Atomic Habits | How to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones with James Clear

James ClearSo here’s a bit of an interesting question. What if achieving everything you wanted in life was not about setting goals that were, you know, using all the standard stuff that you’re supposed to use, but entirely letting go of goals and actually focusing on daily behaviors. Little tiny incremental improvement that compounds over time stacks up to create astonishing outcomes in your life. That is just a piece of the conversation that we dive into in today’s rich exploration with James Clear. He’s the author of a fabulous book called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, which deconstructs the world of habit and has become a global phenomenon, and instant worldwide bestseller, with over 15 million copies sold.

But we go in a pretty different place with James. Yes, we talk about this, but we also really dive into his background, into the things that happen in his life that led him to a place of pursuing life differently. That led him to the awakenings of the power of sort of microscopic behavior changes and compound interest on those things. And we also touch on some pretty uncovered territory here, things like the relationship between genetics, hereditary habits and achievement. And it gets pretty provocative in this conversation. So you will definitely want to listen in and hang on for the ride. Really excited to share this conversation with you.

You can find James at: Website | The 3-2-1 NewsletterEpisode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

James Clear: [00:00:00] The goal is not to run a marathon. The goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to write a book. The goal is to become a writer. And so it’s like, yeah, become the type of person who in X domain write, become the type of person who works out each day, or who writes a sentence each day, who meditates for ten minutes, or whatever the particular identity is that you’re looking to build. It’s one thing to say, like, I want this, but it’s something very different to say I am this. And once you have adopted a particular identity, you’re not even really pursuing behavior change anymore. You’re acting in alignment with the type of person you already believe that you are.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:34] So here’s a bit of an interesting question. What if achieving everything you wanted in life was not about setting goals that were, you know, using all the standard stuff that you’re supposed to use, but entirely letting go of goals and actually focusing on daily behaviors. Little tiny incremental improvement that compounds over time stacks up to create astonishing outcomes in your life. That is just a piece of the conversation that we dive into in today’s rich exploration with James Clear. He’s the author of a fabulous book called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, which deconstructs the world of habit and has become a global phenomenon, and instant worldwide bestseller, with over 15 million copies sold. But we go in a pretty different place with James. Yes, we talk about this, but we also really dive into his background, into the things that happen in his life that led him to a place of pursuing life differently. That led him to the awakenings of the power of sort of microscopic behavior changes and compound interest on those things. And we also touch on some pretty uncovered territory here, things like the relationship between genetics, hereditary habits and achievement. And it gets pretty provocative in this conversation. So you will definitely want to listen in and hang on for the ride. Really excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:04] I want to take a step back in time, because you have a story that led to sort of your professional and personal focus. Let’s deconstruct that a little bit. You were as a kid, it sounds like you lived and breathed baseball.


James Clear: [00:02:18] Yeah. I mean, I loved a lot of sports as a kid, but my so my dad played professional baseball in the minor leagues for the Saint Louis Cardinals. So growing up, you know, I mean, like many kids, I mean, I wanted to be exactly like him, right? I wanted to I had this dream of, like, playing professionally, and I don’t know, you know, just, like, infatuated with baseball and sports. So I played all the way growing up, but I also did swam and played basketball, played one year of football, football. There are people who are giving hits and there are people who are getting hit. And I was always getting hit. So I decided that was maybe not for me. It’s funny.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:48] Because you’re a pretty big guy, so it’s.


James Clear: [00:02:50] Funny. So like I’ve put more weight and muscle on now. But when I was a kid, I was just like a long, tall toothpick and you put pads on and it’s like, oh, well, he looks like he’s got a little bit of size. So I was like, there’s nothing under here, there’s nothing, you know? So I would just get blasted every play. But anyway, so I played a variety of sports and then baseball and basketball through high school and then ended up playing baseball through college.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:12] Yeah. What’s it were you the type of kid that was going to your dad, like into the clubhouse and all that stuff and just immersed in the culture, or was that kind of kept separate from you? Well, so.


