You can’t change yourself, so don’t even try. I know that’s not what the infomercials and self-help seminars tell you. But fuck it. They’re wrong. You can’t change. Like a thirsty man in a desert chasing a mirage, or a fat man peering into an empty fridge—there’s nothing there. So stop chasing it. Go do something else instead.
Why can’t you change yourself? Because the whole idea of change is an arbitrary construct. It’s something you just made up to make yourself feel good (or bad).
Yesterday, I hadn’t written this article. Today, I have. Did I change?
Both yes and no are correct answers, depending on how I define change. Technically, you are both always changing and never changing. It just depends on how you look at it. What you decide is change or not is an imaginary line drawn in your head.
I could decide that “changing myself” means having a billion dollars. I’ll then sit around beating myself up for not being able to “change” for the rest of my life. Therefore, that’s not a very useful definition of “change.”
Or I could decide that “changing myself” means not putting ketchup on my french fries. If that’s the case, then change is pretty damn easy. But does my definition of “change” mean anything? Not really.
What Is Change?
When people lay around whining to their therapists and ex-wives that they’re finally going to “change” themselves, they are promising something imaginary and made up. If they used to lie and now they stopped lying, have they “changed”? Are they permanently and irrevocably “fixed”? Will they never lie again? And even if they don’t, will it matter? Please tell us—millions of pissed off ex-wives would like to know.
We don’t know what change is because we don’t know what the hell we are. If I wake up tomorrow and do the exact opposite of everything I do today, am I a changed person? Or am I simply the same person who decided to try something different?
And more importantly, who fucking cares?
I don’t. And neither should you.
Here’s the problem with using the word “change:” it gets your identity involved. And when you get your identity involved, you become really emotionally attached to imaginary things. You throw fits and beat yourself up and blame others and decide that you are, in fact, a worthless piece of shit who has no hope in this world.
It’s one thing to say, “I want to start going to the gym every week.” It’s another to say, “It’s time I finally change and become the type of person who goes to the gym each week.”
The first statement is simple. You want to go to the gym. So, you go (or not).
The second statement implies that to go to the gym, you must completely reinvent yourself. And that raises the emotional stakes massively. If you succeed (spoiler: you probably won’t), you’ll gain this blissful feeling of being a “new person,” which will last until the next time you feel crappy and want to “change” again. If you fail, you’ll chastise yourself for your irredeemable laziness.
And that’s the problem with getting your identity involved. If/when you fail at something, you start thinking: “Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m not one of those gym people. Maybe this just isn’t me. So why even try?” Because you’ve decided these arbitrary actions represent the totality of your character, you will view your failure to get off your ass and put on yoga pants as a verdict on your value as a human being. You will hate yourself. And you will be less motivated to “change” or do anything else in the future.
On the flip side, if you succeed, like all drugs, you’ll get this nice high and momentarily escape your sense of yourself. But soon, that high will wear off, and you’ll need to define for yourself a new type of “change” to accomplish, and you’ll pursue that. You’ll then become addicted to personal change the same way Eric Clapton was addicted to cocaine or Edgar Allan Poe was addicted to drinking until he passed out face-down in a ditch.
Here’s a pro-tip: there’s no such thing as a “gym person.” There are just people who go to the gym. Similarly, there’s no such thing as a “productive person.” There are just people who do productive things fairly often. There’s no such thing as a “lovable person.” There are just people who aren’t selfish twats.
It’s not always about you (in fact, it rarely is)
In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I wrote about the importance of maintaining an identity that is defined by as little as possible. That’s because when we get our identities involved—when we decide that certain behaviors or events represent our worth as a human being—things get emotionally turbulent.1,2 And when things get emotionally turbulent, we tend to do really dumb shit.3,4
Instead, think of your life merely as a long sequence of actions and decisions. If you’re like most people, many of these actions and decisions are less than ideal. And what most of us mean when we say we’d like to “change” ourselves is simply that we’d like to make slightly better actions and decisions.
For years, I hated mornings. Pretty much my entire life, I woke up late. This would cause a little snowball of shittiness in my life. I’d be behind on work all day. So then I’d have to stay up half the night working. Then I’d be tired and stressed out the next day. So I’d stay up even later the next night trying to catch up. By the end of the week, I’d be a wreck. So to escape I’d go out drinking and partying to unwind way too much, which would just fuck me up even further the next week.
