Cast a Vote for Your Identity

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted a concept from James Clear about setting identity-based habits versus outcome-based habits. James’s book, Atomic Habits, provides excellent background and framework about how to establish habits that work for you.

One of the most compelling concepts he shares in the book is the idea that each habit you have – good or bad – is like casting a vote for your identity. If you’re someone who exercises regularly and eats well, you’re casting a vote as a person who is health conscious and takes care of themselves. If you’re someone who spends everyday reading a book for 15 minutes, you’re casting a vote as a person who is interested in learning.

I’ve always felt that my journey for self awareness & self acceptance (which I’m still working on) has always involved two sides: the aspirational and the skeptical. The aspirational would be the one that encourages me to try new things and be a better version of myself; whereas the skeptical would be the voice at the back of my mind that says “let’s see how long this is going to last” with a bit of a smirk. Becoming a different version of ourselves – an ideal version – means we need to be constantly casting the votes for the identity that we want to become. With enough votes, we can slowly start to make the skeptical side of us to actually believe we can do it and that we are who we want to be.

If we want to be braver, calmer, kinder, healthier, etc. etc. we need to consistently be casting votes through our actions – whether they’re habits or decisions we make – to prove to our our skeptical (i.e. subsconscious mind) that we are who we’re saying we are.

Self Awareness and Self Acceptance

If you’re earnestly pursing a life with ikigai, self awareness and self acceptance will no doubt be part of the terrain you’ll explore. First we need to get to know ourselves better. We need to understand how our childhood and past experiences have influenced what we believe. Second we need to accept that regardless of what may have happened in the past we only have control over who we are now. Past traumas don’t have to influence how we see or feel about ourselves. Without trying to sound too cheesy, we need to have the courage to love ourselves in order to live with ikigai.

Contributing to the world

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on launching my podcast – The Ikigai Project. I’ve recorded six interviews so far and I’m noticing a common theme amongst the conversations I’m having. Searching for your ikigai (i.e. your life’s purpose) is strongly correlated with making an impact in the world.

I’m not necessarily talking about the big impact, Nobel prize winning ideas. The contribution my guests are making are often simple interactions with another human being. It could be a thoughtful, caring conversation with a struggling friend or helping to uncover the potential of a colleague by providing honest feedback.

When we feel like we’re making a difference in the world around us, we lean closer to our ikigai. If you’re thinking of living your life with more ikigai, it could be worth exploring the unique ways you can contribute to the world around you.

Living life through principles

Last week, I wrote a bit about James Clear’s idea about setting identity-based habits versus outcome-based habits in your life. If we can set habits that are better aligned with our identity, it’s more likely that it will be sustainable. Every desirable habit that you do casts a vote about the person you want to become. You begin to actually believe you can become that type of person.

I think there’s a supporting element to identity-based habits — your principles.

If habits are your day-to-day behaviours that are on autopilot, then what do we do when you have to stop and think about a decision we need to make? It could be a simple decision like “what do I eat for lunch?” or a complex one like “do I take this job or not?” Either way, it’s going to require some amount of decision-making to figure out what you want to do.

This is where principles come in. Life is complex but if we have guiding principles that are aligned with our identity, we might be able to make better, more consistent decisions. Much like an aligned habit will cast a vote of confidence, decisions that are aligned with your principles can further instill that confidence.

Principles don’t get developed overnight, of course. It can take years to craft out a set of principles that will help guide your decision-making. But it’s better to start thinking about them now.

Who do you want to be?

When we decide to make a change in our life, we typically think about setting tangible goals. They could look like…

I want to lose 10 lbs.

I want to find a partner who is like x, y, z.

I want to increase my earnings by 10%.

Goals can be useful but if we start the journey of change with goals, we may be losing out on the bigger picture.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of building “identity-based” habits over “outcome-based” habits. Building “identity-based” habits is about thinking first about what kind of person do you want to be. Instead of thinking about losing 10 lbs, you can aspire to become a health-conscious person.

For example, over the summer I had the privilege of running a Spartan Race. In the months leading up to my race, my mantra became “is this something a Spartan would do?” for all my decisions. It impacted what I ate, how early I went to bed, and how often I trained. It was a very powerful motivator when I had an identity that I wanted to embody.

For the change you’re looking to make in your life, see if you can start by building an “identity-based” habit. Think about the people you admire in your life – what are they like? Becoming the best version of yourself starts by redefining who you want to be.

h/t Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year via James Clear

Lean into vulnerability

It’s easy to focus on the good stuff. The positive things that are happening in our lives. We feel good about the progress we’re making and the strong self image we’re building of ourselves.

But when we’re trying to connect with other people in a meaningful way it’s not the highlight reel that people want to talk about. Nor is it what helps us connect with others in a meaningful way.

