PART ONE: Deadlines and goals are not enough in the long-term.
The achievement of a goal is so fleeting. It actually doesn’t feel very good for long. What consistently brings contentment on a lasting daily basis is the reward of doing behaviors that are aligned with an identity. That is going to be important later.
It’s January and people are looking to make changes in their Health and Fitness. But for the last decade of my life I haven’t really set any definitive goals. Not only did I see myself repeatedly fail at the “New Year, New Me” craze that happens every January, but I stumbled upon this realization accidentally. The first major change happened when I was able to begin CrossFit at Mad Dawg School of Fitness in 2010 and become skilled enough to compete in my first Weightlifting meet in 2011.
What was it that happened exactly? I remember setting “goals” for the weights I wanted to lift and the gymnastics tricks I wanted to do. That wasn’t what helped me through my first competition. What I shifted was my IDENTITY.
Your thoughts/beliefs are a system that can be modified and will carry you further than goals. This is also known as being process-oriented. This post was inspired by three independent sources and that share this principle, but with three different ways to find your own process.
- James Clear’s “Atomic Habits“
- An article by B.O. FLower from Physical Culture published in 1899 (pg. 6)
- Shad Helmstetter’s “What to Say When You Talk To Yourself“
In 2011, I started spending most of my days at the gym. My coach Saul helped me become a Personal Trainer. And it was overwriting my identity as a nerdy guy who was anti-sports and smoking cigarettes to relieve anxiety. What I was doing was programming a new identity and people were noticing it. I was becoming a bonafide gym rat. And because I believed it and got feedback from my environment I started to believe it was true.
Food and nutrition are covered ad nauseam in the Fitness industry. Nutrition and exercise programs are easily accessible through your phone. How to train better, aid your sleep, buy supplements, etc. But how about thoughts, identity, and mental environment? They are the last thing to be considered by the average trainer.
Plenty of people make great changes with just eating better and moving. But what about people who don’t make the “New Year’s Resolution” cut? I see it all the time and wondered why it happens. Here’s what I suspect: Because deep down the identity of a person “eating better and moving with their body” CONFLICTS with their identity as an “unhealthy, lazy, and uncommitted” person. And most of the time this isn’t conscious and programmed from an early age.
They buy the Vitamix. They sign up for an amazing gym with a supportive trainer. They buy the Lululemon’s and Nike Free’s. They get that CrossFit shirt that says I’m Unfuckwithable. And then something happens – the will power runs out to keep doing this new behavior. The glitziness wears off. And they go back to their original identity as “non a gym-rat person” or “not a health nut”.
This is from Shad Helmstetter’s book I mentioned earlier:
- Programming creates beliefs.
- Beliefs create attitudes.
- Attitudes create feelings.
- Feelings determine actions.
- Actions create results.
Programmed beliefs automatically product the result. Not the will power to break a habit temporarily. So what we need to focus on is the programming of an identity. Think of it as a computer program that has strict rules like a robot. “Lifts weights to build muscle. Socializes with positive people. Eats real food. Does not tolerate whining from friends.” It carries out these order with ruthless efficiency too.
PART TWO: Habits change behavior and behaviors shape identity.
Last year I tried to take on two goals – writing a book on Mindful Fitness, learning to shoot and edit videos for Olympic weightlifting education. Because I focused only on the outcome I got caught in the perfection loop. This killed steady progress. I would get started with will-power and get bogged down when I ran out of energy. I didn’t feel good about myself. Instead of gaining skills and building an identity SLOWLY as someone that writes everyday and shoots and edits videos regularly, I ended the year disappointed.
I was looking at the end and not at the process – the skill of writing and video editing as a beginner.
I am writing the second part of this blog post late because I was able to catch myself. During Christmas I visited Taiwan to support my father after open heart surgery. I did a lot of self-reflection on where I was in my life and what got me here.
During that time I picked up James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits” and it became clear why I didn’t achieve these two goals last year. Writing and editing videos were not part of my identity and I had not started making little habits. I did not see myself as a writer and videographer – and so I didn’t behave like one. Nor did I put a system in place to make these small habits possible. I thought to myself, “I want to write the book and make pretty videos and my life will be awesome.”
I had to let go of the goal of writing a perfect blog or book and instead I did the smallest behavior I could – write one sentence and see what happens for two minutes.
I think being only focused on deadlines too much makes us take shortcuts. My friend Phillip Chubb (@The Mindful Mover) feels the same way too. It’s natural for humans to want to conserve energy. And it’s natural for us to have goals. But the identity and behaviors are what carry us through to completion and beyond.
For example, having a goal of getting from 195 to 175 lbs. may include taking shortcuts like crash dieting, detox teas, and spitting in a cup because they help lose OVERALL weight. Yes, that person may hit the target weight, but qualitative benefits get ignored like clothes fitting better, stable moods, or having more energy. The goals get accomplished. But the consistent inputs build a “New Self Program” identity that has habits like eating real food, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. That’s what really matters – the Identity and process.
And that’s why people fall off the wagon. The Old Self Program thinks these actions don’t line up with the identity. James Clear talks about a habit is just an unbroken streak of behaviors. And I didn’t have an unbroken streak of small behaviors. I would write a big amount one day and wait a week or two before revisiting my blog post. I was focused on the outcome and not the behaviors.