James Clear: [00:03:20] He his playing career was more or less done by the time that I was, you know, a young child. Um, but I do remember there was one night this this wasn’t a professional game, but he he threw a perfect game. Yeah. Which is incredible. Anyway, I can remember being in the dugout and, like, seeing him, like, after the game or, like, being down there. It was cool. So that was like a very young memory. But yeah, he had he had a great career. He worked incredibly hard. He one of my favorite little stories from him. I don’t know if I ever told it to anybody else. So he played baseball at Xavier University when he was in college, and then he got done and he didn’t get drafted right away. So, you know, like everybody else, he had to go get a job for a year. So while he’s doing that, he’s training like weightlifting and stuff for that year. And on his lunch breaks work, he looked up the numbers for all 30 major league teams and then called all of them just like manually, like, got somebody in the office just like.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:09] Cold-called the team.


James Clear: [00:04:10] He cold-called them. He cold-called Major League Baseball. Yeah. And uh, and anyway, incredibly, it ended up working and he was able to get a meeting with the Dodgers and the Cardinals. He somehow got on the line with them. And then my uncle, his brother went down to Xavier a year later and he, like, had a tryout for the Cardinals and then signed the signed his contract on the hood of the car afterward. I just feel like that’s an awesome example of his work ethic. And like a lot of the other things that I picked up from him, you know, there’s so much when you’re a kid that isn’t stated, but it’s implied. And when you see the way your parents act about things or how they attack their goals, all that trickles down to you in some way.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:47] Yeah, completely. And it really it doesn’t kind of doesn’t matter what you say as a parent, you know, it’s all about kids are just watching you and you can say all the best stuff and all the right stuff. But if your own behavior sort of betrays whatever comes out of your mouth, it just doesn’t matter. So it’s amazing to have those examples. So it sounds like work ethic was a huge part of your upbringing then?


James Clear: [00:05:10] I think. So family connection was also a big part. I mean, that was something that looking back now, I’m like, oh, people don’t really do this that much. But every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life, my family, so there are five of us. Then, uh, my cousins, my dad’s brother, there’s six of them in, in that family. And then there are four in the, uh, there are another six. So four, four kids, four kids, three kids. And then the parents.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:31] So giant family.


James Clear: [00:05:32] Yeah. So there. So anyway, the point is, all 18 of us would go over to my grandparents every Sunday and my grandma would make dinner for 18 people. And that happened for like 20 years. And so that like family connection and hanging out with cousins and seeing everybody there every weekend was like a big part of my childhood and growing up as well.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:50] Yeah, it’s funny, I feel like we’ve I feel like a couple of generations ago that was so much more common. But for, you know, in really the last 20, 30 years, so much of that is just been completely lost. And part of it, you know, like understandably through, you know, two working parents and just kids moving away a lot sooner and stuff like this. But there is I’m blanking on the author. There’s a book, I think it’s called The Immortal Evening, which tells a story about this legendary dinner where, you know, like these incredible, like, thought leaders and poets. They didn’t call them thought leaders back then, of course, just, you know, public intellectuals and poets and came gathered around. And it describes this evening of just, you know, deep, deep conversation and poetry and sharing and, and, and legendary friendship. I’ve, I reflect on just the idea of that, because I feel like there’s so much humanity that happens in those moments and almost like, makes life worth living and so much gathering in that way. It just doesn’t happen anymore.


James Clear: [00:06:51] It’s so hard to replicate it online too. Like you can’t really. It’s just not the same, you know? Like we all know that being part of a Facebook group is for weight loss is not the same as like being with your friends at the gym or something like that. It’s just something about the. Face to face connection, and sharing a meal together is like the ultimate example of that. It’s the ultimate depth of some kind of connection. You know that. I love that phrase immortal evening, because when you’re at a really great dinner, it feels like that. You know, it feels like time is just stretching on and you’re just fully present. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:20] And you just those are like the moments in your life where you just you hope it never ends and you just want to get back to it as soon as, you know, humanly possible. So, I mean, it sounds like relationships, family were just a super important part of what defined you as well as sort of like what created your identity.


