On this episode of Dare to Lead
Even before James Clear and I met, I knew this would be a two-part series. I just had so many questions for the author of Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 50 languages. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be exactly the type of conversation I’d anticipated. In part 1 of our series, we talk specifically about developing identity-based habits and how we can become the architects of those habits, not the victims of them. We also talk about the intersection of his work and mine, the collective stories we make up, and how our mindsets and our systems can set us up for success. It was so meaningful to finally meet James, to hear his story, and to take in his insights into how he developed such a deep understanding of the importance of consistency over intensity when it comes to forming habits that last.
Listen to the episode
Atomic Habits by James Clear
No matter your goals, Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving—every day. If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits—whether you are a team looking to win a championship, an organization hoping to redefine an industry, or simply an individual who wishes to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, or achieve any other goal.
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Barrett Guillen: Hi everyone, I’m Barrett Guillen, and this is Dare to Lead. I’m up here at the office, I was just going to start with a little sneak peak into what’s been going on with us this week. We’re still not fully back, but there are a few of us here from time to time, and this week we got the most special delivery. We got four pallets full of our new book, Atlas of the Heart, that comes out November 30th. Bryan and Cookie have been here trucking boxes up and down the stairs, getting ready for launch, and we could not be more excited about this book, y’all. It’s so beautiful inside and out. It’s really a culmination of Brené’s work over the last 25 years. I think you’re going to love it. More to come, I think we’re going to talk more about the book on the podcast in the upcoming weeks, but I did get to sneak away so that I could introduce the podcast for you this week. Whoo! And it is such a good one. This is part one of a two-part series that Brené is doing with James Clear on habits and his book, Atomic Habits, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. So many of us have read Atomic Habits, and it’s so good.
BG: But in this episode, we’re going to get to meet the man behind the book. James shares his story with us and gives us some more insight into how he develops his deep understanding of the importance of consistency over intensity when establishing habits to last. Y’all, I took literally almost six pages of notes during this episode. It’s so good and so helpful. Very tactical, I really love it. And it’s interesting because most of the time when we do a two-part series, we get into the conversation and then we decide, “Oh, we need to have one more episode,” but Brené knew before we even got started with James that she had so many questions she wanted to ask him that we just asked him from the beginning, “Can we do two episodes?” and he was all in. In this first episode, they talk about identity-based habits and how we can become the architects of our habits, not the victims of them. And then they dig into some real strategies about how to make that happen. They also talk about the intersection of his work and Brené’s work, the collective stories we all make up, and how those stories really can trigger some shame responses that set us up for failure. But they also cover how our mindsets and our systems can set us up for success.
BG: Just a side note on that, if you’ve heard Brené speak or do any events in the last several months, you’ll know that one thing that she’s been talking a lot about, a very specific quote from James’ book, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” We have been so obsessed with this quote, we’ve really been thinking about our own systems and how that applies to all of the systems that we build here at BBEARG. And it’s been so helpful for us. It is exactly the type of conversation we all hoped it would be, and we’re so glad you’re here.
BG: Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit more about James. James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision-making and continuous improvement. He is the author of the number one New York Times best seller, Atomic Habits. James is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies, and his work has been featured in places like Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on CBS This Morning. His popular 3-2-1 email newsletter is sent out each week to more than one million subscribers. You can learn more and sign up at jamesclear.com, and of course, we’ll link from our episode page on brenebrown.com.
Brené Brown: So let me start by saying that I’m so excited that you’re here. I have a thousand questions for you.
James Clear: Well, thank you so much.
BB: Yeah, sometimes we go into these podcasts and get halfway through it, and I’m like, “We should make this two sessions,” but from the very beginning, I was like this has got to be a part one and part two because you can’t fix me in one part.
JC: That’s all right. I have a lot to fix too, so we’re going to be here all day.
BB: Great. All right, we always start with the same thing. Tell us your story.
JC: Sure. How about I share some inflection points kind of along the way?
BB: I’d love that.
JC: I’m an Ohio boy. I was born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. I live in Columbus, Ohio now. Love it here, my family’s from here. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside. My grandparents owned a farm, I ran around in the woods there. And yeah, I just kind of cultivated my love for the outdoors. When I was four, I saw a cowboy on TV and decided that I wanted to have a lasso and do that too. So I took a screwdriver and tied it to a piece of string and was swinging it around my head in the backyard. My mom saw that and was like, “No, no, no.” And she couldn’t get out there in time, but I cut my eyelid and got some stitches from that. So I was spending a lot of time outdoors and just kind of tried to be a fun, crazy little kid. And played sports growing up, baseball, basketball, I played football for one year. In football, there are kids who are getting hit and kids who are giving hits, and I was always getting hit, so I was less interested in doing that for a long time. I love school, I was always really interested in school, learning and the sciences. I ended up majoring in biomechanics in college.
