Growth, change, habits and buddies

Growth, change, habits and buddies – a reflection on the social and digital learning experience through the eyes of Potentialife buddy group

By Audrey Riley ad Ednah Khosa

On a recent trip to the Kruger National Park, I was lucky enough to witness a most interesting lion / buffalo interaction. A small group of 4 juvenile lions and lionesses were upwind of a large herd of buffalo and they decided to practise their hunting skills. There were some very nerve-wrecking moments for those of us watching, as one lioness got particularly close to a buffalo baby. Our guide however, kept reassuring us and telling us ‘that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and the others are not backing her up’. Sure enough, the young lioness charged but did so on her own and of course, she was not successful. What happened next was most interesting for me though. The buffalo, after initially scattering at the lioness’ charge, grouped together and proceeded to chase the small group for at least 300m, letting the lions know of their great displeasure!

The whole interaction got me thinking about how we grow, change and build habits and how important it is to have a support network during the process. A single lioness, especially a young and inexperienced one, has very little change of taking down a buffalo calf, let alone a fully grown buffalo. If however, the lioness had been backed up by her buddies when she charged, they may well have been successful. We know from nature documentaries how important each lion’s role in the hunt is, but this raised another question for me. Did the lioness know she was going to be unsuccessful and she was just practising her hunting skills? Despite their formidable hunting prowess, lions are not born with those as innate skills. They have to learn to hunt and for every successful kill, there are probably double the number of misses.

And so it is with humans. Whilst we may have some genetic dispositions towards certain skills, without practise and experimentation, we will almost certainly never develop those skills to their full potential. Growth is uncomfortable, especially when we are in the conscious incompetence phase of learning. In this stage we know we don’t know – i.e. we know we’re not very good at whatever it is that we’re trying to learn – and this can be terribly uncomfortable. It is in this phase that a lot of people revert to their original way of doing things as change is ‘too hard’. And this is where our support network is so important. A buddy system, where we have someone in our corner, championing our success, encouraging us on and helping us up when we fall, is absolutely critical to growth.

The primary function of the brain is running an energy budget for your body, to ensure you are kept alive and healthy [Lisa Feldman Barrett]. This means that our brains are always looking for ways to minimise our energy output and one way to do this is to make anything we do on a regular basis, become hard-wired and thus a habit. Once something is a habit, we don’t need to consciously think about it anymore and because we don’t need to think, we conserve energy. In the learning stages, this is called Unconscious Competence – now we know how to do something and we can do it unconsciously. Of course, this has both pros and cons. For example, once you know how to ride a bicycle, you don’t forget how, even if you don’t ride for a long time. Whilst your sense of balance and confidence may be a bit rusty, once you get on that bike, you instantly recall what needs to be done to move yourself forward. Now imagine that every time you got on a bicycle you had to consciously think about how to ride. You would be mentally exhausted within minutes. The con is that we can adopt habits that are not empowering or useful, like grabbing a sweet or piece of chocolate every time we sit down in front of the television. If you do that enough times, you will move from  ‘should I have a sweet now?’ to a ‘where’s my sweet – I can’t watch tv without one’!

There are many ways in which we can try to improve ourselves, growing and changing our habits for the better and one of the most effective ones is the Potentialife programme. This programme, developed by Tal Ben-Shahar and Angus Ridgway, helps people practise and ritualise positive life habits. These life habits are focused on 5 key themes, namely, Strengths, Health, Absorption, Relationships, Purpose, creating the acronym SHARP. Potentialife is a digital programme and participants work through the modules, individually and in parallel. At the completion of each module, Potentialife participants get together in a Buddy Group and grow and challenge each other through the social learning opportunities being in a group creates. A Potentialife Buddy group can be a huge source of inspiration as evidence by some of the comments of recent participants –

A lovely community of like-minded people on the same journey. I enjoyed the sharing of what was working and also what was not working. Celebrating these stories was very affirming and I felt supported and held.’ and

‘The connection point for me was the group sessions. It helped me stay with the programme and remain focussed. There were such rich experiences through interacting with others on a weekly basis. We felt safe and could allow ourselves to share without judgement. The group showed up weekly and whilst the external environments were challenging from a political and economic perspective, it helped me feel that I was not alone.

In today’s Covid world, we have seen digital learning explode, which has many benefits. However, we have also seen social isolation and all the negativity that brings, increase exponentially too. Potentialife has the potential [apologies, couldn’t help myself!] to take the best of the digital world and integrate it with the best way to learn, which is socially, with others. Yes, change can be hard, but when you are taking baby steps and have a supportive buddy group cheering you on and celebrating every small win, it can even be fun!


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