How to Create a Theory of Change and Rewire Your Ambition

Back when I was in my doctoral program we all had to do something called a clinical defense. This is a memorable time in every clinician’s graduate career when you and your classmates huddle in the video lab like terrified refugees, poring over tapes of yourselves doing therapy, and hoping you’ll be able to mine out of those recorded hours demonstrable evidence of your clinical skill. Or, at least that you’re not a danger to the public. Then, you get the pleasure of standing before a panel of your professors and a roomful of your peers, pointing out the finer moments of your recorded life as a therapist, while saying lots of fancy terms like “homeostasis” and “paradoxical intervention.” Yes, it is absolutely as dreadful as it sounds.

Anyway, the point of this whole rigamarole was simply to demonstrate that you understood how to use a particular model of therapy appropriately, and more importantly, could articulate how you believe change happens for clients. We call that a clinician’s “theory of change.” For instance, my theory of change back then (and now too, actually) was that people are constantly in the act of writing stories about themselves and their lives in their heads. Some of these stories are socially constructed in tandem with the people we interact with and others we pen quietly inside ourselves. I think good therapy happens when we are able to get our hands on those stories and rewrite just enough of the plot so that you still recognize yourself, yet are decidedly stronger, happier and more effective.

Lately, I have been thinking that if that’s how massive, lasting change happens in therapy, is that how it happens in the regular world as well? What changes could people make if they woke up to the hidden scripts that govern how they live their lives and instead got some transparency on those storylines?

I’m willing to bet that if we did some mental archaeology around the things you are most proud of, we’d discover that there was something different about the way you tackled those problems than the manner in which you attack your daily, garden variety concerns. Remember that time you did the best presentation of your life? Recall when you lost 50 pounds? Pull out a pen and make note of at least 3 things you did differently while in the pursuit of those goals. Perhaps you got up an hour earlier to work out when you were peeling off those pounds. Maybe you psyched yourself up by reading inspirational quotes when you were pursuing you last promotion. Embedded in the architecture of those successes is your very own Theory of Change.

To figure out my own formula for transformation, I made a list of the variables that seem to be consistently different when I feel really good about my fire and productivity. Eureka! It turns out I do several things differently when I am working on making BIG changes in my life. These are, of course, idiosyncratic to my goals, but here they are so you know what I’m talking about when I ask you to break it down for yourself.

1) I Listen to Lots of Inspirational Books on Tape: When I am really jamming, it’s usually because I am feeding my brain all the time. I consider this priming the pump with others’ wisdom, so that when my own jewels pop up I recognize them. Though listening to Beyonce in the car is a pleasant distraction, when I’m trying to get intensely creative and directed, I need to be in a bubble of inspired thinking. In case you work this way too, my favorite book of the moment is Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All by Russell Simmons. The name of this book is deceptive–it’s really about living a robust, well-examined and kind life. If you need a bit of push in the direction of your dreams, give it a whirl.

2) I Keep Idea Journals: I think a lot. I think a lot about lots of different kinds of things. I’m probably like many super creative people; when ideas bubble up, I entertain them for a moment and then move on quickly to the next thing. Often, later in the day, I’m left trying to remember what that good idea for a book or website was. So, I always keep a pen and a notebook around to jot down these little half-formed bits and bobs. I have them in my purse, on my nightstand, scattered around my office and even in my car.

3) I Stay Up a Bit Later Than my Family: Now, I’m not saying this is healthy. Probably, I could use a hell of a lot more sleep. But, when everyone is awake, my quiet hours to meditate, write and think are in short supply. Since I’m a night owl, and my husband is kind enough to get our oldest son on the bus at the crack of dawn without waking me up, this schedule works for us. I find that when I don’t take this extra time to chase the muse my intellectual life stagnates and I become unhappy.

So, there you have it–an abbreviated list of the behaviors that support my own Theory of Personal Change. Want to figure out how to harness your skills to rocket forward? Why don’t you come on in so that we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,


Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at Visit me on the web at or:

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