Book Review: “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath

Don’t let your New Year’s resolutions fall to the wayside. Read on to discover a new book that will help you make lasting change during the most important time of the year.

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It’s that time of year again. The start of 2013 looms just around the corner, and with it comes the usual flood of New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all been here before, trying to kick start a new change for the new year. Unfortunately, many of us fail to make those changes stick and end up falling back on old habits.

If I had to pick just one book on creating effective and lasting change, it would be Switch, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. This book blew me away, not just because it has a clear message and an organized layout, but also because it offers the reader a clear-cut framework to begin creating change within their own business immediately.

When Change Is Hard

“Change is hard because people wear themselves out. … What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” At its heart, the book Switch is about changing things for the better, whether it’s within an individual, an organization, or even an entire culture. Where the Heath brothers really shine is in illustrating through stories and real-world examples how to systematically go about creating change.

Borrowing from psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, the Heath brothers describe a duality within each of us comprised of an emotional elephant and a rational rider. This duo is responsible for our ability to make decisions, react to our surroundings, and create change. Although we may initially assume the rider is in total control, seeing as how he sits atop the elephant with reins in hand, this is not always the case. To the Heath brothers, successful change comes down to three basic tasks: directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and shaping the path (i.e. the environment).

Directing the Rider

The rider directs the elephant, but the path is not always clear. To help enhance the rider’s vision, the Heath brothers recommend seeking out individuals or situations (which they dub “bright spots”) where change has been created successfully.

This resonated with me. Isn’t it interesting how we tend to fixate on what’s going wrong rather than focus on what’s actually working well? The Heath brothers take this a step further. Not only must the rider be led down the right path, the directions must be specific and attainable. “If you want people to change, you must provide crystal-clear direction,” they explain.

Motivating the Elephant

In reality, the rider is no match for the elephant. He’s just too small in comparison. Think back to the last time you tried to make a major change and failed. Were you feeling overly rational and logical, or were your emotions running amok? The Heath brothers emphasize that the elephant and the rider must work together to move in the same direction. “A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.”

It’s a sure bet many coaches have come across clients with generic, non-specific goals like wanting to be “healthy,” or “lose weight,” or “tone up.” These are rider goals. Engage the elephant by asking your client to elaborate, perhaps with the question “what does this mean to YOU?” This forms the basis for meaningful change, something Chip and Dan Heath go out of their way to make sure we understand.

Shaping the Path

Like the rider and the elephant, the environment also plays a critical role in Switch. Here the Heath brothers refer to it as the path, which must be shaped in order to facilitate the journey of the rider and elephant. It makes sense, when you consider the effect our environment and surroundings can have on our everyday decisions and ability to create change. Without shaping the path, the rider and elephant could find themselves walking in circles, distracted and lost. Wrote the Heath brothers,“When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.”

Overall Impressions

Chip and Dan Heath do an outstanding job of transforming a hefty amount of behavioral psychology into succinct and actionable steps that coaches can put into practice with their own clients immediately. They include real-life examples of change and research to support their ideas.

To their credit, there’s never a moment in this book where you lose sight of the overall message. Chapters flow smoothly from one section to the next, staying connected with the overarching theme the entire time. In my opinion, this book not only contains great content, but is also very well-written.

In the end, it’s difficult to do this book justice in a short review. If you want to improve the success you have with clients (no matter what their circumstances) or even create meaningful change in your own life, you’d do well to check out this book.

“Switch” is available at for $17.16.

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