You think you know who you are? Prove it.
1980s gameshows and identity-based habits
Do you remember the old TV show The Newlywed Game? You know the one. Newly married couples are asked a series of questions about their mates, and when the answers are revealed—along with plenty of hilarity-inducing references to “making whoopee,” it turns out they don’t know each other nearly as well as they thought. Yeah. Good show. Slot it in right between The Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal, and you’ve got yourself a nice little day of playing hooky (in 1989, of course).
Is there something to be learned from decades-old TV gameshows outside of the fact that grown men can have the first name Wink?
Yes. It’s that we don’t always know what we think we know. Especially when it comes to our identities.
Forget about our spouses or significant others. We’ve got no hope of knowing what’s going on in those foreign brains.
But what about ourselves? Surely, we know who we are, right?
That’s a question I found myself asking after a recent re-read of James Clear’s Atomic Habits.* Clear’s philosophy of building healthy, lasting habits is based on the idea that we need to start with who we are—or who we’re trying to be—and then work backward to figure out the habits that that “kind of person” would maintain. To paraphrase, every action we take casts a vote—negative or positive—for the identity that we are cultivating.
So, in thinking about this, I zeroed in on a few identities that I like to think I personify (some may be slightly aspirational but not way off). Here’s a sample of these:
A good dad
A caring husband
An effective leader at work
A physically fit person
A respected writer
A happy person
A 10 handicap golfer**
Sounds pretty good, right?
Sure. The problem, of course, came when I started monitoring my actions every day to see if they actually aligned with these perceived identities.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
It wasn’t that I was being a bad dad; or a jerk to my wife; or letting myself get wildly out of shape.
It’s more that I was just kind of phoning it in with these roles. I assumed that “I know who I am,” and therefore I didn’t really need to go out of my way to prove it. But when I tracked my true actions, my efforts on any given day were spotty at best when it came to any one of these identities.
So, I decided to take some action. I mapped out each identity that I believed I embodied and then listed specific habits that a person with that identity would actually practice. Here’s a sample for illustration purposes:
I am a good husband. What would a good husband do?
Plan one date per week
Do one nice thing for my wife every day
I am physically fit. What would a physically fit person do?
Exercise 10 minutes per day
I am a respected writer. What would a respected writer do?
Write 100 words per day
Publish one article per week
I am a 10-handicap golfer. What would a 10-handicap golfer do?
Hit one golf ball per week
As you can see, the idea is to break down these identities into tasks that are actually achievable and able to be monitored. In other words, to give yourself the ammunition you need to actually prove that you are who you say you are.
Now, of course, coming up with habits is one thing. Practicing them and sticking with them is another. I won’t comprehensively cover the latter in this article, but I will give you a few tactics that I am personally attempting along these lines.
But first… let’s watch a video of me in my basement.
Make the bare minimum easy to achieve
Part of the trick to establishing and maintaining a habit is to make it easy to achieve the bare minimum version of that habit. Basically, just enough so that you can say “Yeah, I did that today.”
This concept again draws upon James Clear’s work. For example, if you wanted to start a push-up habit, you should commit to doing one push-up per day. Some days, when you’re exhausted or sick, you’ll do just that: one push-up. But most of the other days, as long as you’re down on the floor in a push-up position, you’re going to go ahead and bang out 10 or 20 or whatever the right number is for you.
The habits that form the foundation of our identities tend to all work this way. For instance, if we look at some of the habits I listed above, exercising 10 mins/day is the exact same concept. Most days, when I’ve made my way to my home gym and have my sneakers on, I’m going to do more than 10 mins. Maybe’s it’s 20 or 30 mins, or maybe even an hour. But those other days—those days when the baby did not sleep at all, or my work schedule is beyond ridiculous, it might be just that: 10 minutes. And that’s okay. It’s a completed habit. On to the next day.