JC: And probably the first big inflection point for me was going to Denison University, which is where I went for undergrad. I got a full scholarship to go there, and that was this big moment for me because we never could have afforded it otherwise. And that was where I met my wife, which obviously was this life-changing thing. Also was where I came into my own as a baseball player and ended up having a good career there. And that was a very transformative period in my life and the first time that I was asked to play a really significant leadership role, being the captain of the team for the last two years, and ended up being an Academic All-American. And then I went to grad school, and that’s probably the second big inflection point. I went to Ohio State and got my MBA, but while I was there, there was this symposium, it was called the St. Gallen Symposium, and it was in Switzerland. And they sent an email out to everybody in the program and just said, “Hey, if you want to apply to this, you can. It’s like this essay competition.” And I had never been abroad, and was really interested in doing that, and so I tried and just threw my hat in the ring, and they select, I don’t know, about 100 kids from around the world, and I was one of them the first year, and so I got to go.
JC: And then the second year, I decided to try it again, and I ended up winning the thing. And the first place prize was $10,000. And that was the money that I used to start my business when I got out of school. If I hadn’t won that, I probably just would have got a regular job, and so that ended up being a very
JC: It put me on a very different trajectory. That was the money I had lived off of for the first six to nine months. Ended up not being enough, I moved back in with my parents for a few months. And then after about a year and a half, I had figured it out enough that I could go out on my own and get an apartment and do my thing. So that essay was a really important part in my entrepreneurial journey. And then deciding to start an email list was probably the next big thing. So this was November 12th, 2012. I wrote my first article on jamesclear.com, and I wrote a new article every Monday and Thursday for the next three years after that, and it was really that writing habit that kind of led to the growth of my site and my audience and everything that sort of has come afterward.
JC: That audience grew, I think I had about 200,000 subscribers after a couple of years, and that was what got me the book deal with Penguin Random House, and ultimately became Atomic Habits, which is probably the last kind of big inflection point. And so I worked on the book for three years, and then it came out in 2018, and has gone on and done really well since then. So those are some of the bigger highlights and moments along the way.
BB: I already have a lot of questions. I read your book when it first came out, was totally blown away.
JC: Oh, thank you.
BB: Yeah, no. Felt hopeful, called out, pissed off, grateful, a myriad of emotion about the book. I was re-reading it for our interview right now. I want to go back to high school, and I want to go back to your sophomore year in high school, and it’s so strange because my son is a sophomore in high school now, and reading that story as a mom of a athlete, a sophomore, almost made me sick, it was just… Tell me about that experience.
JC: So my final day of my sophomore year in high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. It was an accident, slipped out of my classmate’s hands, he took a full swing, I was kind of standing on the third base side sort of behind home plate, and the bat slipped out of his hands and rotated through the air sort of like a helicopter, and struck me right between the eyes, so broke my nose, broke my ethmoid bone, which is the bone behind your nose, fairly deep inside your skull, shattered both eye sockets. I looked down and I saw red on my clothes, it was like, my nose was bleeding. I had a friend, a classmate who literally took the shirt off his back and gave it to me to kind of plug up my nose and stumbled back down into the school to the nurse’s office, and I was sort of unaware of how seriously I had been injured. I was walking and moving around, but kind of out of it. And they sat me down, asked me, “What year is it?” I said, “1998,” it was actually 2002. “Who was the president?” I said, “Bill Clinton,” it was actually George Bush. Although it would have been Bill Clinton if it was 1998, so I was like kind of there.
BB: You were consistent in your wrong answers.
JC: Yeah, yeah, [chuckle] my wrong answers were consistent. Then they asked me my mom’s name and it took me 10 seconds to answer and I tried to play it off like it was easy or something, and that was kind of the last thing I remember. So I went unconscious, swelling in my brain got to the point where I was struggling with basic functions like swallowing and breathing. They put me on a stretcher, took me to the local hospital. When I got there, I lost the ability to breathe on my own. My dad met up with me at the hospital, and my mom eventually met up with him there as well. Then I had my first seizure of the day. I’d end up having three more. And the doctors kind of got together at that point and decided, “This is too serious for the local hospital to handle, we need to fly you to a larger facility.” So they put me on a stretcher and wheeled me out to the helipad, but as that was happening, and this is actually, Brené, your point about being a mom and kind of going through this, my dad split off and went to go get my brother and sister and kind of get them handled and passed off to family and friends. My mom came with me on the helicopter, and as we’re going to the helipad, the stretcher hit a bump on the sidewalk, and the wheel caught and the intubation tube popped out, and at that point they were pumping breaths into me by hand.