James Clear: [00:07:38] Um, yeah, I think so. And then probably the third aspect of my childhood that like was played a big role was school. You know, a lot of people don’t like school. I loved it, and I think I don’t know if that’s like if it was trained into me or I’m just kind of more naturally like my I don’t know, my genetic makeup is curious or a learner or I want to ask a lot of questions or what it is, but I really enjoyed all of that. And so when I kind of when by the time I got to high school, I had friends in like two different categories that were kind of like all my sports friends that I would hang out with because of baseball and basketball. And then I had like all my nerd friends who were like, all way smarter than me, but like, would still let me hang out with them and we would, like, build computers together or this is like, this sounds like the nerdiest thing of all time. But we in fifth grade, we created a robotics club. We would program little Legos to like, run a Lego conveyor belt or like, you know, do. And, you know, it was so simple. All we could do was like, get it to go back and forth or like run a particular speed or whatever. Anyway, so those were kind of like big aspects of my childhood.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:34] Yeah. That’s amazing. I mean, so you’ve got like these dueling interests, you’ve got the nerds and you’ve got the jock side. And as you start to get a little bit older, do you start to gravitate towards one of those and think, well, this is going to be my future?


James Clear: [00:08:47] Well, I, I always wanted sports to play a bigger role than it did, but I wasn’t that great of an athlete when I was younger. And it’s not, I don’t know, like I it’s all too, who you compare yourself to, right. Like, I mean, I guess I was pretty good overall, but it just compared to, you know, what I aspired to be like, I was never the fastest on the team. I was never the strongest. I wasn’t like the leading scorer in basketball or the best player on the baseball field or something like that. So but I always wanted to be that. And I knew that if I did sports, it’s like this weird hierarchy, right? Where, like, whoever your best players, they kind of have to be the captain because like, everybody’s looking at them in the game to make the play. So like leadership kind of comes with skill in that arena. And I wanted these leadership roles, but I wasn’t I wasn’t the person that the team was relying on to win games. So I didn’t have them. And I think that was part of what like really drove me to continue to improve in sports. And like was very important to me because I wanted to it was maybe even less about my individual performance and more about like, I just wanted to be a leader.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:47] What was it inside of you that made you want that?


James Clear: [00:09:50] I have no idea. Yeah, I like. 


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:52] Because So many people actually run from that. Like they don’t want to be in that position where you’re out front and and responsible for outcomes.


James Clear: [00:09:58] So I said this when I the, the moral of that story is my elementary and middle school and high school sports careers were just average. But my college career ended up being really good. I did end up being an academic, All-American, multiple time captain, and whatever all this, all that kind of stuff. And there was something I said to the team my junior and senior year where I was like, look, if we’re going to lose, like, I want to be out there, you know, like if someone’s going to blow it, put it on me, I’m fine with that. You know, like, I’d rather play and lose than not be the one who’s, you know, asked to, like, step up for the team. And I don’t know why I felt that way, but that that was what I wanted. I’d rather have the responsibility and fail than. It’s like the Roosevelt man in the arena quote. You know, it’s like I’d rather be dirty and beat up and bloody and have to actually try. Yeah. Than to just judge from the crowd. Right.


Jonathan Fields: [00:10:46] And spend your time living in the gray twilight that knows neither was it victory nor defeat. Yes. Yeah. So agree with that. It’s interesting too, because I always wonder when that is apparent in somebody at a pretty young age, like if there was a moment or something that kind of like triggered that, if there was an experience or if it just kind of is a gradual emergence and you really can’t identify where it is. It sounds like with you, that’s kind of what it was.


