We all have an identity. It’s who we are. It’s how we see ourselves.
We’ve been told for years about our great – and not so great – qualities. We’re kind, hard-working, great at basketball. We talk too loudly, we’re anxious, we suck at parallel parking (which I haven’t ever done in the 10 years since my driver’s exam). What few people understand is that you have control over your identity and who you choose to be.
Famed basketball coach John Wooden once noted that character is more important than reputation because “your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are”. You can control your character.
“Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are”.
– John Wooden
In that same line of thinking, you can control your identity. You can control the type of person you want to be.
People throughout history have looked to warp their identity to meet an ideal image. Long before Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he called himself “The Greatest”.
As a child, Clay was the farthest thing from a prodigal fighter. In fact, he wasn’t interested in fighting until his beloved red-and-white Schwinn bike was stolen at the age of 12.
But as he developed his skills, he began speaking more of his greatness. The greater his proclamation, the more outlandish the claim, the harder he had to work to become that person. Through hard work and visualization, Clay changed his identity, not only to become Muhammad Ali but to become “The Greatest” in the world at boxing.
In James Clear’s NYT Bestselling book, Atomic Habits, he breaks down how small changes to our habits can result in massive breakthroughs over time. One major factor of the building (or breaking) a habit is built around our identity.
Let me give you an example. Two people are in the midst of quitting smoking and are approached by a well-intentioned friend with an offer for a cigarette. Person 1 says “No thanks, I’m not smoking right now”. Person 2 says “No thanks, I’m not a smoker”.
Do you see the difference? Person 1 declined the cigarette but left the door open for a smoke at a later date. Person 2 not only declined this cigarette but all future cigarettes by explaining she isn’t a smoker.
We unknowingly place labels like this on ourselves all the time, both in positive and negative sequences. “I’m a great cook”. “I’m a runner”. “I’m not a morning person”.
Clear continues to tell a story of a woman who lost over 100 pounds just by asking herself throughout the day “Would a healthy person do that?”. When approached with options: salad or french fries, stairs or the elevator, she would simply ask herself the magical question and knew her answer.
By identifying as “being healthy”, she, well, became a lot healthier.
Several years ago, I became fascinated with the habits of successful people. Time and time again, I saw that the people I emulated woke up early at the crack of dawn. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. The only problem: I was a night owl accustomed to the lazy life that most college seniors slide into.
I decided to change that habit. I wanted my identity to be a “morning person”. My first step was to set my alarm forward 15 minutes for a week. The next week, I’d add another 15 minutes. I told myself – and others – that I was a morning person so often that I started to believe it.
Before long, I was waking up while it was still dark outside. Now, those hours before others are up and at ‘em are the times I make major life changes. They are the times that I created my podcast, wrote these blogs and trained for a marathon.
The mindset and action go hand in hand. It’s not just about passing up this 1 cigarette, waking up early once in a while, or eating healthy when it’s convenient for you. For the important habits in life, you need to form an identity around it.
“I’m not a morning person”. Bullshit. Tell yourself you are, and start taking action.
When you have a clear identity, the day-to-day decisions tend to become visible. You need to write this morning. You’ll skip that donut and workout this afternoon. You won’t blow off your daughter’s next dance recital.
So my question is, who are you? How do you identify?
If we want to change our habits, we must first change our identity.