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Tales from Waikiki: Imprinting and the Power to Change

Earlier this month, my extended family and I spent a week vacationing in Hawaii. Out of that experience exploring the wonders of Oahu came some juicy ideas well worth sharing over the next few weeks. So, here we go…

We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village at Waikiki based on a spot-on recommendation that it was a great hotel for families. Besides the beachfront access and several pools for my daughters to swim in daily, (not to mention all the shopping for my mother and sister), the Hilton had a waddle of tropical penguins. The birds were conveniently located right outside our particular hotel tower so we stopped to visit them pretty much every time we passed. These Hilton penguins are called African Penguins so they’re adapted for tropical environments. Over the week we learned a lot about them as a species (endangered) and some of their quirks (they sound like braying donkeys which is why they’re sometimes called Jackass Penguins).

We also learned about something called imprinting. Turns out penguins – as well as many other birds – learn how to be birds shortly after birth by observing the characteristics of the other birds around them. It’s a rapid process…and it’s fairly permanent, meaning what is learned through this process cannot easily be undone. So if a young hatchling observes not a bird but a human, they’re going to be imprinted with human characteristics. In other words, you’re going to have a rather confused bird who is going to try and act like a human. One penguin at the Hilton named Icarus had this sort of human imprinting, which is immediately noticeable because she (yes, she…these penguins are also notoriously difficult to sex) is fairly tame by penguin standards. Icarus will also never mate because she’s not attracted to other penguins; case in point: she mercilessly attacked the last male who tried to get it on with her because he was too penguiny.

Where am I going with all this? Let me ask a question: how many times do we behave like we’ve been imprinted by our past? Except we’re not holding on to the actions of others we’ve observed, but our own actions. We say – either openly or quietly to ourselves – that we’re a failure or stupid or not talented enough for what looks like a great job opportunity. Every time we do this, we’ve essentially confirmed our own imprinting by not letting go of that past behavior. The good news is that we’re not easily imprinted birds, but humans capable of flexible thought. We can retrain ourselves to think differently about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving in our lives. We can reimprint ourselves whenever we choose.

Notice what’s holding you back. The key is self-awareness. Get mindful of thoughts that contain images involving past failures and weaknesses. Listen for words like can’t and never. If it feels like a barrier, then it probably is. Say you’re holding on to an image of failing at starting a business or bombing an assignment. Now imagine taking the picture out of your head and tossing it into the fire. You’re not forgetting the lessons learned…instead, you’re torching their power to hold you in your present position. You’re claiming your right to be free of all the past crap that’s simply not serving you right now.

Re-envision what you want. Time to re-imprint our thinking and behavior with something different. You’re free to be as creative as you want now. Imagine vividly yourself as successful. What would it look like? And perhaps more importantly, what would it feel like? Imprinting isn’t a logical, rational process; it’s a visceral, emotional one. The stronger you can cement the images in your body, the better you’ll be able to hold on to these newly imprinted images.

Maintain awareness. Even though we can change how we think and feel, it’s still not a walk in the park. Change takes dedication and commitment. Remain vigilant when it comes to how old imprinted behavior reenters your thought process. Remember: you’re not a penguin…you can do this.

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  • deirdrereid

    Thanks, Chris. This is the first blog post I read today and it hit home. All my life I didn't think I could make a living by writing — that's not me, I'm not a writer, that's not realistic, blah blah blah. Somewhere during the past year I stopped listening to those gremlins and guess what I'm doing now. Yup, writing for a living. It's a good day to start reimprinting, I hope many others read your post too.
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    • Chris Bailey

      Deirdre, so happy to hear that you've made the decision to take a chance and explore a new path. Keep the curious exploration going!