I’m a scientist.
And a feminist.
I’m a coach.
And a writer.
And I work out.
I also am an infinite list of other things. I am full of complexities and contradictions.
Still, I rely on this shorthand to describe myself. I use it to set an expectation. To convey a framework for understanding my behavior and my intentions. I take advantage of the fact that you already know people like us do things like this.
We all do it to some degree. We encapsulate our identity. We believe ourselves to be part of a certain group (or groups), because our behaviors or values align with the group members. And we use those titles to give meaning to how we act.
It works the other way, too.
When we believe ourselves to be part of a group—when we take on an identity—our behavior more-easily shifts to align with the group’s behavior. Astonishingly easily. So easily that we accuse people of drinking the kool-aid when they jump in to a new thing. Because such rapid and significant change can seemingly only be explained by a cult-like peer pressure intense enough to overcome our will.
In reality, it is our new identity that shapes our will.
It is our belief that people like us do things like this that shapes our behavior.
This fact of human nature can both catalyze our success or contribute to our downfall.
First, the bad news.
The more we are exposed to something, the more we accept it and start to like it, even if it is bad for us. This is why when people start dating their eating habits converge. Or when your best friends can’t stop talking about Arrested Development, you set yourself up for a weekend binge before heading out of town with them (true story). Because you want to be in on the joke. And besides, people like us do things like this.
So we have to be careful!
If we identify with a group only partially—because the CrossFit gym is close to the house, the workouts are incredible, and the people are nice—we might also find ourselves spending a Summer weekend indoors watching strangers exercise on TV. Even though we are bored by televised sports (another true story). Because our identity shapes our behavior, and people like us to things like this.
And it doesn’t even have to be a group identity. Actually, it can be more powerful when it is internal, because you don’t have the inherent contradictions of the people around you to help snap you out of it (wait?! that CrossFitter smokes? Maybe there are some behaviors associated with this identity that I don’t have to do…).
The more we repeat something to ourselves, the more we start to believe it. It is the same exposure effect, only on the inside. For example, how many people do you know who aren’t a math person? There aren’t really any clubs for that. And yet, how powerful is that internal identity in shaping their choices? In creating stress in their lives when they encounter the math world?
Now, the good news.
We can harness the power of our identity to shape our behavior. We can use our belief about who we are to catalyze the changes that we want to make in our lives. We can hack our motivation by editing our list of I’m a… statements.
Let’s be clear. It can’t be fake. It won’t work just by repeating the new phrase in the mirror every morning (although that does help!). It takes a shift in perspective. A new way of looking at things. The lightbulb came on for me and my efforts to promote my health and wellbeing when I realized that I am a professional athlete. You are too! And when I understood that leaders go first. I’m a leader. That means I also must go first!
Associating with those identities made it crystal clear what I needed to do.
How about you? What changes do you want to make in your life? Is there part of your identity holding you back? Is there a group or type—an identity—that promotes the behavior you seek for yourself? Can you find a way that you already exhibit some of the behaviors of that group? Or a way that you already identify with the values of that group? A way that you might already be a member (but you just don’t know it, yet)?
If you create a new identity, the desired behavior change will come more easily.
Having trouble? Don’t worry. This can be deep and sticky work. Give me a call. I’d be happy to help.
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"People Like Us Do Things Like This," on Seth's Blog by Seth Godin.
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath