Reading books will change your life

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If you hope to instill any change in your life this year, let me recommend a reading habit.

Books are amazing things. They’re a portal into a different way of seeing the world. Often the most important things holding us back from doing or being something we want to do or be are our own thought ruts. The way things and situations occur to us is foundational to the way we will interact with them. An example: the gym occurs to me as an intimidating place and every time I set foot inside I feel uncomfortable, so the chance that I’ll consistently go to the gym is close to zero. The gym isn’t inherently intimidating or not intimidating, it’s obvious that many people there are quite comfortable (here’s to you guy flexing in the mirror). But how can you build a habit of going to the gym? You’ve got a serious mental racket running in the back of your mind. Well, the answer is to change how the gym situation occurs to you, or to put it more normally, think about the gym differently.

This is where books come in, books can change the way we think. Books offer a different perspective, a new point of view. They force us to think critically and differently than we would by default. They let us interact with new ideas and thoughts that have been all the way thought through (or least most of the way thought through). They’re great for learning, sure, but more importantly, they open up our minds. A book might not make the gym suddenly seem less intimidating, but it could begin dislodging some of your bad thought ruts, it could start shifting how you occur to yourself. Start a reading habit this year. Start small and don’t stop. It might just change your life.

Why Do New Year Resolutions Never Work?

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It’s January, the time of year when we aspire to be or accomplish something new. You don’t have to wait for January to decide to improve yourself, but it’s as good a time as any, and definitely the most popular time. We’re two weeks in now, the gyms are packed, we’re paying closer attention to our budgets, our pantries are full of healthier foods, you know how it goes. These are all good things, but unfortunately, studies show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Maybe your resolution is already floundering.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says people don’t rise to the level of their goals, they fall to the level of their systems. I think he’s exactly right. We’re good at setting goals and making resolutions, but we’re bad at making lasting changes. And it’s not because we don’t want it enough or because we make disingenuous resolutions, it’s because humans operate by default and we fail to address our default habits. Goals don’t change behavior regardless of how SMART they are or whether or not they qualify as BHAG. We need new systems, new defaults, and new habits, maybe not another resolution.

So how do we change our systems? James Clear talks about becoming 1% better each day by doing something small. It could be one pushup per day if you want to build a workout habit. It could be one call per day if you want to build a networking habit. You mold your identity by consistently doing the things the type of person you aspire to be does. Each time you do something, no matter how small, your new identity is reinforced. If I’m an athletic person, I workout. Weight loss and muscle gains simply follow. If I’m a successful salesperson, I network. Income is simply a result. My default habits would never change by simply thinking about my weight loss goal or even by putting down my income goals on paper (I, like most of us, have tried). Change requires action, no matter how small. A helpful quote I’ve come across (attributed to several different authors including Millar Fuller and Jerry Sternin) summarizes this idea nicely: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Alan Deutschman, in his book Change or Die, says, “It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: How we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (p78).” He adds, “You have to do things a new way before you can think in a new way (p79).”

It’s interesting to think about the purpose of all of this. We set goals at the beginning of each year because we want to accomplish things, for sure. But I think the more significant reason we spend all of this time on goals is that we aspire to be better persons. The most basic thing we’re after is a change in our identity. I won’t stray into the mire of philosophical implications here, but I think that’s a clarifying thought. The accomplishment we’re after is a change in identity, not another New Year’s resolution. Our identity changes when our default behaviors and habits change. Act different in order to think different. Start small, start simple, do something laughably easy, and then don’t ever stop.

Don’t worry about long-term plans

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Long term plans are tough, mostly because we don’t know the future. If you’ve got a 20-year long term goal that’s great, but it’s probably not going to happen, at least not the way you planned; who knows what will happen in the next 20 years? It’s not bad to set long goals if only to set you in a direction, but don’t marry those goals, don’t die on their hills, don’t forsake all other paths or options. People achieve success more often by focusing on what’s right in front of them. It’s called short term planning. When an opportunity arises you make a decision, you work hard at the work in front of you, you make plans for things that are actionable and semi-immediate. Success tends to favor those who, instead of working backward from a goal in the future, make a decision based on the currently available options which will give them the best range of options in the future. They actually keep their options open. It’s a different perspective, instead of an early determination to go all out in one direction or after one thing, you can take things as they come. You’ll obviously still work hard and make good decisions when options present themselves, but you don’t have to sell out for a long term goal. Don’t worry about the next 20 years, worry about the week, the day, the hour in front of you, and make the most of it.

Sell like you’re talking to your friends

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Selling, especially to my millennial preferences, is abhorrent. I don’t like to be sold to and  I absolutely hate selling something myself. The coercive attempt to make someone do something they seemingly would rather not too is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. But here’s the thing, we’re all selling in some way or another all the time, even those of us who think we hate it. We recommend movies, albums, restaurants, products, apps, you name it. We invite others to hang out, to join our fantasy league, to participate is some experience. We even apply peer pressure when we really want someone to do something, and with no shame! The selling is constant. So why would someone like me (I know I’m not alone) hate the idea of selling while simultaneously recruiting, recommending, and even coercing?

Here’s the important distinguisher, we do all of this selling to our friends. We do it (usually) because we care about them and we want them to experience some of the joy or convenience that we’ve received from some experience or product. We’re even comfortable applying some pressure to help them see the light.

In work, we’re typically dealing with acquaintances at best and downright strangers at worst. Selling in that context is terrifying. But I heard something recently that made a huge difference to my perspective: instead of selling to people, treat them like friends. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend something that I believe in to a friend, regardless of whether or not I get paid if or when they purchase. I would explain it to them without any awkward, cold sweat-inducing, manipulative selling techniques, I would give it to them straight and try to help them see the light. They can still say no, obviously, but at least it won’t be because I tried to sell them something.

Reframing

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Personal change is not caused by will-power. There are many components to effective change, but an important one, and one I want to dig into a bit here, is reframing. I came across some of these ideas in Alan Deutschman’s excellent work Change or Die.

Reframing is a change in occurrence, it’s a different way of seeing and thinking, and it’s foundational to any real personal change. Unfortunately, humans are really bad at reframing on our own, in fact, we tend to become more entrenched in our thinking as we grow older.

Through the incredible story of Delancey Street Foundation, a sort of residential rehabilitation institution employing what looks much more like coaching than therapy, Deutschman introduces a concept he calls ‘acting as if:’

It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: how we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (P78).

At Delancey Street, constituents are not required to undergo any intensive therapy or high octane educational course, they’re required to act like functioning members of society. The simple practice of acting decent creates an entirely new framework for them.

Deutschman notes that reframing can’t happen simply by listening to a person explain a new perspective. Our frames have been embedded in us through repeated experiences over time, which is part of the reason it becomes more difficult to reframe as we get older. In order to reframe, new experiences are required, “you have to do things a new way before you can think a new way” (P79). When you do things a new way a whole new world of possibilities begins to emerge, you realize that things, or you yourself, could actually be different.

So if there’s something you’re trying to do or change, figure out what normal daily practices you’ll need to commit to (example: if you want to lose weight you should diet and exercise), and just try doing it. It’s certainly not the whole equation, your problems won’t be magically solved, but start by acting, you might be surprised what you find.