JC: And so I just think about my mom in that moment. She was a nurse and deals really well with stuff like that, but how, I don’t know, just terrible the situation that is for her to be standing here on this street that she’s probably driven on hundreds of times before, gone past this hospital, and here we are like, I can’t breathe on my own, the intubation tube isn’t there, the nurses are trying to scramble to get everything placed again. Thankfully, after a minute or two, they were able to kind of get the situation under control and get me on the helicopter and she held my hand the whole way down as we flew to the larger hospital in Cincinnati. We landed on the roof, and there’s a team of… I obviously was not conscious for any of this, I’m told this after the fact, a team of doctors and nurses, maybe a dozen of them that ran out and take me and wheel me off to surgery. And they take my mom off to a waiting room, where she meets back up with my dad. And my parents were actually no strangers to this particular hospital. So earlier, about 10 years earlier when I was five, my sister was three and she had been diagnosed with leukemia, and this is the same hospital where she received her cancer treatment.
JC: And so when my parents go into that waiting room and they take me into surgery, there’s a priest that comes up to them, and it was the same priest that they had met with 10 years earlier. As they’re getting ready to put me under the knife and undergo surgery, they decide that my vital signs are too unstable, I had another seizure, so they placed me into a medically-induced coma, and basically I was just stabilized for the night. The next day, they decide that everything is now under control enough to release me from the coma so they go ahead and do that. And eventually, once I wake back up, I tell one of the nurses that I’ve lost the ability to smell. So she says, “Okay, well, why don’t you blow your nose and smell this apple juice box?” like you probably have all kinds of blood and stuff up there. So I do that, and my sense of smell returns, but when I blew my nose, it forced air through the cracks in my shattered eye socket, and so now my left eye is like bulging out of the socket. I know it just keeps getting worse.
JC: They brought the ophthalmologist in, they bring all the doctors back in, and they’re like, “Okay, I think the good news is your eye will go back into place, the bad news is, we don’t know how long that will take, and so it ended up taking about a month or two for it to gradually recede. I had double vision for weeks. And so kind of the back end of this story is like eventually I was released from the hospital. I couldn’t drive a car for the next nine months, I was on seizure medication for most of the next year, I had double vision for weeks, eventually my eye returned back into place and the swelling reduced. I had to wait about a week before I could go into surgery. At that point, my nose had been broken long enough that it began to set in the broken position, so they actually had to re-break it to get it back. Thankfully, most of the fractures did not require plastic surgery for them to reset things, they mostly just needed to let the fracture align. But it was the most intense injury I’ve ever experienced, of course, and it was obviously a very challenging time because I just wanted to go back and be a normal high school kid and go play baseball again and go to school and drive.
JC: I had just gotten my license, I couldn’t do any of that. And so looking back on it now, it was the period in my life where I was most forced into starting small. Where I was most forced into saying, “Look, you literally just have to focus on what you can do today.” My first physical therapy session, I was practicing basic motor patterns like walking in a straight line, and so eventually over the next four or five years, I got back to it and started driving a car and got back on the baseball field and ended up weaseling my way onto a college team and ended up having a good career, but it was a very slow journey along the way.
BB: Let me tell you where you lose every single person I know, “So over the next four or five years through a sequence of small gains, ” Were you one of us before this happened? Were you an intensity over consistency kind of person before this happened? I mean, was this the change?
JC: I think I’m still kind of that person a little bit, so that phrase you just used, intensity over consistency, a lot of people think what they need is intensity, but what they really need is consistency. Everybody’s like, “Oh, I want to be a meditator, let me go do a silent meditation retreat.” It’s like actually just meditate for one minute, and let’s do that for a couple of weeks and try to get a foundation built. Or intensity is like running the marathon, consistency is being a runner and showing up every day, even if it’s just running for a little bit. And I fall into that trap too.
BB: You do?
JC: Yeah, of course. Everything that I write about is mostly a reminder to myself of what I should be doing.
JC: My publisher had a great line when I was working on Atomic Habits. I was talking about how much I was struggling and how, kind of the great irony of writing a book about habits and having it wreck your personal habits in the process. And she was like, you know “We write the books we need.”
BB: Yeah, that’s true.
JC: And that’s, you know, I’ve definitely have had that experience. So it was a process of small gains over four or five years, and there were all kinds of different forces and things that were helping me along the way. That first little bit, just coming out of the injury, what I really needed was a positive mindset and to feel like you’re not where you want to be now, but if you keep showing up and just try to have a good day today, try to have one good day. And I saw that kind of mindset modeled a lot from my grandpa and my parents, and that was really, that was the thing I needed then, and I was very fortunate to have it. And then a few years later, once I got to college, I had really great teammates. Teammates are kind of like family, you don’t get to choose them, you just come in with whoever they happen to recruit, and I just happened to get really lucky and have good teammates who were also there to provide what I needed and the social support that I needed at the time. And so a lot of this was just being fortunate to be in and around the environments I needed to be around when I needed them. But each day was just, you know, just try to have a good day today, just try to take one small step today.
BB: I want to read something you wrote. You said, “We all face challenges in life. This injury was one of mine, and the experience taught me a critical lesson. Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks, but in the long run, the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. With better habits, anything is possible.”