Sharing our failures and our mistakes is what deepens relationships. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t about complaining about things – it’s about sharing what’s genuinely challenging us in our lives.

This isn’t easy. It requires self awareness and reflection about what’s bothering us in our lives. It also requires courage to come face-to-face with what we’re not happy about and what we’re doing about it.

Being vulnerable with others opens the door to our hearts to ourselves and others.

It starts with self acceptance

Becoming who you’re meant to be starts with self acceptance. It’s about embracing what makes you, you, and all the charm and weirdness that comes with it. When we withhold ourselves from other in a way we’re implicitly rejecting ourselves. There’s nothing sadder than a life that’s led not being one’s true self.

So how do we start the journey towards self acceptance? One way could be to take a small step everyday to reveal something honest and vulnerable about ourselves. When we share something personal with others, we’re not only learning to accept ourselves but learning to connect more deeply with others.

What will you share today?

The first principle

Richard Feynman was a prominent physicist known for his work in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. Perhaps one of the smartest men in his generation, even he knew that we could become over confident in our own abilities and self perception. He’s famously quotes having said:

The First Principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

It’s easy to think that when you achieve competency in something you know enough about that topic. It’s easy to let you ego take over and begin to protect your self image about how smart, how strong, how secure, etc. etc. you might be. While this might be comforting it’s a dangerous place to be.

Why? Because you stop learning. You start creating blindspots because you’re not absorbing new information coming in about yourself or the environment around you. You miss new opportunities that could take you to the next level.

Feynman kept The First Principle top of mind by constantly challenging himself in new endeavours totally unrelated to physics. He would learn how to draw, study biology, hike the Mayan pyramids, or investigate how dogs’ sense of smell worked. He lived a life of curiosity – ignoring what other people thought of him along the way.

We should always keep The First Principle in mind. Acknowledging that whether we’re just starting out or at the top of our field that we can always learn something.

Build horizontal relationships

When we connect with other human beings, we have a choice. We can either create vertical or horizontal relationships.

Vertical relationships are marked by hierarchy. One person is perceived as better than the other. You might see these relationships at work, in families, and even friendships.

When we step into the world of vertical relationships, we automatically go into a mode of judging. We think: “Is this person better than us?” or “How might I please this superior?” We begin to cloud our thoughts and actions with a biased filter.

In contrast, when we approach every person we meet through the lens of horizontal relationships, we are treating them like a peer. We start conversations more openly and honestly. We’re not stuck in our own heads thinking about the other person’s agenda. We’re not there to please or impose our authority.

Building horizontal relationships is about recognizing the human-ness in each other. None of us are the same but we’re all equal. If we can treat all of our relationships in life – with our neighbours, friends, bosses, colleagues, strangers – as horizontal relationships, our lives change. We stop comparing ourselves with others and focus on the relationship with them.

The challenge is how we can adopt new habits that can help us lean into relationships that way. One way is to remind ourselves of some of our best relationships – are they vertical or horizontal? The best relationships are ones that are likely horizontal. They’re ones in which we feel a sense of togetherness, collaboration, and trust. It’s very difficult to build a relationships of trust when one person supposedly wields more power than the other.

The origins of ikigai

On a chain of small islands off the southern coast of Japan known as Okinawa, there’s something incredible happening. Residents there are living some of the longest, healthiest, and happiest lives. Even for a country known for its longevity where the average lifespan is 84 years old, Okinawans live a full 5 years longer. Research has described Okinawa as a Blue Zone – areas in the world where people live some of the longest and healthiest lives.

What makes Okinawans live longer and healthier? One contributing factor could be the concept of ikigai which originated from the region. Roughly translated to “the reason for being”, ikigai means that you’re jumping out of bed every morning with a sense of meaning & purpose in your life. More specifically, ikigai happens at the intersection where what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you’re good at come together.

We live in an incredible time in history where, through the advancement of human ingenuity and technology, access to knowledge and opportunity can be found all over the place. And yet many of us find ourselves disconnected, disengaged, and even dissatisfied with aspects of our lives.

What happened here? And why is there this nagging sense “I should be doing more” or “I’m not good enough” whenever we hop onto our social media feed or engage in small talk with strangers? What principles can we learn from groups of people like the Okinawans so we can not only extend the length but also the quality of our lives?

Wherever you’re starting from, there might be a place for ikigai in your life. Living with ikigai doesn’t have to mean a whole life makeover like quitting your well-paying job or going on a 30-day silent meditation retreat. It’s about infusing what we currently do with more meaning, focusing less on material rewards, finding ways to get into a “flow” state more often, and bringing more experiences in our lives that spark joy.