But an identity is a hard thing to build from scratch. And that’s not easy to convey to a new mother or high-school athlete just wanting to “get in shape”. They have an identity with their family, friends, and social world that likely contributed to the state they are in now. And maybe they are not sure who they want to become yet.
PART THREE: The Process of Creating Identity
After a decade of preoccupation with developing my physical body, I began feeling a lack of direction and, even scarier, an internal emptiness. So in 2017, I went through a Sex & Relationship Coaching Program with the Somatica Institute. I struggled with intimate relationship skills my whole life and decided to take a leap. One of the first things we discussed were parts of ourselves that we were ashamed of. I joined the program because my Asian upbringing had never prepared me to be a sexual being that speaks freely about my feelings to myself and potential partners. And when facing my own shame, I inevitably had to question my own identity as an Olympic Weightlifter. My personal drive to become an expert in Olympic weightlifting grew from shame around my body.
My identity for so many years was a “wimpy nerd” until my mid-20’s. Ever since I was a child I had chronic health issues. I dreamed of having a body that moved as gracefully as a ballerina and as powerfully as an Olympic Weightlifter. I was at a crossroads and felt conflict between my childhood programming and this newly emerging identity.
In 2017 I discovered a brilliant but obscure practice called Movement Culture. Movement culture is about the internal experience of moving the body in beautiful ways. I would describe it as the opposite to the traditional Fitness industry that prioritizes body objectification, looking ripped and counting calories. It’s qualitative, process-based, and expressive instead of the robotic pressure to have perfect form. It was the perfect counterbalance to combine the grace of a ballerina with my Olympic lifting practice.
What was a casual interest blossomed into a new identity for myself. And I want to share three things that helped my transition in my identities.
1. Begin A New Story
2. Make New Friends
3. Tell The World
1. Begin A New Story
My identity since 2010 was to be a Weightlifter and coach. It shaped my entire life for those years and then Somatica hit me like a ton of bricks. What did I actually want from Olympic lifting? I wanted physical power to show off to the people who made fun of me as a teenager for being clumsy and weak. So now that I had this embarrassing realization, what identity did I really want? I had to suspend my identity as a Weightlifter and spend time figuring out what I wanted.
So I began to do experiments at the gym with a training program from a Movement teacher named Jon Yuen that was a large departure from the training I was used to. I mixed doing Skin-the-Cats on gymnastic rings and Grand Plies like ballerinas with odd-lift barbell movements like Jefferson Curls and Skater Zerchers. My body began to feel different and I was strong in my ankles, knees, and back. I became nimble and could apply power like a breakdancer. It was just an accepted part of Weightlifting that certain body parts would ache and be sore. But I started to think, what if this wasn’t necessary? I had to rethink my approach and find people who felt the same way.
2. Make New Friends
In 2018, Jon mentioned he was starting something called Online Movement University along with two Movement practitioners, Mirth and DJ Murakami. It was a breath of fresh air. I had found a group of people who were practicing Movement in a way and having free dialogue about it. No dogma about who was right or wrong. Compare this to the world of Fitness I was used to and I found this refreshing.
Olympic lifters do the Snatch, Clean & Jerk, and Squat. But I was fascinated by Movement Culture so I began to study the status quo practices of this new group. I was figuring out what Movers” liked to practice. They did lots of bodyweight gymnastics, Capoiera, dance, and lots of games. I even learned about “Task-based Fitness”, which is a fun way to learn movement. It was a unique approach of using the body to accomplish tasks instead of moving to get tired or sore. And the craziest part was I found a way to keep my body healthy, nimble, and well-rounded. A body that could do what I wanted and not feel achy all the time? I had to find a way to share that with my Weightlifting community. And that’s exactly what I started doing.
3. Tell The World
And after taking time to explore Movement culture I could see how it also had its limitations too. The most notorious figure in Movement Culture is Ido Portal, who for better or worse put these practices on the map after training MMA Fighter Conor McGregor. His philosophy caused a stir by rejecting traditional strength training practices and putting his esoteric practices in plain sight. He famously said, “Specialists are douchebags.” And he was directing that at people who specialize like Olympic weightlifters who can be myopic about achieving goals.
But there is no question in people’s minds that Weightlifters are some of the most powerful and nimble athletes. But an Olympic weightlifters biggest risk is getting injured doing the thing they love. Their knees, backs, shoulders, and wrists need extra care for the long-term. Movement culture helped me fill in those blanks in exotic ways. The pains and ailments that plague Barbell strength athletes could actually be taken care of. And when I found a new appreciation for Movement Culture, I still found that I loved Olympic weightlifting. But how would I reconcile these two identities? I had to share the wealth with the people at my gym.
An identity is like what the French call a “raison d’etre”, or the most important reason or purpose for someone’s existence. It’s our reason for getting out of bed. And one of the bravest and most difficult acts is to change one’s own identity.
Imagine the first identity you form as a kid is random. The “Ego” is born into a collection of beliefs and practices your family and culture holds dear, for better or worse. This creates your personality. And at some point you may want to try on another identity and “individuate” as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would say. An identity more aligned with your core values, spirit, or whatever you want to call your “real self”.
So who am I now? I’m not quite sure. Maybe I’m a “Mover” that happens to have a lot of experience in Olympic weightlifting. But I do know one thing for sure. I am moving and teaching in a way that feels good to me and not based in shame. That’s my reason to get up in the morning. It’s to become the person I always wanted to be when I was young.
What’s cooler than becoming the person you dreamed of as a teenager?