The most important thing for young people to learn is how to modify their habits. If they can modify their habits, they understand the importance of change, and they understand how to make change happen.
The ability to change is the ability to grow. If we don’t change for the better, we stay stagnant, and in relation to others, we atrophy and become worse. People have to change for the better, or they become weak until death.
To modify a habit requires conscious change. Changing habitual behaviors requires self-awareness and the strength to make something out of that awareness. Self-awareness means knowing our own strengths and weaknesses – both as the outside world perceives them and internally.
Habitual behaviors are necessarily hard to change – these are the behaviors we engage in frequently. The more we do something, the harder that is to change. This is especially true for behaviors that result in feelings of pleasure. Drinking, gambling, drugs, sex – changing habits related to vices is incredibly difficult. Not only does repetition give us an answer for a way to do things, and humans are lazy creatures that don’t want to change, but repeating pleasurable behaviors rewards us psychologically for doing these things.
It’s important that we recognize when we engage in repetitive behavior when there is a better way of doing things. Better can come in multiple forms. Better can refer to efficiency. For instance, if we open a new Excel sheet every time we create a budget, we could save lots of time by creating and using a template, or a program that does the work for you.
Better can refer to health. If we smoke cigarettes every day, that’s going to take a toll on the lungs, decrease our athletic and cardiovascular ability, and increase longer-term concerns like cancer. If we have sex with many partners and are left wanting more, or we accumulate things because it feels good, then we risk short-term dependence on those feelings and the want for more, and the long-term solidification of those habits. These are more mental, psychological health concerns.
Change requires action. Once a habit is identified that should be changed, it takes commitment to action to make that actually happen. It takes opening the Excel template over and over instead of the new workbook. It may take closing an already started new workbook. It may mean staring at dessert as everyone else continues to eat.
The ability to change is the most important skill because it is so difficult. This ability also paves the way for future learning. If you can learn to be self-aware and learn what skills you are lacking and those that would benefit you, you can go and learn those things and accomplish your goals.
Stubbornness prevents change and acceptance of the reality of the need to change. When we are locked into our habits, and either refuse to change or refuse to go through the self-examination required before changing, we reduce our ability and our likelihood of ever changing or being introspective. We will continue on with our further-defined habits, regardless of the costs. Stubbornness is reinforcing.
We can learn from others. Just like learning from a teach in school or a mentor at work, we can learn how to modify our habits by watching others who have become proficient in modifying theirs. Because this can be learned, it can be taught. Teaching this requires making the audience willing to change.
Psychotherapists do this. Psychotherapists make their patients comfortable, then willing to change, then open about their strengths and weaknesses, then prescribe a plan to change.
I don’t recommend a course on psychotherapy be taught to all high-school students, but I recommend some of the lessons from the practice be taught at the high-school level. Students should be taught and made to go through the exercise of changing a habit. Start with their studying skills, or note taking, or reading. Destroy the old habits and replace them with new skills that will be valuable for the rest of their lives. In the meantime, teach them how to change.
These students are about to go to college – where they can enter with an understanding of how behavior is modified and an analytical approach to modifying theirs, or they can become the next wave of brainwashed, debt-burdened employee robots. The individual doesn’t benefit from being a debt-burdened employee robot.
Not being a debt-burdened employee robot is only one benefit to instilling the ability to modify habits in young people. From the ability to think freely and understand behavioral changes, people will be less likely to blindly follow an ideology. Political discussion these days is a shouting match between Republican and Democrat. There’s no nuance or compromise or standing up for individual beliefs – it’s all about following the prescribed ideology. There’s no thought in politics.
There’s no thought in corporations. The debt-burdened employee must do what he’s told in order to pay off loans. This ingrains the servant behaviors which make “good employees” that rise the ranks in a corporation. It doesn’t innovate or look out for consequence outside of shareholder value – which is what shareholders want.
The most useful thing to teach young people is how to modify their habits. The ability to modify habits will make people moral, courageous leaders of companies and governments, healthier and longer-living citizens, and unique contributors at dinner parties. Changing habits is, by definition, one of the hardest things people can do, but it is the most important. Without changing behavior, we become stuck in our skillset, our status, and our current spirituality. Start changing habits today.