Childhood Obesity and the Universality of Change

Italian Men in Suits

Steve Tobak is a management consultant and executive coach who gives advice to chief executive officers and other high-ranking businesspeople. What can he tell us about childhood obesity? Maybe a lot, because, after all, each of us is the CEO of our own life. Change is universal, and maybe the approach to it is also.

Tobak starts by referencing the old saying, “A leopard can’t change its spots.” He says it does not apply to humans, who are capable of genuine and lasting behavioral change:

Three basic biological functions determine your behavior. You’re born with DNA; you learn and develop neural pathways through experience; and your behavior is chemically reinforced by neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin.

There it is — executives and obese children do have a lot in common. For an obese person of any age, a large portion of life consists of coping with the obesity itself. It’s important to be aware of what is not safe to sit on, and to bring the necessary supplies to deal with excess perspiration on an important occasion. If a photo is being taken, it’s important to remember to tilt the head in a way that minimizes the number of chins. A certain amount of brain power goes into planning how to get the next plate or bag of desired food and, if people are watching, a certain amount of plotting too, perhaps.

Expertise, of a kind

Taking care of all the peripheral business of being fat gives a person something to become good at, an avenue for the achievement of expertise. For small, powerless children, it would be wrong to say it’s a lifestyle choice, but as a person grows up, obesity does become a lifestyle. As the years go by, it’s probably not even possible to imagine being any other way. There must be a hundred examples of things that obese people do for day-to-day survival, and when the big change of losing weight is undertaken, it equates to a hundred accompanying mini-changes in habit, including abilities in which a lot of time and energy has been invested.

What if you’re a boy who once bested a bully by tripping him to the ground and sitting on him until he said “uncle”? If you lose bulk, will you be able to protect yourself in the future? What if you’re a woman who sews and uses tailoring tricks to make her body look slimmer, and you’ve created a lovely wardrobe of clothes that flatter the fuller figure? What if you’re a comedian who specializes in fat jokes? If you lose weight, will you even have a career?

When a formerly obese person reaches a healthy size, an entire skill set becomes obsolete. That experience is the same nightmare for an obese teenager or an exec at the top of his game. Tobak says:

Most behavioral characteristics you’d want to change … are created in response to adversity, crisis or trauma when we’re young. They’re designed to manipulate our environment and keep us safe, and they’re reinforced countless times throughout our lives…. You have to feel the need to change.

That includes recognizing obsolescence when it appears, and not fighting it. A snake has to shed its skin when the time comes, and a butterfly can’t hide inside a cocoon forever. What the formerly obese need, when they become un-addicted from food, are coping skills for dealing with life in a less self-destructive way.

On the bright side of the picture, it’s obvious that the formerly obese have demonstrated a splendid ability to develop coping mechanisms. It’s just that all the cleverness has been misapplied to a counterproductive goal. But they have shown ingenuity and resourcefulness, and can perhaps be stimulated by the challenge to use all that intelligence and ability and creativity and determination to serve a different end.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Change Your Ways? 3 Things You Must Do First,” Inc.com, 12/04/12
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