How to Form Tough Identities That Propel Behavioral Change

How to cultivate empowering identities and clarify the behaviors associated with those identities.

We praise what matters. In a famous study, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that students were far more likely to persevere through challenging problems and bring those problems home to work on more when they received praise for working hard rather than being smart.

We praise what matters. In a famous study, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that students were far more likely to persevere through challenging problems and bring those problems home to work on more when they received praise for working hard rather than being smart.

Praising effort produced a hard-working identity that fueled people to persist through difficult challenges.

By contrast, praising fixed traits like intelligence produced a fragile identity where students avoided challenges because they worried that they would no longer look smart if they struggled.

Similarly, a London Business School study found that those receiving praise for their decision-making skills were 40% more likely to stick with bad hires.

Even more, those receiving praise for their creativity were more likely not to escalate their commitment to bad hires.

Praising creativity made workers more open and adaptive, while praising decision-making skills made people rationalize why their decisions must be right.

These examples show that certain identities tend to cage people and limit their options, while others are the springboard to adaptability and success.

I’ve found toughness to be the latter.

Toughness Creates Motivation and Willpower

Toughness was among the most important values instilled in my youth.

My father told stories of tough people, glorified tough movie characters, and praised any behavior he deemed tough. Thus, I wanted to be tough.

As I got older, I developed a correlation between toughness and discipline and between toughness and exercise. Missing a planned workout or even failing to study enough became a form of wimping out.

There are many pitfalls to rigid, overly tough machismo, but the toughness identity is the most powerful when well defined and balanced by other values.

  • Toughness creates motivation and willpower.
  • When you value toughness, health goals are just a trade.
  • Tough people will trade a few minutes of discomfort to be stronger, healthier, more empowered people.
  • You can interpret almost any desired behavior in terms of toughness.
  • You know that that cold shower has benefits and will leave you feeling better all day. So don’t wimp out.
  • You know that 10-minute morning movement habit primes you for a better, more active day.
  • Tough people do the work, even when they don’t feel like it.
  • You know that an occasional intermittent fast can help you develop a better relationship with hunger.

Then what is stopping you other than your unwillingness to withstand short-term discomfort for a more significant cause? Just convert your goals into the currency of toughness, and then following through becomes the only behavior that makes sense.

Perhaps this is why every culture, until very recently, placed a lot of value on toughness.

There was no other option. The work that society depended upon required a population willing to persist through discomfort on behalf of a greater cause. But advanced modern cultures seem to be wholly oriented around the effort to make life as comfortable as possible.

We’ve removed any expectation of toughness only to find that people avoid the actions and experiences essential to living well without it. Without a capacity to intentionally endure discomforts, life becomes superficial and minor pains are amplified in proportion to our growing sensitivity.

Whether you buy into the power of toughness or not, it shows how you can use your values to stoke motivation.

All you have to do is convert your desired behavior into the language of what you value. Then not following through is a threat to an identity that you cherish.

For example:

  1. If you highly value being a creative person, then any health or fitness goal is just an opportunity for you to figure out how to manipulate your situation to succeed.
  2. If you value being a good parent, the best way to commit to your health and fitness goals is to remember that your kids aren’t likely to be healthy unless you are first.

Strong parents make strong kids.

The Power of Heuristics to Motivate Behavior

Heuristics, like this one, are another powerful tool that can help groups and individuals cultivate more empowering identities and clarify the behaviors you want to associate with those identities.

As Daniel Coyle explains in his book, The Culture Code, successful groups “focus on creating priorities, naming keystone behaviors, and flooding the environment with heuristics that link the two.”

His book is full of these. Here are some of my favorites.

Heuristics of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team:

  • “If you’re not growing anywhere, you’re not going anywhere.”
  • “Leaving the jersey in a better place.”
  • “Pressure is a privilege.”
  • “It’s an honor, not a job.”

Heuristics of KIPP charter schools:

  • “Read, baby, read.”
  • “Everything is earned.”
  • “KIPPsters do the right thing when no one is watching.”
  • “No shortcuts”

To create behavioral change, I recommend borrowing a couple of popular heuristics or starting your own.

For example, I still frequently think of my high-school football coach’s saying: 99% is a wimp.

It keeps me from making concessions whenever I’m not in the mood to stay disciplined.

Other effective toughness-related heuristics include:

  • Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • “Discipline equals freedom.” – Jocko Willink.

Heuristics have a way of being overly-generalized, overly-romanticized, and incredibly corny.

They are the sort of thing you see on a ten-year-old child’s shirt.

But the cultures and people who lean into them and integrate them into their daily lives tend to be far better at following through on the behaviors that matter to them. So who cares if you look cheesy being an adult who latches onto tough sayings.

Your actions will speak far louder than these words.

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