Identity First: How To Build a Self-Sustaining Path To Better Learning and Growth

In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear shows us how to build good habits and cut out bad ones. One particular concept in the book has dramatically improved my own ability to learn and grow. It is the idea that you can improve your success in life, not just by focusing on your goals, but also by reconsidering and changing your own identity. 

Your identity is how you see yourself in the world. It is what you believe about who you are. It influences your actions everyday. Your habits are the consistent actions that reinforce your beliefs. Most people focus on actions, without addressing self-belief or identity. By ignoring your identity, you might be holding yourself back. 

This can feel counterintuitive. Many of us work on learning a new skill with the hope that someday we will reach a level of proficiency to be an expert. We start learning to write in the hopes of eventually becoming a novelist. We start learning to code and hope to eventually become a software engineer. We think that if we keep learning and practicing, we will reach a moment in the future where we can finally feel like we have “arrived”. That will be the moment when we can finally adopt the new identity we have been chasing for so long. 

For some though, that moment never comes. Some people drop off the learning path and lose the habits necessary to reach their goals. Some of us will actually arrive at a high level of proficiency and mastery in our work, but still feel incomplete due to imposter syndrome. No matter how much effort we put towards building habits and consistently pursuing our goals, our beliefs about ourselves continue to hold us back. Our identity can work against us. As James Clear puts it “old identity can sabotage (our) new plans for change.”

So how do you change your identity? It requires a subtle shift in mindset. It starts with redefining our goals in terms of identity first, not just action. For example, instead of thinking about the act of writing (the action), think about being a writer (the identity). Embrace the identity of a writer, and then the habit of writing will come more naturally. Similarly, focus on being a programmer (the identity) instead of coding (the action). Starting with identity first will fuel your intrinsic motivation to keep the habit going. As Clear puts it succinctly, “every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” With time, this creates a self-sustaining loop. Your identity drives your actions. Your actions strengthen your identity. 

In Atomic Habits, this approach is illustrated using the 3 Layers of Behavior Change:

Normally we define our goals and outcomes first, then our habits and process towards achieving those goals. And once those are achieved, we arrive at a new identity. We try to change from the outside in. Instead, you can reverse the direction of change. Start with your identity first, then establish the habits and processes that will help you achieve your goals. Before you ask “how” or “what”, ask “who”. By choosing the “who” first we can make the right choices in the habits and processes that we learn. Our actions become more meaningful and more effective.

Our identities are often a product of our life experiences and how we were raised by our parents. Most people go through life accepting their self-beliefs without ever questioning them. But your identity is a choice that you can make. You can decide the kind of person you want to be. And that decision can lead you down a self-sustaining path towards success. 

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