What color is your totem?
This article draws on the works of two authors: James Clear and Todd Herman.
Simply put, the environment around you can be leveraged for your success. It can positively alter your mindset, beliefs, and behaviours.
But, you need to be intentional about it.
I want to pick a “game" that I can get better at. What about you? Is it writing? Public speaking? A musical instrument? A relationship? Making people laugh?
Once you are clear on what you want to improve, it is worth designing your environment to support the practice of improvement.
Some tips I've used:
When your environment is set up to encourage the behaviours that you want to have happen in your life, it is time to take on a new identity. The actions themselves, once they become habits, will help to reinforce your new identity.
Another powerful trick: find a physical object, a totem, that can cement that identity.
Pick something that you can carry around with you, that signals to you that you are transforming into the type of person that you desire to be. You can associate the totem with the behaviour you are working on.
For me, it is a worn, brown Buddhist prayer bracelet I bought in Taipei. When I put it on, the sound of the wooden beads clacking against one another, and the weight of it on my wrist trigger a notable change in mental state.
The courageous, decisive, determined, and all around bad-ass writer in me comes out. I become someone new, someone who puts every ounce of his being into his writing.
We have so much power and potential that we don't access because of our self-limiting beliefs. Our stories about who we are get in the way of our transformation into the person we could be.
Every time you use your totem, you can consciously and unconsciously override those old, outdated negative beliefs tied to your identity.
Here are some questions for you to ponder:
What will your totem be?
When will you access it?
Who do you become when you wear or use it?
Here's a non-exhaustive list of potential totems:
The more you can touch, see, or hear the totem, the better it will work.
Once you have a totem, begin associating it with your desired identity, values, and beliefs. The more you do this, the better it will work.
If it helps, pick a hero or a character that you want to emulate.
That's it! Nothing to it :)
I will leave you with two quotes from Todd Herman, the author of The Alter Ego Effect:
1) “The greatest enemy to achievement is always the self.”
2) “Everything you need already exists within you.”
What kind of days do you want to have?
In Philip Larkin's poem Days, he writes:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
The last line of that first stanza really hits home. People (myself included) spend a lot of time living in the past, in the future, or in the catacombs of the digital world.
The days that we have are often dictated by external responsibilities like work and family life. However, we have options. We can choose how to shape our days to come closer to the ideal day in our minds. And, we can learn to change the way we look at and perceive the unavoidable undertakings of our lives.
Either way, the most important part is actually envisioning the ideal day you would like to inhabit.
There are so many people out in the wide world who haven't thought through what kind of day they would like to routinely have.
So, examine your life, your habits, your days. Ask yourself: are these days fulfilling and productive? Am I experiencing days that I am happy with, or am I making concessions and living someone else's life?
Another thing: write.
Use language as a magnifying glass to inspect your day-to-day existence through journalling. What is going well? What needs some work? How can you make the most of each day/hour/minute?
I'll leave you with this wonderful quote by Marcus Aurelius that I found on Ryan Holiday's Daily Stoic blog:
“Concentrate every minute [...] on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. [...] do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life".
On thinking and writing clearly
It is safe to say that completing an undergraduate degree in literature helped my academic writing skills. It also taught me to be verbose, use hefty words where more straightforward words might do, and always obfuscate instead of clarify (and make sure to use "obfuscate" at least once per paper).
During my degree program, we read literary works by authors like Melville, Dickens, Wallace Stevens, Henry James and Wordsworth.
These are undeniably great writers.
But, for the most part, the external rewards (i.e. grades) went to those students who could emulate a certain lofty academic style.
During my 4 years at university, I only had 2 professors who zeroed in on the true purpose of a worthwhile English course: developing the skills to think and write clearly and persuasively.
One of these instructors took the introduction to a long-winded essay that I had written, crossed out all of the useless words that I had used to fill the page, and circled part of a sentence.
"This idea is where you should start." he said.
He did two commendable things. He saw through my act of dressing up the paper with clever diction, and he cut straight to the heart of the idea that was worth expressing.
Looking at the published work of some of my other professors, it was evident that the game of producing complex, arcane writing permeated much of academia. It seemed that there were was some kind of unspoken rule that the more clever and difficult the writing, the more it belonged in the university context.
I was younger and more naive and idealistic then. So, I adopted the elevated language of the tribe, and didn't pay much attention to the professor who tried to teach me to write simply and concisely.
I was missing a vital piece of the puzzle:
Sure, I aspired to complete my degree, but that was extrinsic motivation. A carrot at the end of a very long stick.
I was missing a goal for the practice, the process, the growth of my abilities. So now, I am making up for lost time. Instead of writing offhandedly, I am writing with a direct sense of intention.
My goal now is to think and write clearly.
Which leads me to an important question: how do you actually begin to think and write more clearly?
You practice thinking clearly and writing clearly. You use simple words instead of complicated ones. You follow George Orwell's rules for writing. You play the one syllable game to get to the meat and potatoes of the ideas at hand.
It all seems deceptively simple. But it works.
You can improve the quality and clarity of your writing and thinking the same way a runner shaves off a tenth of a second at a time from her 100 metre dash, or the way a pianist works on her speed and consistency when playing the D flat major scale.