I still somehow managed to build a career. Don’t ask me how (answer: a small truckload of caffeine). But instead of recognizing that I did okay despite my own bad habits, I made it about me. I made it part of who I was. I decided it was my identity. I said, “Yeah, I’m a badass. Fuck waking up early. Fuck getting sleep. I don’t need that shit. Look at me, Mom, I can work all night!”
And you can get away with that when you’re 22. But you can’t when you’re 32.
In my 30s, I began to struggle with productivity. And instead of recognizing my terrible habits, I told myself, “Well, I’m just not a morning person.” “Oh, I don’t do that sort of morning routine stuff.” Without me realizing it, this was tantamount to me giving up before I started. The times I’d try to get up early or to workout first thing or to eat a healthy breakfast, I’d struggle and immediately tell myself, “See? This morning stuff isn’t for me.”
Eventually, I had to get over myself. I had to decide that, you know what, I don’t know who the hell I am or what I’m doing, but I do know that historically and scientifically and anecdotally, and anyone who is not an idiot knows, that waking up early and starting the day off with a nice, simple routine is a healthy and productive way to live one’s life.5
And so I did it. I removed my identity from it and just did it because it’s a good thing to do. Now I get up early. And I meditate (usually) and eat something greenish and healthy and bang out a bunch of writing as soon as I possibly can.6
And does that make me a “morning person?” Does that make me a “productive person?” Who knows? Who cares? I don’t. And it was by not caring that made it possible for me to do it.
Keep your “self” out of your decisions, because most likely, it’s not about “you.” Simply ask yourself, “Is this a good thing to do?” Yes? Then go do it.
Oh, you failed to do it? Is it still a good thing to do? Yes? Then go do it again. And if, at any point, you realize that it wasn’t as good as you thought, then don’t do it again.
End of story.
Change Your Actions, not yourself
Most of us who feel stuck in certain habits are stuck because we’re emotionally embedded in unhealthy behaviors. A smoker doesn’t just smoke cigarettes. They develop a whole identity around smoking. It alters their social life, their eating and sleeping habits, how they see themselves and others. They become “the smoker” to their friends and family. They develop a relationship with cigarettes the same way you and I develop a relationship with a pet or a favorite toy. Or our phones.
When someone decides to “change” themselves and quit smoking, they are essentially attempting to “change” their entire identity—all of the relationships, habits, and assumptions that have gone into X years of doing a singular thing. No wonder New Year’s Resolutions don’t last. No wonder that often fails.
The trick to quitting smoking (or to changing any habit) is to recognize that your identity—that elaborate mental framework you devised in your mind and labeled “me”—doesn’t actually exist. It is arbitrary. It is a facade. And it can be raised or dropped at will. It is a choice.
You are not a smoker. You are a person who chooses to smoke. You are not a night person. You are a person who chooses to be active at night and sleep through the morning. You are not unproductive. You are a person who currently chooses to do things that do not feel useful. You are not unloveable. You are a person who currently feels unloved.
And changing these actions is as simple as… changing your actions. One action at a time.7,8 Forget labeling it. Forget social accountability (in fact, research has found that sharing goals with others can often backfire). Forget making a big hoo-ha-ha about who you are or what you are or what the fucking Pope thinks about you.
Because he doesn’t. And neither do most of the rest of us. And neither do you, for that matter. Your identity is this made up thing that you’re emotionally attached to. It’s a mirage in the desert. A ketchup bottle in an empty fridge. And the quickest way to change yourself is to realize that there’s no real self to change.
- Ng, N., Weinehall, L., & Öhman, A. (2007). ‘If I don’t smoke, I’m not a real man’—Indonesian teenage boys’ views about smoking. Health Education Research, 22(6), 794–804.↵
- Gardner, B., Bruijn, G.-J. de, & Lally, P. (2012). Habit, identity, and repetitive action: A prospective study of binge-drinking in UK students. British Journal of Health Psychology, 17(3), 565–581.↵
- Helweg-Larsen, M., Sorgen, L. J., & Pisinger, C. (2019). Does it help smokers if we stigmatize them? A test of the stigma-induced identity threat model among U.S. and Danish smokers. Social Cognition, 37(3), 294–313.↵
- Townsend, S. S. M., Major, B., Gangi, C. E., & Mendes, W. B. (2011). From “In the Air” to “Under the Skin”: Cortisol Responses to Social Identity Threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(2), 151–164.↵
- Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(2), 142–144.↵
- Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), 597–605.↵
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery.↵
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.↵