Every Action You Take is a Vote for the Type of Person You Wish to Become

The above line is taken from the book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. What a powerful statement this is. Every action, positive or negative, is a vote. Reminds me of the American Indian parable, Two Wolves:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.
“One is Evil –  It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.“
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?“
The old Cherokee simply replied:
“The one you feed.”

Aristotle has a quote with a well-known last line, but what precedes the last line is indicative of the link between actions and identity, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” Our future is not shaped by big decisions or events, but by our daily habits. What we repeatedly do defines who we become.

We are what we do every day and yet a lot of what we do every day is subconscious and reflexive, based on patterns and routines developed without fully realizing it. I did a previous blog post on Mindfulness. Mindfulness in one’s day-to-day life maintains an alertness of choices, feelings, thoughts and perceptions. Mindfulness decides what is noise and what is meaningful. The Health and Wellness program I am currently on has the line – “Mindfulness helps you avoid choices that lead you away from success.” These choices are actions that determine identity.

In his book, Clear talks about three levels of transformation: Outcomes, process, and identity. Outcomes are the tangible changes one hopes to see. Process is the way one will achieve that outcome. Identity is the kind of person one will become. Changes in outcomes can come from changes in process. However long-term sustainable change only comes through a change in identity.

Most people start with goals rather than identity. It’s hard to change our habits if we never change the underlying beliefs that led to our past behavior. We can have new goals and new plans, but we haven’t changed who we are. The key to change, then, is identity change. For example, instead of saying, “I’m trying to stop smoking,” say, “I’m not a smoker.” True behavior change is identity change. We might be motivated to start a habit, but the only reason we’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of our identity. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who we are.

The goal is not to stop or start something, it’s to become someone. I want to become a healthier person as opposed to starting a diet. Research has shown that once a person believes in an identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. Identity fuels behavior. Actions reflect our principles and beliefs.

In several character lessons with the high school football team, I referenced a quote by Frank Outlaw, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; Watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits they become character; watch you character, it becomes your destiny” and a similar one by Tyron Edwards, “Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny.”

We have tremendous Influence as parents, mentors, and coaches to young and emerging adults about actions setting habits. Teenagers are determining their “identity” and naturally that results in putting themselves first. I would often extrapolate out what a bad decision or choice by a teenager would be if that same decision was made as an adult. As a football coach I once sent our star running back home at the start of practice. He didn’t like my new kick-off return and was mumbling about me under his breath. After practice I explained potential implications of mumbling under his breath to a spouse, boss and even a stranger in a bar whose reaction could be extreme.

Whitney Johnson wrote an article “Instead of Making Resolutions, Dream.” She compares resolutions (goals) with dreams (Identity). Noting that resolutions are about actions and what ‘we should do’ while dreams are about identity and ‘who we could be.’ Dreams can create something so powerful it will overtake old habits, old customs, and old ways of thinking and being. Timothy Pychyl, in his article “Teenagers, Identity Crises and Procrastination” notes that until we have a vision of who we are and who we want to become, we can’t accomplish much.

In a survey of 720 business executives, companies that were viewed to have a strong identity outperformed their competitors by 25% (HBR, Sales Revenue, 2010-2013). A strong corporate identity leads to a strong culture. A company’s identity can drive the entire organization to perform and provides the framework to operate the company. A powerful identity drives the company culture which further drives the value proposition they offer their customers. This supports the business adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The process of Bible reading, and prayer are a path God has given us for spiritual growth. As Christians, if we disconnect our identity from the process then the process isn’t going to last, nor habits stick. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he urges his readers to change their sense of identity, to establish new thoughts about who they are, to view themselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ.

As followers of Jesus, we seek Him through Scripture and prayer. Additionally, acts of generosity, forgiveness, service, and discipleship all support that identity.

Every action is a vote. The persona with the most votes win.

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