eating in Sally’s case). It might be as short as two days.
  • Tell someone else what you’re doing, and get their support.
  • When you achieve your short-term goal, celebrate – not with something unhealthy, but certainly with something you like. It might be watching a favourite film.
  • Set another goal, which should be a little more challenging but never too much.

Most of us get very excited that we’re changing our lives. The price of that enthusiasm is deep disappointment when we fail. We must not let our discouragement rob us of starting over again. There’s an old saying: falling down is not the problem; staying down is the problem. When we fail, if at all possible we should get up and get on with doing the right thing.

Support    One of the points just above is telling a friend or partner or spouse about the change you’re trying to make, and getting their encouragement and help. That is so important I could have put it at the top of my list.

When I struggled with depression my wife Alison and friend Jim were essential to help me escape the dark pit in which I felt trapped. Alison never judged me, just gently spoke hope into my thinking, and loved me no matter what. Jim kept telling me my depression wouldn’t be forever, that one day I’d see my life and the world in a better light. Despite his busy schedule, he’d meet with me or we’d talk by phone at least once a week. I remember he called one evening when I couldn’t bear to speak with anyone. Alison explained to him, and Jim said to reassure me that was fine and we’d talk again when I felt better. Many times I wanted to give up on myself, but neither Alison nor Jim would give up on me. They kept me going, and eventually I got out of that pit.

A good supporter will never give up on someone trying to change. When you doubt you’ll ever change, they’ll help you believe it will happen. When you fail, they won’t condemn. When you confess what you’re doing wrong, they’ll listen and respect your privacy. When you’re not coping, they’ll be patient. When you’re being awkward, they’ll make allowances. When you’re going astray, they’ll care for you enough to tell you to get back on the right path. When you achieve a goal, they’ll celebrate with you.

I strongly encourage you to find support, someone with whom you can be ruthlessly honest and to whom you can make yourself accountable. You need that person if the change you want is to last.

In conclusion, then, change is tough. Small changes are easy to make, but the big ones are hard. If only we could just throw a switch and behave differently from that moment forward. But there’s no switch. We need time, perseverance, willingness to sacrifice, and support along the way. I’ve known some who never reached their goal, but I’ve also known many who did. And I’ve walked that hard road in my own life, and I’m so thankful I did. When we know we need to change, we must never shy away from doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.


In my last blog post, I told the story of Ernst Dumoulin. He murdered his wife on their wedding night, spent 16 years in prison, but, after release, became a church pastor. He had changed. His life after prison was completely different compared to his life before prison.

Change is not easy. Ask anyone who’s lost weight but put it all back on later. Or tried to cure their short temper and stay calm. Or to resist driving above the speed limit on an empty road with no-one else around. Attitudes and habits are stubbornly resistant to change, like weeds you hack down which soon return.

But change can happen, and to explain how I’ll use a story of change which includes four essential steps for turning life around. Some self-help books seem to suggest change can occur without cost or effort. It can’t, and I will not pretend that the four steps here are painless. Almost always change requires time, hard work, and sacrifice, but it is unimaginably worth it.

The story of change I’ll use is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] It was told by Jesus and sits alongside other lost/found stories in Luke’s gospel, chapter 15. I will summarise the story, and when I quote the exact words I’ll be using the translation called the New International Version (NIV).

A father had two sons, both grown up. The younger son got weary of the quiet life on the family farm, and made an outrageous request to his father, to give him his inheritance money now. Remarkably, his father agreed, and gave his son a small fortune. Soon after, the young man walked away, and he kept going until he reached another country. Then his crazy spending started. Jesus said he ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’ (Luke 15:13). When money is thrown around, so-called friends are plentiful. From later in the story, we know many of those ‘friends’ were prostitutes.