JC: I think that’s mostly true. I mean certainly the point about we all deal with challenge and setbacks. We just spent the last few minutes talking through my story here. I generally consider myself to have been very lucky and blessed in life. I’ve had to deal with this injury, but I think I’ve had it pretty easy for the most part. And we all have things that come into our lives unexpectedly, and I don’t know, there’s some quality of bad luck where it doesn’t need to be helped, it’ll just find its way into your life anyway
BB: Yeah, that’s right.
JC: But good luck sort of needs to be ushered along. It needs to be helped. It’s more like an open door and you have to still choose to walk through it. And habits are part of that process, showing up each day and making one small choice or trying to do something in a slightly better way, and then watching that compound and multiply over time, I think it’s a pattern that you see show up again and again in life. In many different areas of life, changes seem relatively small and insignificant on a daily basis, so knowledge, for example. The person who reads for an extra 10 minutes today. Well, reading for 10 minutes today does not make you a genius, but the person who always finds 10 minutes to read each day, yeah, over 10 or 20 or 30 years, that can be a pretty meaningful difference in insight and wisdom.
JC: Productivity, the person who always gets one extra task done each day or knocks one more thing off the to-do list. Look, doing one extra thing does not make you an all star, but over a cumulative portion of days and weeks and months and years, over the span of a career, yeah, again, it could be a pretty meaningful difference. Now, I kind of like to joke, especially with fitness stuff.
JC: The difference between eating a burger and fries for lunch day or eating a salad on any given day is pretty insignificant, your body looks the same in the mirror at the end of the night, the scale hasn’t really changed, it’s only two or five or 10 years later that you’re like, “Oh, those daily choices really do add up.” It’s kind of like you go through your daily routine and then three years later, it’s like, knock, knock, who’s there? Oh, the consequences of my past decisions. It’s like, turns out that stuff creeps up on you. And I think we feel that in so many different ways, in so many different areas in life. And so that pattern of what starts out small and seems relatively insignificant, grows and accumulates into something bigger. We see it again and again, and I think we all know this, we all have felt this, just from going through life, and it’s a double-edged sword, your habits can either build you up or cut you down, and I think that’s a strong reason, a good argument for why you want to understand what they are and how they work and how to design them, so that you can be the architect of your habits and not the victim of them.
BB: Okay. This whole idea of compounding over time in habits, it’s almost subversive to our culture that we live in today, if it’s not big and flashy, if you’re not doing the Iron Man, then your 10-minute jog around the neighborhood means nothing. It’s very counter-culture.
BB: Can we build a habit together?
BB: Okay, let’s build a habit. First of all, what do we get wrong about habits? Before we go in to build it, what’s the mythology that we need to dispel?
JC: I think a very common thing that people talk about is, how long does it take to build a habit? Does it take 21 days or 30 days or 90 days?
BB: Yeah. Yes.
JC: And you hear all kinds of courses and challenges and stuff packaged around those kind of ideas.
JC: And I think the upside of the challenge like that is that it can get you moving, it can get you started, so there’s nothing wrong with that. But the downside is it implicitly tells you that there is a finish line to be crossed, that, “Be healthy for 30 days and then you won’t have to worry about it anymore,” or “Do this thing for 21 days and then it’ll be fixed.” But I think the real answer, the honest answer to how long does it take to build a habit is forever, because if you stop doing it, then it’s no longer a habit. And what I’m trying to get at with that is, you’re looking for a sustainable change, a lifestyle change, a non-threatening change, something that you can integrate into your daily routine and make it part of your new normal, and once you start to look at changes through that lens, you select things in a different way, but if it’s just about crossing the finish line, or just about doing something impressive for 30 days, then you attack it from a totally different angle. And if you’re actually trying to do something that becomes part of your lifestyle, then you start to see a little bit more clearly the value of making a small change or doing something that is more reasonable or sustainable.
BB: Okay, so how do people choose the habits that they want to create? I mean, I guess we have default unconscious habits, right?
JC: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good distinction actually that you’re making, so the first is, look, your brain’s building habits all the time, tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, they’re just a countless number of habits, you unplug the toaster after each use, or every time you pick up a pair of barbecue tongs you tap them together, there’s just an endless list of things that we do like that each day. And your brain is going to automate those behaviors all the time so that you can conserve energy and not have to waste time and attention thinking about these tasks that you do again and again, it’s just an efficiency move.
BB: It’s like going on automatic pilot to save fuel.
JC: I think that’s right, yeah. Ultimately, humans are biological organisms and we consume energy and we need energy to survive. So any move that we can make to conserve energy or automate things, or save time and attention, for a biological standpoint, puts us in a better position to ultimately persist. So I think that’s what your brain is doing behind the scenes. Then I don’t think when most people are talking about changing their habits, they’re talking about that lump of behaviors. Most of the time they’re talking about something different. They’re saying, I want to build a habit of writing every day or going to the gym four days a week or whatever, the more goal-oriented part of the process is.