James Clear: [00:11:07] I think So, yeah. I mean, I feel like I don’t know if it’s true, but my sense when I think about it or feel about it is I feel like I’m wired that way. And it just, I what I needed was time and effort for it to come out. I needed, you know, I needed, I needed a place for it to arise. But it was there.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:23] Yeah. You didn’t have the I mean, there was a moment also where you had a pretty traumatic experience in baseball.


James Clear: [00:11:29] Yeah. So, you know, I’m going through my middle school and high school career. Like I said, I didn’t really have much to show for it. It wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t a great athlete or anything. And the last day of my sophomore year of high school, I was suffer this very serious injury. I was hit in the face with a baseball bat and it was an accident. I…


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:46] How? How exactly did it happen?


James Clear: [00:11:47] Yeah, I, I just so I had just finished touching home plate and I was walking back to the third base dugout. So my back was to the, the batter. The next guy stepped into the batter’s box and took a swing. And I was maybe, I don’t know, ten feet away. And the bat slipped out of his hands. And so it kind of. Flew through the air like a helicopter style, and it came and it just struck me literally right between the eyes. So broke my nose, broke my ethmoid bone, which is the bone behind your nose. It’s actually very hard to break. It’s like pretty deep inside your skull. Shattered both eye sockets. I started bleeding right away, like, I, you know, I, I don’t really remember the moment of impact. I just remember, like, looking down and I saw, like, these spots of red on my clothes. And somebody ran over and gave me their shirt to plug up my broken nose and the blood. And then we, we were at we were outside in my high school, we were, uh, back up on the field behind the school. And so we started walking back down into school to go to the nurse’s office. And for the first like 15 minutes, I wasn’t I was not okay by any means, but I was like, I walked to the nurse’s office and I did answer questions, but then I pretty quickly started answering them wrong. So it was like, what year is it? I said 1998, but it was actually 2002. Or who’s the president? I was like, Bill Clinton, but it was actually George W Bush. So.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:01] So people around you got to be starting to freak out a bit.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:03] Yeah, they called my Dad. He’s like, you know, frantically driving over there trying to figure out what’s going on. People are like, no, I’m going downhill. I remember one person saying, like, yeah, your nose is definitely broken. Like it didn’t look like that before. And then I don’t really remember much more than that. So what ended up happening was my the swelling in my brain was so bad. I mean, it was obviously concussion, but it also led to a variety of other things. So I had multiple seizures. They put me in the ambulance and took me to a local hospital. But then I started having trouble with like basic stuff. I mean, I was having trouble breathing. I was I couldn’t swallow, just like simple bodily functions were shutting down. They decided that I had to be placed onto a ventilator because I couldn’t breathe on my own. So they’re pumping breaths into me by hand at this point, and they realize, like, we need to get him to a bigger hospital. This is not. So they decide to fly me to the hospital in Cincinnati. There was this moment where they had me on a stretcher. I you know, my mom is telling me all this later because she was with me in this room. My dad was there as well, but then he had to leave to go get my brother and sister. Anyway, they’re wheeling me over to the helipad, which is across the street from the hospital, and we’re going across the sidewalk and there’s like bumpy sidewalk and things are rattling. One nurse is pushing me, the other one’s pumping these breaths into me.


James Clear: [00:14:14] The intubation apparatus pops off. And so there’s like this moment I just think about my mom. It’s like, what a strange moment for her. We’re in our hometown. She’s driven by this hospital a thousand times, and now she’s standing on the sidewalk with her son, not being able to breathe. And then the apparatus breaks like nobody can pump a breath into him like he’s getting ready to be. It’s just like it would be such a surreal, weird experience to be in a place you’ve been a million times before and have something like so strange like that happening. So anyway, they scrambled around for a minute or two, got that back on, got me on the helicopter, flew me down to the hospital in Cincinnati. And so my mom’s in the helicopter with me, and we land on top of the hospital, and there’s like 20 doctors and nurses that come running out and, you know, just like frantically shipping me back into the hospital. We get in there and then I start having more seizures. And so they’re like, all right, this is, you know, becoming an issue now. Like, we can’t put him into surgery to fix his broken nose and bones because we’re worried about the other stuff that’s going on. So they put me into this medically induced coma and I stayed in the coma overnight. My parents, you know, they’re staying at this hospital. This is the same hospital again. It’s just like weird experiences for them that I’m thinking about. My sister had cancer when she was three, so she had leukemia.


