Is it true that people don’t change? You certainly hear people say that enough.
It’s not true. That’s the whole distinction between a growth mindset and a fixed one — and those with the latter can’t change simply because they don’t believe they can.
But let’s say you do think you can change, but it’s not happening. Willpower is failing you, and for good reason.
Believing you can change is the starting point. Truly wanting to change is the next step, because as we’ll see, this is the big-picture key to significantly changing your life.
“Of course I want to change,” you’re thinking. “Why else would I be reading this article?”
Do you, though?
Are you only after the benefits of change?
It’s quite possible that you don’t really want to change at this point. Instead, you want the benefits of the change.
For example, if there were a pill you could take that would make you thin and heart-healthy, would you choose it over old-fashioned exercise? If so, you’re focused on the benefits of exercise, not exercising.
There’s currently no such pill, though, so you resolve to exercise. You jump right in, overdo it, and hate every minute of it. You try to lean on willpower to keep going — but the couch, Netflix, and a pint of ice cream are simply more compelling.
Some would say that’s a lack of mental toughness. I’ve always equated that term with willpower, but it’s actually something else.
Isn’t grit just willpower as well? No — it’s actually a combination of elements that have nothing to do with sheer will.
Problem is, people tend to equate grit solely with perseverance, which ends up smelling a lot like willpower. And we’re right back where we started.
Except for the fact that grit is about passion and perseverance. Perseverance gets all the attention, but passion is likely more important and the reason why people keep going.
I think the misunderstanding — or, at least, one of them — is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters. But I think that the passion piece is at least as important. I mean, if you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that’s not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you — then that’s just drudgery. It’s not just determination — it’s having a direction that you care about.
Ah, so now we’re onto something. Let’s look at what grit is composed of to see if we can make change happen a bit easier.
Through her research, Duckworth has identified four psychological assets that perseverant people possess. Moreover, these four elements tend to develop in a particular order.
- Interest: Choosing something you’re genuinely interested in is the first step to sticking with it. Here you get the powerful benefit of intrinsic motivation, meaning it’s something you want to do without regard for external approval or reward. There are always aspects that are less pleasing than others, but true passion develops when you’re captivated by the endeavour as a whole.
- Practice: The next phase is taking something you intrinsically enjoy and developing the discipline to practice. Your intentional actions to get incrementally better, step-by-step, carve out the path to mastery. Your goals are ambitious, but attainable, thanks to the fact that you’re constantly doing the work.
- Purpose: Passion expands with the conviction that what you’re doing matters to you. It’s at this point that your particular thing not only creates personal gratification, but might also be connected to the well-being of others. While some endeavours naturally benefit both you and others, gritty people tend to develop a sense over time that their work is indeed serving a greater purpose.
- Hope: Unlike the other three aspects, Duckworth maintains that hope is not simply a stage of grit. Rather, it defines the other three stages. When you think about it, hope is what lets us rise to the occasion and keep going when things get tough. If you’re challenging yourself, you’re going to get knocked down. Getting back up reflects the hope that you’ll overcome.
Rather than relying on willpower, start with interest and intrinsic motivation, and you can see how the rest flows from it. Moreover, this type of change is something bigger than a simple new activity.
What kind of person do you want to be?
Grit begins with interest, but not every interest can evolve into purpose and passion. True change happens when you desire to change who you are in some way. You begin behaving how that new person behaves, which leads you to believe that you’re that person.
This is not just an outcome or surface-level change. It’s a change of identity. And that’s the crucial key to truly changing your life.
In other words, you may be interested in being thin, but that’s just a beneficial outcome, not who you want to become. And before you can become a different person in a particular way, you need to be able to adopt a process (or practice in Duckworth’s terminology) that you can stick with.
Here’s how James Clear succinctly puts it:
Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.
Belief stems from doing — by engaging in the process that both provides your desired outcomes and changes who you are. But you have to want the new identity first at an intrinsic level.
Let me give you a personal example.
For at least four years I tried to lose weight, gain muscle, and increase my fitness. And I succeeded, for a while. But I would always end up reverting to my old habits and ultimately, a poor level of fitness.
In late 2017, something changed about my mindset. Instead of thinking in terms of weight loss or muscle gain, I decided I wanted to be the type of person who exercised.
That made all the difference. To get started, I knew I had to narrow that identity down, and I needed to do something I could enjoy.
So I decided that I wanted to be a hiker. And then I hiked.
Slowly at first. In fact, I started with walking initially, because the quickest way to hate hiking is to overdo it when you’re in terrible shape. But then I moved up to easy hikes, which were hard enough for me, but doable.
When I was ready, I moved on to tougher hikes. There were some lulls due to life and work, but I managed to come back strong in the summer of 2018. My family and I left in late August for a six-month trip around the world, but I kept going.
It was autumn in France when I realized I had a fitness habit. I didn’t have to “will” myself to hike — I had to do it. From there, my identity as “someone who exercises” blossomed. I added strength training and other forms of cardio, all while on the road.
But that’s not the end of it. I modified my eating habits to support and enhance my training. I stopped drinking alcohol because I didn’t want anything to negatively impact my performance on the mountain or at the gym.
You end up with a habit (that you love)
Motivation stems from emotion, and emotions are fickle. It’s much more effective to develop a rational habit that sidesteps motivation, because habits don’t depend solely on your mood.
Simple enough, but easier said than done.
That’s because to develop a habit, you have to consistently do the thing for long enough for it to become a habit. Which is another way of saying you need to enjoy the activity to some degree, no matter how much you want the outcomes associated with it.
Think about how you develop bad habits. Whether it’s daily booze, Netflix, or ice cream, you keep doing it because it feels good. Developing good habits is no different. And doing something you hate to gain an outcome is where you hit the wall and ultimately don’t change.
In other words, if you can’t find a way to enjoy the path to change, you’re not going to truly want the change. And again, we’re right back where we started.
Let’s turn again to cardio exercise, which plenty of people will tell you they hate. But if you do it for long enough, you might find that you do enjoy it. The reason?
It’s the internally generated chemicals that get you hooked on exercise. Endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids all contribute to a feeling of euphoria that doesn’t bring a hangover the next day.
Let’s face it — if you’re going to have an addiction, you can do a lot worse than exercise. But just as with any other addiction, you have to expose yourself to the source long enough before you develop a habit.
There are two keys to making this happen. First, choose an exercise that you have the capacity to enjoy. Second, start small and incrementally improve through tiny steps so you build the habit without overdoing it in a way that causes you to quit.
If that sounds too easy to qualify as mental toughness, you understand the problem with that term. We think it means something other than it does:
Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.
This is why I chose hiking, and started easy. Once the exercise habit was formed, I was free to not only go harder, but to add in other fitness activities that I had told myself I didn’t enjoy (again, it’s easy to say you hate certain exercises when you’re out of shape — because you do).
Once you change an aspect of your life in a significant way, you open yourself up to further change. This applies to any change you truly want to make, not just health and fitness.
Pretty soon you may feel like a new person. And in many ways, you are — because your identity has shifted.
Now ask yourself:
- What sort of change do you want?
- What kind of person do you want to be?
- What habits do you want to develop?
Do you, though?