JC: Right, yes. So how do people select those, was your question. And I think there’s a whole class of answers of what people usually do. So we imitate people around us. We do things for status and prestige. We do things out of hope for approval and respect. We do things because they think they will paint us in a positive light. We do things because they think they will advance our career. There’s all kinds of forces that are driving us to choose certain habits, and then I think there’s a different line of questioning that we can ask that might be more useful in some sense. I don’t think that status and prestige and all that has no value, certainly it is valuable in some way. But the angle, or the line of attack, that I like to take is something that I call identity-based habits. And identity-based habits is basically encouraging you to start instead of thinking about the result that you want, or the outcome that you’re trying to achieve, start with the type of person that you wish to become.
JC: And so who is the type of person that can do this thing that I want to do? So just to give you a classic kind of habits or weight loss example, all kinds of people will say, “I want to lose weight,” okay, so they start with a result, they say, “I want to lose 40 pounds,” and that’s the outcome. That’s the goal. “And so if I want to lose 40 pounds, then I need to come up with a plan. I’m going to go to the gym four days a week, I’m going to eat this food,” and then the assumption is, “If I do that, then I’ll be the kind of person I want to be, that if I’m able to achieve that, then maybe I’ll be happy.” And my argument is, let’s invert that process and start with saying, “Okay, who is the type of person that can lose 40 pounds?” And maybe it’s the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. And so, that’s fine, let’s put the goal on the shelf then, forget about the weight, forget about the number, forget about the judgment and the guilt and all this other stuff, and let’s just focus on being the kind of person who doesn’t miss workouts, focus on fostering that identity.
JC: And you can imagine a version of that, for all kinds of different habits, who is the type of leader that I want to be? Maybe it’s a type of person who shares praise with their team each week, and so then you’re focused on that kind of habit, not necessarily on some other more quantifiable metric at work.
BB: I’m going to say “attagirl” four times a day, right?
JC: Right, exactly.
BB: Right? So, yeah.
JC: And so basically, it just requires a little bit more of a introspection, of who is the type of person that I wish to become, and the reason that I feel like this ties so neatly, so cleanly back into habits, is that every action we take is like a vote for the type of person we wish to become.
BB: Okay. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You got to say that again.
JC: Every action we take is like a vote for the type of person we wish to become. Your habits are how you embody a particular identity. So every day that you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who is clean and organized. Every day that you send an attagirl to somebody on your team, you embody the identity of someone who is a caring leader. Every day that you go to the gym, even if it’s just for five minutes, you embody the identity of someone who doesn’t miss workouts. So in this way, our behaviors are like they’re casting votes for the story that we’re telling ourselves, and I think ultimately, at the deepest level, this is the real reason that habits matter. Everybody talks about habits mattering because of what they can get you from an external productivity standpoint. “Oh, well, they can help you lose weight, or they can help you make more money, or they can help you get more done.” And that stuff’s great, it’s true. Habits can do all that, which is really great. But the real reason that habits matter is that they reinforce the kind of person that you see yourself as being. They cast votes for a certain type of identity.
JC: And if you start casting votes for a more useful story, for a more empowering story, then you have every reason in the world to believe that, and I think this is where it’s a little bit different than what you often hear, like you often hear people say something like, “Fake it till you make it.”
BB: Oh God, I really hate that.
JC: Fake it till you make it is asking you to believe something positive about yourself, which on the surface, not a terrible thing, but it’s asking you to believe something positive without having evidence for it. And we have a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence, we call it delusion. At some point, your brain doesn’t like this mismatch between what you’re saying you are and what you’re actually doing, and so behavior and beliefs are a two-way street, the way you act influences what you believe about yourself, and the things you believe influence the actions you take. But my argument is to let the behavior lead the way, to start by doing one small push-up, or by writing one sentence, or by meditating for one minute, and to know that in that moment you have undeniable evidence that you were that kind of person, that you casted a vote for that version of your story. And just to continue the voting metaphor, like any election, it doesn’t have to be unanimous, you don’t have to be perfect, but the more that you start to cast votes and build up evidence of that type of story, the more the scales start to tip in favor of that. And I think eventually you do actually come to believe that about yourself, you have to admit, “Look, I’m showing up and doing this over and over again, this is obviously part of who I am,” and I think that’s the real reason that habits matter.
BB: So this is so interesting, I want to talk about the intersection of your work and my work a little bit.
BB: While we’re talking about this piece of habit-making. It seems to me, true-false maybe, what are your thoughts? It seems to me that the pursuit of a habit that involves other people’s perception is a much quicker walk to kind of the shame shit show to me. So we’ll just take something real that I’m trying to build right now. So I’m really trying to do strength training, I’m at that age right now where I tried to pick up my son, and I was like, “I can’t even lift him off the ground,” and my husband’s like, “Well, yeah, he’s like six feet tall now, you’re not supposed to be able,” because I was thinking I could lift him up a little bit. But it wasn’t just my son I can’t lift up, I’m just getting to the age where you either use it and do something with it, or it’s going to be really hard to catch up. And so, I don’t really care externally what people think about that, but I want to be a strong person. I want to be a physically strong person. It seems to me when you form a habit to reach a goal that is about what other people think of you, it seems like risky shame business to me.