But, of course, the boy didn’t have a bottomless pit of money. When it ran out the friends were gone. The lad was destitute and, to make matters worse, a famine ravaged the land. He was in another country, with no support, no nearby family, and now no money. The boy was famished. In desperation he begged a farmer to hire him, which he did and sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. Jewish law did not permit eating pork, so his work was demeaning and counter to his upbringing and beliefs. When he’d asked for his inheritance, he’d imagined the vast sum would provide him with a life of ease and pleasure, but that dream was now a nightmare. The boy stared at the pods he fed to the pigs, knowing they had more food than he did. No-one gave him anything, and before long he would die of hunger.

But one day, the wayward son came to his senses. He realised that back home even his father’s servants had food to spare ‘and here I am starving to death!’ (Luke 15:17). To stay was to die. To go home might mean rejection, but, if he confessed how wrong he’d been, just possibly his father would allow him to become a servant. His clothes in tatters and no sandals on his feet, he set off on the long trek home. The reception he got there was very different from what he expected.

It’s a great story, but what are its four steps to personal change?

STEP ONE  Realism    ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’ Jerry told me, ‘I just like a drink’. He liked a drink so much that consuming a few pints of beer had become a daily habit. Often it was more than a few and he’d have to be helped home. Jerry’s drink problem had wrecked the family finances, almost destroyed the last vestiges of his relationship with his wife and children, and he was about to lose his job. But he kept insisting he just liked a drink. Everyone except Jerry knew he was an out-of-control alcoholic. Many had tried to help him, but they got nowhere because Jerry denied he had a problem.

Nothing changes in our lives until we believe it must change. The word ‘must’ in that last sentence is important. Most people I’ve known who smoked wished they didn’t. Plenty of them had tried giving up but failed after a few days or weeks. But wishful thinking is far short of the total rejection of the status quo which change requires.

My favourite short book is one that has been used extensively in management and leadership training, but also has lessons for the ordinary lives of everyday people: ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’, by Dr Spencer Johnson.[2]  The main text covers just over 70 pages, but is a great example of how to use a fable to communicate deep truth.

The story is about two mice and two ‘littlepeople’ who live inside a maze. I’ll concentrate only on the littlepeople, Hem and Haw, who find a cheese-filled corridor and settle down to a pleasant life close by. Every day they feast on the cheese. But Hem and Haw become too comfortable. They get complacent and don’t realise the cheese supply is dwindling. One day there’s no cheese in their corridor, and Hem asks ‘Who moved my cheese?’. They’d assumed there would always be cheese, so had no plan what to do if there was none.

At first both are angry. Then Haw suggests they should go looking for new cheese. Hem refuses. There ought to be cheese where there was always cheese. Some time later Haw again proposes a search for new cheese. Hem is stubborn and turns down the idea. He will stay exactly where the cheese has always been abundant. By now both are looking emaciated, so one day Haw gives up waiting for Hem to agree, and off he goes to search the maze for more cheese. Along the way he finds small pieces, and generously takes some back to Hem to encourage him to search too. Hem not only refuses to move, he won’t eat the cheese Haw has brought. Well, Haw concludes, Hem can wait in that corridor if he wants, but he must keep searching. Haw explores ever deeper into the maze, round corner after corner. Finally, Haw finds a place filled with cheese, even some kinds he’s never tasted before. He could not be happier or more satisfied. He left a place with no cheese, and, because he did, he’s discovered a new place where cheese is plentiful and nourishing.

The lesson of the fable is obvious. Change must happen. We must find the ‘new’ when the ‘old’ is no longer there or good for us. Haw recognised the danger and misery of staying where he was. He did a reality check, and knew he must move. Likewise, before anything else, we must recognise when something is making our lives harmful, or wasteful, or unfulfilling, or pointless. Nothing better will happen until we accept that truth.

STEP TWO  Vision    The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t have a vision in the mystical, dreamy sense. But he looked back, and realised what a better life his father’s servants had compared to what he was experiencing. He was starving, and wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer. The servants back home weren’t hungry; they’d more food than they needed, and they’d have food again tomorrow, the day after, and many more well into the future. That realisation generated a vision, that perhaps he could be like them, and have what they had.