Focusing on the process while remaining clear on your goals is not only a surefire way to get better at writing and thinking. These tools work on anything you want to get better at.
And the wonderful news is that thinking clearly will result in a positive feedback loop, which will allow you to apply ideas more deliberately to whatever else you want to achieve.
What routines will allow you to practice thinking and writing clearly? What do you want your process to look like?
The bottom line is: you are in the driver's seat. You get to decide.
Yesterday, I had a moment of intense clarity and deep insight. Zen Buddhists might call this experience seeing one's true nature. Mark Manson might call it waking the f*ck up for a hot minute. To be honest, it was probably a little bit of both.
So, what happened?
After some thinking about and listening to the ideas voiced by my heroes, I looked in the mirror and saw a different person standing there. A powerful, positive, present person with near-infinite potential (excuse the plosives).
Identity is a strange thing. It can remain pretty much unnoticed for years, and be considered an immutable part of the psychological landscape.
However, in that moment, I truly noticed how much my beliefs about who I was had limited my behaviours.
It was a bittersweet realization.
One one hand, I saw how my identity has gotten in the way of potential accomplishments, new experiences and rewarding relationships. I am convinced that these limitations have primarily manifested through a process of self-labelling.
My inner voice has forged a self that is simply not conducive to growth and perseverance. "You're an introvert," it says. "You like solitude where you can better focus (and be more comfortable by being unchallenged)."
"You don't need these stressors. Get rid of them. Give up. Life will be easier and more pleasurable if you avoid obstacles."
On the other hand, I felt unstuck. I knew in that moment that my identity was a narrative imposed on myself through language, a narrative that could be re-written, re-structured, and deliberately constructed to bring the best possible version of myself into existence.
In that moment, I saw myself as what Todd Herman calls a "shapeshifter" in this excellent exchange of ideas.
I am not one fixed individual. I am a malleable circle of identities. I can take on the attributes, attitudes and values of my heroes.
In that same video, Todd Herman exclaims that the question "who are you?" is a poor one. It makes us think back to the past and muster up a resume of prior events.
He proposes that we change the question to "What are you?"
Answering that question brings about profound change. You get to decide what stories you tell about what makes you what you are.
Here is a catalogue of questions that I started asking myself:
What are you?
What stories are you telling yourself about your identity? How might they be self-limiting?
How can you re-construct your personal narrative to live the life you want?
What "I have to __________________" sentences do you use?
What "I get to __________________" phrases can you use?
How else can you use language to positively frame your life?
I have been practicing the Wim Hof Method (WHM on my daily task list) off and on for just over three years. During that time, I have experienced an array of benefits from it.
If you haven't heard of this wonderful practice, you can read and learn more about it here.
I have always felt like something was missing with the technique.
The breathing and the cold exposure both brought me into the present moment, in order to contend with the immediate. But I had trouble relaxing into the experience. I would find myself tense and and resistant, especially during the breath holds.
Recently, I have discovered an element that unlocks more from the method. That element is simple
Awareness = Release and Relaxation
I started bringing the tools from my mindfulness practice into the arena of breathing and cold exposure by creating a link between presence and letting go.
Whatever experience crops up during the breathing, I notice it non-judgmentally. It could be the rhythm of my heartbeat, a sensation of tightness in my hands or the weight of my legs against the floor or cushion.
If I am aware of it, I am relaxing and releasing it. This simple tool of equating focus and relaxation helps me spread an abiding calm throughout my body, and access states of being that are profoundly restful and restorative.
That's it. Nothing to it. I have found that it creates a positive feedback loop of reward that makes me want to commit to the practice again.
The takeaway for me is this: routines are wonderful. They allow us to show up, improve our practice and make progress. But, every practice can and should be tinkered with, essentially forever, in the search for new insights and growth.
What routines or habits do you have that could be optimized?
On the importance of heroes
I have discovered again and again (all praise the one art) that I take on the characteristics and habits of the people around me. I have to believe that I am not some sort of anomaly, that other people experience this same shift in thought and behaviour patterns. The problem for me, and I am sure for many others as well, is that I haven't made my life choices in accordance with this basic, immutable fact.
Instead, I have focused on different variables: time, money, flexibility and (I shudder to say) ease. What would happen if you or I spent some time everyday consciously surrounding ourselves with the voices, thoughts and feelings of those people whom we look up to most?
The good news is that we are living in an age where these heroes are ubiquitous. You can find videos of them on Youtube. You can read their blogs and visit their websites. You can insert funny little white plastic/rubber doohickeys (the more technical term) into your ear holes and listen to their long form podcasts.
Seth Godin talks about the differences between mentors and heroes, and how much more valuable heroes can be. You can pick and choose which ones to surround yourself with. As you grow and encounter more people, both online and in person, you are able to continually revise your list of heroes to suit your purposes.
Through the process of daily journalling, I have discovered what my heroes all have in common. Vision. Passion. Purpose. Courage. The freedom to create things that improve the lives of others.
So, once you have you thought through which people in your life (and in the world more broadly) deserve the appellation of hero, some useful questions might be:
"What do these people have in common?" and "How can I embody those qualities in my life today? next week? next year? In my lifetime?"