JC: It sure feels that way, doesn’t it? It’s like you’re a victim of your own expectations, but you didn’t come up with them. It’s like somebody else came up with the expectation.
JC: Yeah, there’s all kinds of tricky stuff going on there. We do all these kind of like psychological games that we play with ourselves where we are a victim of the expectations that we think other people have, but then what I’ve noticed is that, I fall into this trap like everybody else, you’re worried what people will think of you, or you’re doing it because of how you think it will look to other people, and you think, “Oh, maybe then they’ll respect me more or approve of me more,” or whatever. And if you were to ask me, just pick somebody out and you’re like, “Do you care about what Brené thinks in this case?” And I’ll be like, “Well, no, I’m not worried about her specifically, it’s not any individual, it’s the collective you that you’re worried about.
BB: Oh, yes, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
JC: And as soon as you realize that, you’re like, “Oh, I’m making all of this up.” Because if you pick any individual person, you’re like, “Are you worried about their opinion on this?” You’re like, “Well, not really, they would probably be understanding, or they’re not the person that would think that,” and then you’re like, “Oh, this is just this collective story that you have now manufactured about what “they” think I’m going to do or will have achieved or whatever,” and easy to identify that or easier to talk about it, harder to not feel that way.
BB: For sure.
JC: And I think as soon as you do that, yes, you’re setting yourself up for more guilt, shame, failure, what do you know? All of those feelings. And it’s mostly just like a story that you’re telling yourself in your head.
BB: It really is, and it’s one of those things I wonder sometimes if what we want that collective nameless thing to think of us is what we’re trying to think of us. It’s tricky.
JC: I love that question like, “What’s the unfulfilled need behind your desire to work so hard?”
BB: Wait, say that again.
JC: What’s the unfulfilled need behind your desire to work so hard?
JC: I think when I was first working on Atomic Habits, the unfulfilled need, it was something in this sphere, where I was like, I wanted to be recognized as doing great work, or I want the people that I respect to respect the work that I create, or I want to feel like I’m approved of, and that I’m enough, that I did something that was worthwhile. And the book has come out and it’s done really well and sold millions of copies and done all that stuff, and it’s funny that now, that’s not the stuff that I feel satisfied by with the process, it’s like that’s what was driving me, but it’s actually just feeling that I did my best on it, than knowing that I didn’t leave anything on the table with it, that’s actually the thing that feels best in retrospect. And it’s like, “Man, you wish you could’ve just bottled that up when you were in the middle of the process, and not guilted yourself and felt so shameful and been so hard on yourself while you were doing the work, you wish you could have just realized, are you doing your best? If the answer is yes, then that’s enough, and if I could have just told myself that I probably would have worried much less about it during those three years when I was working on it. But I don’t know, it’s easier to see in hindsight, but hard to notice in the moment.
BB: It’s interesting what you’re saying, because a lot of people argue that the book was so good, has been so successful, because you were holding that knife up against your throat. But all the data show us that you survived that pressure, but many people who have amazing books inside them don’t actually survive that pressure long enough to write the book that we all need to read. And so I think I was looking for a lot of external validation when I started writing as well, now it’s just, “Does it make a contribution? Am I proud of myself?” Is all I ask now.
JC: I think actually what you’re getting at there is something that I feel like this is maybe, it’s weird because internally it feels like a weakness, but I think actually it’s maybe a strength for me, which is that fear is the gas pedal for me, not the brake. So for a lot of people, the feeling of fear, of not being enough, or worry that it’s not good enough, or whatever the version of that it takes on for you, is a reason to stop doing the thing. But for me it’s a reason to work harder, and so it’s like if I’m worried this isn’t good enough, that means I need to do even more on it, and then it will finally be good enough and I can get it out. And somehow, even though you never feel like it’s quite there and never quite finished, there is enough there for me to ship it. And so it is a shame. I think it’s a feeling that everybody experiences in some form. And yeah, how many great works are we robbed of, purely because of fear being the brake instead of the gas pedal, or not being able to push through that.
BB: Yeah. And how many books are sitting on laptops, because they’re not. Like, I’ve never published a perfect book, and I’ve written a lot of them, so it’s not a thing. All right, so the first thing is identity-based habit, right? Who do I want to be? What’s next?
