Summoning your alter ego

The surprising power of cultivating an alternative identity

There's something about superheroes that captivates us as kids—and even as adults.

Maybe it's their incredible strength. Or it could be their speed. Or their intelligence. Or maybe it's just those sweet costumes. Who knew grown men could look so fearsome in full-body unitards, anyhow?

But there's something beyond the tights and capes that we find irresistible.

It may just be the idea that seemingly normal people are able to transform themselves, at a moment’s notice, into something much greater.

In other words, we are fascinated by their alter egos.

We know that Superman is really Clark Kent. That Iron Man is Tony Stark. Wonder Woman is Diana Prince. (so 80's...). The Incredible Hulk is Bruce Banner (one of the best 80's TV shows, who's with me?). And of course, Batman is Bruce Wayne.

What may not be as readily apparent is that the idea of alter egos is not relegated to the world of Marvel Comics, but rather it is a tactic that is leveraged by some of the world's most successful people—from the stage to the athletic field to the corporate boardroom.

The Alter Ego Effect

Performance coach and author, Todd Herman has likely done as much work as anyone on how we can apply this concept of alter egos to improve our own performance in the many facets of our lives. In his book The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life, he tells the story of meeting pro athlete Bo Jackson, who most children of the 80s like myself will know as the superhuman athlete who pulled off the incredible feat of playing two sports—baseball and football—at the highest levels.

Herman met Jackson backstage at an event where the former was scheduled to speak on, you guessed it, alter egos. When Jackson heard what Herman was planning to speak on, he couldn't believe it. He'd never heard of anyone using this tactic before, except, of course, himself.

He went on to tell Herman that "Bo Jackson never played a down of football in his life," but rather that every time he stepped onto the field he transformed himself into Jason Vorhees. "Who's that?" you might wonder. Uh, that would be none other than Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. Yeah, THAT Jason. The one with the hockey mask and machete. (We're going all-in on the 80s references today, btw). That's right, Bo Jackson wasn't Bo Jackson on the field. He was Jason Vorhees, the stone-cold, calculated killer.

So if even Bo Jackson had to assume an alternative identity to reach his peak performance, who else could be using this method?

Once you start looking, you don't have to search very far as Herman discussed in this (highly recommended) podcast conversation with Rich Roll from 2018. A few of the examples he gives are:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. — who put on non-prescription glasses before his speeches to transform himself into a person capable of handling such high-stakes moments

  • David Goggins — who turns into his alter ego "Goggins" when tackling any of his (many) impressive physical feats

  • Mister Rogers — who used his puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, as his alter ego to help convey messages he didn’t feel he could communicate on his own

  • James Lawrence — who created the alternate identity "The Iron Cowboy" to help him persevere through the unbelievable accomplishment of 50 Ironman races in 50 consecutive days

So what benefits can alter egos have?

To cite Herman again, they can allow us “to suspend disbelief in what we conventionally think we are or aren't capable of.”

In other words, by taking on an alternate identity, even for just a short period, we may be capable of more than we would normally give ourselves credit for.

James Lawrence may not have been capable of getting out of bed on Day 49 of his Ironman streak. But that choice wasn't up to James Lawrence. That was The Iron Cowboy's call.

Bo Jackson may not have been able to bust through defensive lines, but he didn't have to. That stone-cold killer, Jason, was unstoppable.

How can we leverage this in our own lives?

It's not just on the athletic field where such alternative identities have come in handy. We're all playing different roles depending on the stage we're on at any given moment—from home, to work, and everywhere in between. A little while back, I wrote about James Clear's concept of identity-based habits, and how powerful identity can be as a driver for helping us to cultivate the behaviors that we aspire to.

The same is true here. And it doesn’t require us to be inauthentic. The reality is that my three kids require a different version of me than what might be needed at work. And despite all of the well-intentioned corporate rhetoric about bringing our "whole selves" to work, we needn't feel guilty for being different people in different scenarios.

The idea of cultivating an alter ego is taking that a step further. It is essentially a "hack" for breaking through our own self-imposed limitations. If we can, indeed, suspend reality and take on an alternative identity—even if it's just "work Greg," there’s reason to believe that it could help us to unlock a new level of potential.

Herman recommends taking the following steps to actually implement this tactic:

  1. Identify a part of your life that is causing you frustration. It could be anything. Maybe "I'm terrible at public speaking," or "I want to be more present with my kids."

  2. Find someone or something that embodies the traits you wish you had to handle these situations.

  3. Invent your alter ego. Again, it could be anything—from Tiger Woods on the golf course, to just another "work" or "stage" version of yourself.

  4. Visualize how the event will play out for your alter ego. Try to imagine how it will "feel" to overcome the weaknesses you're battling.

  5. Find a cue. Something to physically let your brain know it's time to switch identities. It could be glasses, a bracelet, anything really.

  6. Try it. Focus on the process, not the outcome. You're not going to completely transform in one day, but can you notice any tangible benefits?

This concept that could almost be described as hacking our identities and giving our brains a cue that it's time to switch is related to what I discussed last week about Daniel Kahneman's concept of Level 1 and Level 2 thinking. Often our logical/overthinking (Level 2) brain is getting in the way of our performance. The use of alter egos can be a powerful way to let us simply react and let Level 1 take over, especially in high-pressure situations likes public speeches or even in taking tests.

If you think this all sounds a bit, I don't know... embarrassing? I've got good news. If you do try this, there is only one person who needs to know: you.

And while you may not be ready to start referring to yourself in the third person, or chastising yourself with "C'mon, Tiger. You're better than this," every time you miss a putt on the golf course, you might be capable of being just a bit more intentional about who is going to show up—at work, at home or on the athletic field. This small mindset change, unnoticeable to anyone but you, may just surprise you with its power.

So go ahead, grab that cape. Or at least those glasses. And let your alter ego try its hand at a bit of world domination.

That’s it for this week. Thanks as always for reading. I’m excited to share that the Intentional Wisdom community has grown to over 400-strong! If you like the newsletter, please share it with a friend who you think might benefit from reading.

Thanks again, and have a great week! — Greg


Photo credit: Ali Kokab

Extra credit: Podcasts and Nike ads…

Todd Herman and Rich Roll — This article was almost completely inspired by this conversation. So much great stuff packed into this episode. Add it to your queue!

Bo Knows — I can't have a Bo Jackson reference without providing some totally awesome 80’s throwback ads.

The 80’s were the best. That’s really it! Have a great week!