It’s worth noticing his vision wasn’t a big one. All he imagined is that he might become a servant on his father’s estate. He could not have believed that he’d be restored to all he’d once had as a son, the status he had before he took his father’s money and squandered it. To be treated again as a son was impossible, and no-one tries to achieve what he knows is impossible. But he could believe he’d be taken back as a servant. It wasn’t a great vision, but it was possible so he was motivated to try.

Step two is to envision a better future, but it must be a vision you can believe in. You won’t reach further than your faith can stretch.

STEP THREE  Plan    The young man knew what he would do and say. ‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’ (verses 18-19).

I like two things about his plan.

  • First, that it exists. He knew what he had to do: the journey he would take – the admission he would make – the request he would present. People have told me, ‘I want to be a better person’. That sounded good, but, as I probed, they didn’t know what being a better person involved, nor what steps they’d take to become that person. Someone else would say, ‘I want to get out of debt’. That was specific, which is helpful. But they had given no thought to the challenges they’d face in order to owe nothing, such as cutting out all nonessential purchases. Without identifying the steps their plan would involve, they’d near certainly give up when faced with sacrifices. The boy in Jesus’ story was very clear about both his goal and what he’d need to do and say to achieve it.
  • Second, that he would not hide or minimise how wrong he’d been. He would make no excuses or attempt to justify what he’d done. He would admit he’d sinned against heaven and against his father, thus making himself unworthy to be called his son. And, later in the story, that’s exactly what he confessed when he met his father (verse 21).  It’s all too easy to say, ‘I know I did wrong but…’ But I was going through a bad patch… But I didn’t realise the consequences… But I was young at the time… But my friends pressured me… Or any other of many reasons which, while possibly true, don’t justify the wrong we’ve done. The young man would not make any excuses for his betrayal of God and his family.

Step three towards change is a clear plan.

STEP FOUR  Action    I think step one in this list is very hard: getting realistic about the mistakes we’ve made or the mess our lives are in. Steps two and three, envisioning something better and planning for it, are far from easy yet not as difficult as step one. Step four is perhaps the hardest step of all to take towards change: actually beginning. It sounds effortless, and Jesus describes the young man’s start very simply, ‘So he got up and went to his father’ (verse 20).

In one sense, beginning is simple. There’s truth in the old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Of course it does, and any walking journey is only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. But that first step can be incredibly hard. Why? Because it’s putting our fine thoughts and words about change into action. There’s no cost or challenge about a dream. But when we do something to bring the dream into reality, there are hard and painful challenges. For the boy, it began with an arduous and very long trek home. And day after day he would be bombarded mentally with terrifying thoughts of his past failure and the likely rejection of him by his family that lay in his future. And how would he be able to stand before his father, make his confession of wrongdoing and ask for permission to become a servant. Taking action – starting out – meant all of that would happen.

In the fable of the littlepeople, it seems Hem could never make that move. If he really thought new cheese would magically reappear one day, he was an idiot. If he was simply fearful about setting out without knowing exactly where to go, I’m more sympathetic. Yet, that fear imprisons us where we are, and prevents us finding the new and better thing that lies ahead for our lives.[3] And that’s sad.

The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t let fear stop him. He returned home, confessed to his father and asked to be treated as a servant. But before he’d got all his words out, his father was embracing and kissing him, overjoyed to have him back, then shouting for the best robe to put on him, for a feast to be prepared and a celebration organised. His father told everyone, ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (verse 24).

The fourth step – action – ended with an outcome far more wonderful than had ever occurred to the young man. He was accepted, reinstated, and his return celebrated. He’d risked changing, and the result was utterly amazing.

Have the courage to make changes – perhaps using the four steps listed here – and I hope you find change makes an amazing difference to your life.

[1] The word ‘prodigal’ means wasteful, lavish, extravagant, as done by a spendthrift.

[2] Who Moved my Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was first published in 1998, originally by GP Putman’s Sons. In the UK it is published by Vermilion, part of the Random House Group.

[3] I wrote once before about letting go of what we have to find something even better – see https://occasionallywise.com/2021/04/11/necessary-endings/