JC: I think that’s a good place to start. A good question to start with. The other thing that I really like about it, is that it encourages you to walk around with a series of questions, so something that’s unhelpful about advice is that advice is very brittle in the sense that it’s context-dependent. So even if somebody gives you a very good idea, it generally is only a good idea if your situation or context is relatively similar to the one where it worked for them, but a question is different, a question is much more flexible and resilient. So as an example, one question I like is, what would a healthy person do? And this is a woman in the book that I talk about, she used this question when she was going through her weight loss journey, and she just went through life and she was deciding what to order at lunch, she would say, “What would a healthy person do?” And then she’d make that selection, or if she was in between meetings and was like, “What would a healthy person to do? Would they take the taxi three blocks or would they walk?” And she’d be like, “Okay, I’ll walk,” and so it’s kind of adaptable to the situation.
JC: And I like questions for that reason, and once you come up with the identity that you’re trying to foster, there’s often a question or two that will naturally fall out of that, that you can carry around with you. So I think that’s sort of the primer, the place to start. Now, the next thing that you want to do, and we have a long laundry list of strategies we can apply here so we can get into whatever ones you’re interested in, but the general approach is we’re trying to build a system, and this is the next big pillar or sort of idea in my philosophy, which is, you want to focus on developing a system, not achieving a goal or an outcome.
BB: Okay, I’ve got to stop you right there. You got to say it one more time, it’s such a critical piece of your book. Say it one more time for me.
JC: You want to focus on building a system, developing a process, rather than trying to achieve a goal or an outcome. And I think the kind of like pithy way that I would summarize this is, look, the truth is you don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. And so often in life, we are told that we need to be more ambitious. You need to 10X your vision and think bigger or try to increase your outputs, set a bigger goal. And look, the truth is setting the goal is kind of the easy part. Like I can set a goal right now to sell 20 million books, took me three seconds, the goal is not the hard part, it’s building a system that executes on that and that kind of carries you inevitably towards that goal, and you find this weird sort of dynamic in many different areas of life, like take athletics, if you look at the Olympic games, pretty much every athlete there presumably has the goal of winning the gold medal, the goal is not the thing that makes the difference in their performance, it’s the system they follow, their nutrition and their training, their coaching, how much sleep they got the night before, all that kind of stuff.
JC: Or if you have a job opening and 100 candidates apply for the job, presumably every candidate has the goal of getting the job, again, it’s the way they prepare their network, their experience, like how they do in the interview, all sorts of other stuff that feeds into that, and so it’s not that goals are useless, goals are quite useful for setting a sense of direction and developing a sense of clarity, they’re good for filtering too. If somebody comes to you and they say, “Hey, I have this interesting opportunity.” You can sort of run it through the filter of your goal and say, “Well, does this help me get closer to that or not?” And if not, it’s easier to say no, but once you’ve determined what am I optimizing for? Then that actually, I just mentioned a minute ago, I think questions are really valuable, I think that’s another question that’s very valuable. “What am I optimizing for?” Different people are optimizing for very different things, sometimes you optimize for money, sometimes you optimize for free time, sometimes you optimize for love and connection, and there’s all sorts of different stuff, but you need to determine what the answer to that is, and that can effectively be your goal. But once you have an idea that like we need to sort of metaphorically speaking, set it on the shelf and spend 90, 95% of your time focused on building a better system.
JC: And I think if we were going to connect this back to habits, what I would say is, Okay, let’s put a little finer language on this, so what is your goal? Your goal is your desired outcome, what is your system? It’s the collection of daily habits that you follow, and if there is ever a gap between your system and your goal, if there’s ever a gap between your desired outcome and your daily habits, your daily habits will always win, like almost by definition, your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results.
BB: Wait a second, say that again.
JC: Your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results.
JC: Whatever system you’ve been running for the last six months, a year, two years, pick whatever timeframe you want, Whatever habits you’ve been following for that period of time have carried you inevitably to the results that you have right now, and sometimes if we want to get really, really technical about it, we can push back a little bit. Okay, fine. Your habits are not the only thing that influences outcomes in life, we have luck, we have randomness, good luck, misfortune, whatever, but I do think it’s true, especially over a broad span of time. Your life bends in the direction of your habits, you start to create this arc, every day, you have the choice to make a good choice or a bad one, to build a good habit or a bad one, to spend the next chunk of time in an effective way or an ineffective way, and you get to choose that each time. And so the system that you keep running again and again, it starts to pull you. It’s like this form of gravity, pulls you toward whatever the system is designed for.
JC: And so, yes, first, let’s try to ask ourselves who’s the type of person I want to be, what’s the type of identity I want to reinforce? And then next, let’s ask ourselves, What is the system that I can design that carries me inevitably toward that identity that reinforces the kind of person that I wish to become? And as I said, there are many different strategies we can use for trying to tweak that system or adjust the gears, the individual habits and the overall machine.
BB: Okay, I want to go back, I have all these typed out highlighted post-it noted. I’m going to just tell you right now, Barrett, how many places have you seen the post-it note, you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems?
BG: All over.
BB: All over my house, all over my… I’m going to have a mural painted in our office that says that. Do you think that’s your most quoted thing?