James Clear: [00:15:29] Same hospital. They took her to the night. They walk in there with her, which was like 10 or 15 years prior. They meet a priest who’s, you know, talking to them about their three-year-old daughter who has cancer and like, you know, just like trying to be with them and so on. They get there that night when I’m there and the same priest comes up to them and it’s just like same guy, same hospital, just a, you know, I don’t know, very heavy experience for them. So. We make it through the night. Thankfully, I get stabilized and they feel the doctors feel confident enough to release me from this coma the next day. So gradually, you know, I don’t know, 24 hours later, 30 hours later, or whatever it was, I wake up and I realized that I can’t smell. And so, you know, I’m like, did I lose my sense of smell, like what’s going on? And they’re like, I think you just need to blow your nose and, you know, like, get all this gunk and stuff out of there that’s there from the injury. And let’s try it then. So they they asked me to blow my nose and smell this apple juice box. So I did that. But when I blew my nose, it forced air through the cracks in my shattered eye socket and then pushed the eyeball out. So now my left eye is like, you know, dangling out of the socket, basically. And I have double vision, you know, I got all these now I’ve got these vision problems in addition to everything else that’s going on.


James Clear: [00:16:43] So they brought the ophthalmologist in and they said, we think that your eye will go back into place, but we don’t know how long it’s going to take for the air that’s behind your eye to seep back out through the the cracks and the eye socket. So they ended up being right, but it took a month for it to return to its normal location. And so because of that and everything else that was going on, we had to wait a week before I could go into surgery to fix my broken nose and set the other bones and stuff. Well, because we had to wait a week. Might nose set in the broken position, so we actually had to rebreak it to to fix it, which was probably more painful for me than any other part of the experience. I think when you’re in the middle of something like that, your body is just, you know, you’re in total shock. So I basically felt nothing for the first two days, like, I don’t know what kind of hormones were going on, but I like, you know, there’s just like no pain. And then like a week later when they broke my nose, I was just laid up for like a month. It just felt terrible. But the that was the hardest physical part of the process, obviously the actual injury, but the hardest mental part of the process was the next like nine months. You know, I couldn’t drive for, uh, 8 or 9 months. 


James Clear: [00:17:47] Because Of the seizures. Right?


James Clear: [00:17:48] Right. And the double vision took a while to go away. So we had that physical therapy. My first session, we practiced walking in a straight line. It was just like for someone who, like, had these dreams of being an athlete and had spent so much time, you know, like training and thinking about their body and having control over that, and then suddenly you have like no control. It just felt like I mean, one of the first things I said was I never asked for this to happen. They just felt like that. Right? It felt like stuff had been taken away from you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:18:12] Yeah. I mean, I’m amazed at I mean, the experience is, is horrific, especially as a parent just thinking about things like that, the level of detail that you have about the story, where you weren’t conscious and present, clearly it’s been retold to you in extensive detail. And I’m guessing that came from your mom.


James Clear: [00:18:29] My mom, my Dad, the doctors. Yeah. I tried to track down everything I could while I was telling the story for the book, like medical records and pictures and stuff.


Jonathan Fields: [00:18:37] Did you, I mean, was it did you know this level of detail? Did you know what really happened until you actually, like, years and years later, you decide to sit down and write a book like or was a lot of this shared with you pretty soon after?


