“Few are born bold. Even Napoleon had to cultivate the habit on the battlefield, where he knew it was a matter of life and death. In social settings he was awkward and timid, but he overcame this and practice boldness in every part of his life because he saw its tremendous power, how it could literally enlarge a man (even one who, like Napoleon, was in fact conspicuously small).”Robert Greene (48 Laws of Power)
In my last post, I talked about the different kinds of habits, how to create and destroy them, and most importantly how they are used as tools to design our lives. Habits are what shape us and our lives, they hold our fate, I talk about about this a little bit in my post on Hypnotic Rhythm. Many people aren’t aware that we have the power to control these habits and if we get good enough, we can design the best lives for ourselves in our own vision.
This is all great, but the sad fact is that it is difficult to create and destroy habits. It requires intense motivation, discipline, patience, vision, a whole boatload of other virtues, and developable character traits. We can use all of the weapons in our arsenal to craft our habits, but the strongest of them all is our identity.
How we see ourselves, how we understand ourselves, what we believe we are, what is inseparable from our experience of life, is our identity.
I talk a little bit about Identity is my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2). I say that identity is the most powerful motivational force at our disposal because of something known as Identity Defense.
We won’t do something if it doesn’t match with who we believe we are, but we will do something if it does match with who we believe we are!
Let me give an example, I see myself as an intellectual who loves to engage in complex discussions about big ideas. As a result, I act in accordance with that. An intellectual (in my own loose definition of the word) would expose themselves to new ideas in order to discuss them with someone else who would be interested in the same thing. Since I’ve adopted this identity and understand it to be as such, I expose myself to new ideas and attempt to understand them so I engage in gripping conversation.
Basically, if we see ourselves as the types of people who do a particular thing, then we will do that particular thing. When I first started my blog, I had a hard time sitting down to write. I often felt like a fake. Who was I to start a blog or to write down my thoughts or give my advice? It felt weird, a “math guy” with a blog, but when I started to see myself as a writer, my blog started to turn into something I could be proud of. On top of that, it was actually easier to sit down and write!
I remember a time when I had a hard time adjusting to the “engineering” identity, or the “EMT” identity, or the “musician” identity. The list can go on and on forever. We all play many different roles and are capable of switching things up.
Despite what Dr. Robert Ford from HBO’s Westworld believes, humans are capable of change. We can change so many things about ourselves as long as we are willing. Identity defense is built into us, we cannot ignore it or change it, but we can use it to our advantage!
If we can change our identity to whatever we’d like, then identity defense could take hold of these new identities and we will actively work and defend our ability to be the ideal versions of ourselves.
Changing our identity is the deepest level of behavioral change and that poses the question:
How do we change our identity?
By changing our habits. The best way to create a new identity is to create new habits, but also the best way to create new habits is to create a new identity. Identity can be used as our most powerful motivation force and because both identity and habits are intertwined and depend heavily on each other.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”James Clear
Every time we sit down to do something, studying, writing, whatever, we are creating evidence that we actually are a student, writer, whatever. We slowly show ourselves what we are through all of our actions. We watch ourselves be and believe what we are based on our observations. This is an incredibly slow process. Sometimes it can seem like nothing is happening at all, but don’t be fooled, something miraculous is happening.
Focusing on changing our outcomes or actions works wonders and can produce massive improvements in our lives and shouldn’t be ignored, but focusing on what kind of person we see ourselves as is the most powerful thing we can do for our behavior change.
If we believe that we are smart and studious, then our behavior and results will reflect that.
The smoking example is great for illustrating how to utilize our identity to create long lasting change. Let’s say there are two people who are trying to quit smoking. Persons A and B are offered a cigarette. Person A says “No thank you, I’m trying to quit.” while Person B says “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” Person A is going to have to use more willpower to constantly refuse the cues to smoke, while Person B is has identity defense fighting those battles for him, so to speak. We can use our identity to make acting in certain ways easier!
When I started playing instruments, I had a hard time trying to learn how to play the trumpet. It was a terrible time, I never wanted to practice and I constantly felt terrible about it. But when I decided I wanted to BE a musician, everything changed. I was able to learn multiple instruments. I never had to force myself to practice. I actually craved more time with my instruments.
We need to shift our focus from DOING to BEING.
Don’t read, be a reader.
Don’t study, be a scholar.
Don’t write a blog post, be a writer. (I needed to tell myself that one to get this blog post done!)
The more we repeat these behaviors, the more we believe that we are actually that person. It was over 10 years ago when I decided that I actually was a musician, not just someone pretending, and I can’t imagine my life any other way. And no wonder! I have 10 years of proof sitting in my memory.
We change who we are by changing what we do. We change what we do by changing who we are.
Creating lasting change can be thought of as a simple two step process:
- Decide what kind of person you want to be
- Prove to yourself that you are that person with a million little wins
I think it’s important to keep the wins small and frequent at the beginning. A tip from Tim Ferriss – rig the game to win. When we are first changing our behavior, we are not only up against our identity defense, but we are also up against Imposter Syndrome. Keeping the wins small helps us gets the wins, which is the proof we need to keep imposter syndrome and our old identity defense in their places.
In my experience, our identities are surprisingly malleable, and we’ll have more than a few over our lifetime. Here’s a list of a few potential identities that I’ve found to be more trouble than they’re worth, when it comes to identity attachment. Now, I don’t mean to say that we should never describe ourselves as such or use these to our advantage when appropriate, I’m just saying that identifying with these potential identities will definitely cause problems for us later.
Successful/Winner – this is great when we win, but identifying with being just a winner or someone who is only successful will create tons of cognitive dissonance when, not if, we come across failure. I know this from personal experience, I’ve unnecessarily suffered simply because I didn’t want to believe that I could fail. Sounds ridiculous, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves if we think we’re too good to fail.
Failure/Loser – just like it’s counterpart, it’s great when we’re right because it feels so good nice to be right. But identifying with being a failure prevents us from wanting to take chances and nothing worthwhile in life comes without risk. I tend to over-correct, so when I realized that the Successful/Winner identity wasn’t “correct,” I moved too far in the other direction. Trust me when I say, this causes intense decision paralysis.
If we succeed, it is not because we are amazing, but because we performed the actions necessary for success. If we fail, it is not because we are terrible people, but because we did perform the actions necessary for success. That’s it. Success and failure are simply an indicator of the accuracy of past actions.
Young – we aren’t young forever. I can’t find the quote, but I believed that it was Seneca who said something akin to ‘What is more foolish than identifying with that which is fleeting?’ One day we won’t be young and cool and there will be a new generation of people who will ignorantly criticize but also delightfully enlighten us. We shouldn’t hold on too tight to what isn’t really ours to begin with, it’s painful to let go when the times comes.
Intelligent – intelligence has a way of falling in love with itself. How can we determine if intelligence has come up with a terrible idea if we’re infatuated in it? Being intelligent is fantastic, identifying with intelligence is toxic. We can easily go blind and fool ourselves into thinking we have the knowledge of God within us. How can we know what is true when we only have the input of our finite and flawed perception? Even our reason is myopic, the very thing we rely upon to save us from myopia. We ought to use our intelligence to the best of our ability, but we need to be open to the idea that malevolence and darkness can lurk deep within our seemingly beautiful creations.
Talented – talent is fantastic, but hard work will always beat it. Identifying with our talent prevents us from working at our highest level. Our own skill level becomes the standard and we slowly fall behind as less talented people develop the skills necessary for mastery.