JC: Yeah, probably. You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, that’s another one.
BB: Oh God, that’s a good one.
JC: Every action you take is a vote for the type of person who wish to become. Those three are, probably the…
BB: Oh God. Just shut up. Okay, [laughter] God, Okay. I want to read these. Just to reiterate, for those of y’all who are experiencing highly emotional reactivity to this, like myself. This is, I’m quoting you from your book, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” That’s true? Okay, James writes, “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”
JC: We talked a couple of minutes ago about guilt and shame and all these feelings kind of weaving their way in, and this is one of the things that I try to push back on a little bit with all of the goal-related strategies and stuff is, they all kind of encourage you to feel bad if you haven’t achieved the goal yet, it’s this weird thing where you like, you set this goal for yourself and then you’re like, once I get there, then I’ll finally be enough. I had this when I was… This is coming from someone, by the way, I’m basically giving myself therapy here. I was a very goal-oriented person for a long time, I set goals for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, for the numbers I wanted to hit in my business. For a long time, I thought if I could just get my business featured in the New York Times, then I’ll be set. You come up with all these kind of things like that, and you think, “Okay, once I achieve this milestone off in the distance, then I can be happy.” And one of the things I’m trying to get at with that little passage you just read, long-term thinking, is goal-less thinking, guess what? You can be happy with who you are right now and still continue to work toward these things that you’re working, that are important to you.
JC: I like to think about the metaphor of like a seed or an acorn, where it’s an acorn and then you plant it and it becomes a sapling and it breaks through the ground, and then it grows a little bit further and it’s like this immature tree, and then eventually, it’s this mighty oak, and at no point along the way do you criticize it for what it is, you don’t look at the acorn and be like, “Man, what an idiot, you’re not a grand oak yet. Oh, how terrible, you’re just a sapling.” We don’t look at it like it’s this unfinished terrible thing, and yet we do that with ourselves all the time, and yet, and this is, I think, the crucial piece, the acorn never stops growing, the tree never stops growing, not because it’s not what it should be, not because it’s unsatisfied with how it is at that time, but just because that’s what a tree does. And I think we can also try to apply that to our own lives. Not having this guilt or shame about not achieving a goal yet or feeling terrible about where you’re at, you can release all of that, and it doesn’t mean that you have to be stagnant. It doesn’t mean that you can’t improve anymore, you can continue to do those things, just because that’s what you do, just because that’s who you are, but not because you’re not enough yet.
BB: Mmmmm. Very much reminds me of one of my favorite Carl Jung quotes, ” You must love the thing you want to change.” It’s powerful. Okay, we are about 45 minutes in. We’re going to stop here. I’m going to lose my mind because this is exactly the conversation I was dying to have with you, and then we’ll come back for episode two and we’ll dig in more to next steps. I want to know if we don’t rise to the level of our goals, but we fall to the level of our systems, I want you to talk to us a little bit about building systems and the mistakes that you see people make often, and some of the real hacks that you see people put in, and they’re probably not hacks, they’re probably thoughtful, mindful things. All right, so we’ll stop here and we’ll wrap it up for today, but then next week we’ll go to episode two. Thank you, James.
BG: Okay, guys, I totally wasn’t kidding. That was an amazing conversation, right? And I loved his statement, “Every action we take is a vote for the kind of person we want to become.” I also really connected with his path to establishing habits by thinking about the person you want to become and then imagining what that person would do. For me that totally translates to imagining what kind of leaders that we want to be, and creating habits around that to let our behavior lead the way. It’s all about building systems. Whoo, not easy, but completely doable. It’s such a theme in his book and it’s such a possible path. It’s a lot to think about, but in a good way. You can find James’s book, Atomic Habits, wherever you like to buy books. We’ll also post a link in the Dare to Lead episode page on brenebrown.com. You can find James online at jamesclear.com. He’s also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, at James Clear. We will also have those links on the episode page. Then get ready to join us for the next episode, “Part Two with James Clear on Atomic Habits,” when we talk about how to build a good habit or break a bad one, or both. For me, it was totally both.
BG: And we talk about how we create habits in our teams and in our organizations, so we will see you guys next week for that. A couple of don’t-forget items, every episode of the Dare to Lead podcast has an episode page on brenebrown.com. You can listen to every episode and learn more on our episode page with resources, downloads and transcripts. You can sign up for our newsletter there too, and we have a new website y’all, it’s so beautiful. We’ve been hard at work over here, you can tell. On the new website, you can find resources by topics and collections, it’s so fun, there’s an amazing search function, I hope you guys can have some time to play around on it. As always, everyone can listen to both, the Dare to Lead podcast on Mondays and Unlocking Us on Wednesdays, for free, right here, only on Spotify. Thanks, friends. Stay awkward, brave and kind. See you next week, right here, only on Spotify.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and the music is by The Suffers.
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