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Learn about yourself by prioritizing the process over results and perceptions
In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about Identity-Based Habits. He pushes back against being too focused on goals and urges people to be more focused on identity:
“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.”
Clear uses a common goal people have, wanting to lose weight, to demonstrate this. Rather than having a goal to lose X pounds with the plan of simply eating better or exercising more, which is doomed to fail because of the plan’s ambiguity and reliance on willpower, people should take an identity based approach:
“Want to lose weight?
Identity: Become the type of person who moves more every day.
Small win: Buy a pedometer. Walk 50 steps when you get home from work. Tomorrow, walk 100 steps. The day after that, 150 steps. If you do this 5 days per week and add 50 steps each day, then by the end of the year, you’ll be walking over 10,000 steps per day.”
It’s a subtle but important mindset shift. Focusing on becoming the type of person who loses weight leads to identifying clear, actionable processes (habits) that support the goal and with patience and consistency lead to the desired result.
This is a refrain also echoed by Jay Shetty in Think Like A Monk, though he’s coming from a different perspective. Shetty is asking people to question the motivations behind their goals and ambitions. He shares a story about how he wishes he could recite every verse from the scripture like another monk at his ashram, when a senior monk astutely gets Shetty to question his motivations. He asks him, “Do you wish you could do that, or do you wish you could learn to do that? Think about your motivation. Do you want to memorize all of the scripture because it’s an impressive achievement, or do you want the experience of having studied it? In the first, all you want is the outcome. In the second, you are curious about what you might learn from the process.”
Shetty notes that “This was a new concept for me, and it blew my mind. Desiring an outcome had always seemed reasonable to me. The monk was telling me to question why I wanted to do what was necessary to reach that outcome.”
This is something that struck me as I found myself reading a book about ultra runners running 100-mile races. I started to think about how cool it would be to say you finished one of these races, maybe even with a good time. Then I realized, I wanted to be able to bank the result, but I definitely did not, at least for the time being, want to be the type of person that can run a 100-mile race well - the training, time commitment, mental and physical suffering, diet, etc.
It’s interesting how similar Clear and Shetty are thinking conceptually, even though Clear is talking about how to best get to a desired result and Shetty about whether we should even want the result in the first place.
What’s the purpose of this post? I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s important to check in with ourselves once in a while and make sure that A) who we really are lines up with how we perceive ourselves and B) that our desires are “worthy pursuits”. I think I’ll write about the concept of “worthy pursuits” in a future post, so let’s focus on A.
As I get older, it’s easier and easier for my perception of myself to get detached from reality. There seems to be less opportunities to prove myself for lack of a better word, or at least I need to more actively seek out these opportunities. I’ve always thought of myself as a kind person. When I was younger, I had ample opportunities to show my kindness. I was with groups of people often - through school, playing sports, work, etc., and it was a bit more organic for me to show my kindness to people because situations simply presented themselves in those settings.
Fast forward to age 35. There’s been a pandemic for the last 3 years. I’ve worked almost exclusively from home for 9 years. My friends and I are all busy with our lives, and I see them far less frequently. I don’t play on any sports teams.
So, while I still think of myself as a kind person, the fact is, I don’t know how true that is any more. Not because I’m unkind, but because I’m not actively practicing kindness. If I’m a kind person, I need to do acts of kindness. Seems obvious.
This is where Clear’s identity-based habits come into play. With less organic circumstances arising to be kind, I need to create kindness habits or at least be more mindful and proactive of seeking out opportunities to be kind throughout the day. It’s easy to assume I’m still kind because it’s difficult to disprove, but I want to be able to view myself as a kind person and have confidence and support in that view.
This can be applied to any personality trait. If you think you are competitive, athletic, hard working, calm, a voracious reader, where’s the proof? We’re all better off if we practice what we preach and are able to accurately evaluate ourselves. We’re also better off when we’re focused, which is where Shetty’s questioning of ambitions (do we love the process or just the result?) can lead us to focus on the traits we want to continue to own and develop. On the other hand, we can let go and detach ourselves from any self-perceptions or ambitions that no longer suit us. Have a goal to run a fast 5k time but detest all the training that goes into it? Maybe, find another outlet where you can prove your fitness and competitiveness while enjoying the process or table this ambition altogether.