Similarly, for golf. Hit one golf ball per week? Ridiculous, right? Well, that means that I need to be either on a driving range or a golf course once a week. If I’m there, I’ll inevitably hit more than one. The point is getting there. (We don’t count backyard whiffle balls here people, c’mon. And I’m not sure I cleared this habit on the homefront, but that’s another conversation).
The list goes on. If I’m going to write 100 words, I’m probably going to write 200 or 500., etc.
Make it easy to achieve success and you can feel good about conquering that thing every day even if some days it will understandably only be the bare minimum.
Make it obvious
In my gym/home office, I’ve got a whiteboard with all of these written out. So I see them every day. Not only do I see the habits but I see the identities.
I literally read the words: I am a great dad. I am a physically fit person, etc. Now before you start conjuring up images of SNL’s Stuart Smalley****, remember that we give ourselves too much credit for assuming that we’ll automatically act in ways that are consistent with our perceived identities. Our brains are cluttered with a million thoughts, it’s incredibly easy to lose our way and to start acting in ways that are inconsistent who we think we are.
The physical act of reading these words and reminding myself who I am is both simple and incredibly powerful. And notice that I’m not saying “who I aspire to be.” Who you aspire to be is a version of yourself that is perpetually in the future, who you always have an excuse not to become. I’m saying “this is who I am.” If some of these identities are aspirational or a bit of a stretch, let them be. I’m happy to prove that’s who I am every day. (Am I getting too “Tony Robbins” here on you? Sorry).
Make it fun
We are so simple-minded. It’s sad but true. We are animals and our brains are wired as such. But rather than lamenting it, we might as well take advantage of it.
Our brains love when things are gamified—when we turn simple tasks in little contests or games that we can win (and get rewarded for).
I’ve recently started using an app called Streaks. It lets you enter 12 habits that you want to complete at whatever cadence you set (daily, weekly, etc.). When you complete a habit, you hold down the button and it gives you a tactile response—a little buzz. When you complete all of your habits for the day, they all turn gold.
Here’s what it looks like:
Sounds incredibly juvenile. Turning our lives into low-budget Super Mario games? Guess what? It works. Our simple brains fire off all sorts of dopamine when we get physical responses or little rewards like digital gold coins. “Ha,” you might think, “I’m too sophisticated for that.” Nope, you aren’t. There are damn good reasons that these things are built into video games at every turn—little sounds, little vibrations, etc. They’re half of what makes slot machines so addictive, too. We’re just slightly more advanced versions of Pavlov’s dogs, so you’re better off just realizing it and using it to your advantage. For me, it’s using an app. For others, the simple act of checking off a box on a calendar can be the signal that you have achieved your goal. Find what works for you.
So that is the basic framework that I’m using to “prove my identity to myself.”
Like all of us, I fail and I fail often at this stuff. And that’s half that battle; failing and then picking yourself up to try again. It’s inevitable that it will happen, but I still think it’s worth doing the introspective work to figure out who you are and then checking if your actions are actually proving it.
The title of this newsletter is Intentional Wisdom and this concept of trying to align our actions with our identities really gets to the heart of intentionality.
That’s ultimately what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to live my life a bit more intentionally, knowing that we only get one go around. And my goal is to share some of my learnings with you, warts and all, in the hope that you may pick up a nugget here or there that will help you along your own path. I hope it helps and thanks for reading!
* You may have noticed, I’ve referenced James Clear a few times recently. Atomic Habits is probably the best self-help book I’ve ever read. It’s packed with insight after insight, so please bear with me as I work through this period of fascination with that piece of work. Oh, and read the book if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s excellent.
**In case any of my friends read this, I am currently a 14 but I did say some of these were slightly aspirational, so you know…
***I am again drawing on or paraphrasing James Clear’s work
**** I don’t know what it is with the SNL references in this newsletter, lately. Do you remember Stuart Smalley as brought to life by Al Franken? I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me!
Finally, if you’re looking to go down a rabbit hole, just type “The Newlywed Game” into YouTube, where you can find hours of entertainment and all the “whoopee” you can handle.
Image credit: Monica Silverstre via pexels.com