“Bald.” Even I can’t say the word without smirking. If you use it to describe someone - That bald guy over there - it sounds like an insult, or a joke.
So when, in my first year of college, I noticed more hair than usual on the brush and in the sink, it made me deeply unhappy. It made me feel that way for a long time.
The man in the mirror
I fought the change. Different medicines to try and fix it. Different styles to hide it. Always that tension. Every time I looked in the mirror. Every time I showered or noticed someone else’s hair. Any reference to me losing my hair would drive me into an angry spiral.
This simple physical change, something quite common, made me unhappy in varying degrees every day throughout the day.
I would never have thought to write about it until I recently read Triggers, a book about changing behaviors by the well-regarded consultant Marshall Goldsmith.
How hard it is to change
In the first pages of the book, Marshall writes about what it was like becoming bald at a young age.
“Since high school I had been a follicly challenged man, but back then I was loath to admit it. Each morning, I would spend several minutes in front of the bathroom mirror carefully arranging the wispy blond strands of hair still remaining on the top of my head. I’d smooth the hairs forward from back to front, then curve them to a point in the middle of my forehead, forming a pattern that looked vaguely like a laurel wreath. Then I’d walk out into the world with my ridiculous comb-over, convinced I looked normal like everyone else.”
He used his personal story as an example of how hard it is to change. Why do people keep doing what they do, even if doing it it makes them unhappy?
“I had spent years fretting and fussing with my hair. That’s a long time to continue doing something that, on the spectrum of human folly, fell somewhere between vain and idiotic. And yet I persisted in this foolish behavior for so many years because (a) I couldn’t admit that I was bald, and (b) under the sway of inertia, it felt easier to continue doing my familiar routine than to execute the change. The one advantage I had was (c) I knew how to execute the change.”
Then there was a mistake at the barbershop. Despite explicit instructions, the barber had cut more than he was supposed to. At that moment, Marshall Goldsmith decided to accept what had been staring him in the face for so long, and he had the rest of his hair cut short.
It has taken me decades, but now I no longer think about being bald. No hiding it. No shame. It’s a part of me, and I’ve grown to like it.
Marshall Goldsmith, 65 years old when he wrote his story, reflected on the importance of his change in perspective.
“It wasn’t a complicated decisions and it didn’t take great effort to accomplish…But in many ways, it is still the most liberating change I’ve made as an adult. It made me happy…”
It’s such a trivial example, I know. People deal with so many more meaningful things. Yet I’m struck by how something so small could affect me for so long. How simply loving what is allowed me to be happier and focus my energy on things I could control, like eating well and exercising, like the quality of the work that I do. It’s “liberating,” as Marshal Goldsmith wrote.
Sometimes freedom is just a switch in your head.