James Clear: [00:18:48] I had a lot of questions. So I did ask early on, like what happened? And like I asked multiple people and I think we probably debriefed like that next week or two, uh, whenever I was a little more, you know, in a little better shape to at least talk and sit and listen. I probably heard about it fairly soon, but I have asked my parents and multiple people to retell the story to me many times over the years, and started taking notes on it and comparing basically.


James Clear: [00:19:13] Yes, comparing people’s memories and stories of it to try to figure out like what exactly happened and what was the timeline and so on. Even some of my friends who were there, you know, for the they weren’t there for the hospital, but they were there for the moment that the bat hit and stuff.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:26] So, yeah So as you’re sort of like coming back, going through physical therapy, getting your vision back, letting your brain kind of come back to its non swollen state, are you thinking, I’m just going to do the work because also you’re this guy who has this, you know, fierce work ethic and commitment to mastering and excellence and learning in your mind. Are you thinking I’m gonna just do the work and get back to where I was and be a kick ass athlete? Or are you like, uh, this might be it.


James Clear: [00:19:51] I don’t think I ever consider not playing again. Like, I knew that I was going to try it. Yeah, it was like never a thought in my mind like, oh, I’ll just not play now. So now maybe that could have happened. But I like didn’t let my mind go there, you know, like it was I knew that I was going to try to come back so that was definitely part of it. So this happened right at the end of my sophomore year. You know, baseball was over the summer, so I missed that whole season. Then you come back for your junior year. Well, junior year is actually for most high school sports is the big recruiting year. Because like, you know, college coaches are coming out to look at you play and so on. And then the next year you’re deciding where you’re going to apply. And, you know, like, is this school recruiting me or not? So junior year is the one where you want to like make a mark. My junior year was basically non-existent like it was. Nobody looked at me. Nobody. I didn’t see a single college coach like I wasn’t playing. I, you know, so that put me in a very strange spot for someone who wanted to play in college that had zero interest going into their senior season.


James Clear: [00:20:45] And in fact, I, I came back from the injury and I got cut from the varsity baseball team. I didn’t even make it my junior year. So I was the only junior. You get cut from the varsity team the year that I came back from the injury. I don’t know, I don’t know if that was fair or not. I know that I wasn’t a good player at that point, but that’s what happened. I can remember sitting in my car just like crying to myself, uh, flipping through the radio, trying to find some song that would, like, make me feel better. Anyway, I finally my senior season. So two years after the injury, I did make the varsity team and I did well, but in limited time I threw 11 innings total, which for people who aren’t aware, like high school baseball games go seven innings. So like, that’s barely more than a single game. You know, like I barely got to play that year. I did fine in those 11 innings, but but it wasn’t like a great season or anything.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:30] Yeah. And yet you still you’re like, I’m not letting this go. Yeah. I mean it’s interesting too because you missed I mean, it must have been kind of devastating also because if you know that you’re coming back and like the one season where all everyone’s scouting for their players that they’re going to bring into college, you got nothing. Yeah. Like you’re literally starting, you know, like from scratch. And then so then even playing after that, I mean it’s sort of like, well, this is just for me at this at this point and then still not being able to get back to where you want. And yet it was still there was something in you it said, I’m not done. I’m just I’m not done.


James Clear: [00:22:06] Yeah. That phrase, this is for me, like I never said that, but that feels right to me, you know, like I just made it about that, you know, like I wasn’t doing it for anybody else. I was just doing it because I wanted to do it because I don’t know, because I was driven to do it for whatever reason. Also, you are right. It was, you know, it was a little bit hard, like, you know, the other guys who were better or were having good junior seasons and getting recruited and so on, you know, watching that. But I don’t when I think back at that time, one, I don’t feel I don’t I don’t think I was like jealous or angry or, you know, anything about them like that was great that they were doing fine. Also, I don’t remember feeling like, oh, I’m really missing out here. I instead of focusing on like what was taken away from me, I, for whatever reason, shifted my focus on like how I could improve. So if I had this period of like 2 or 3 weeks after the injury, where I was kind of like wallowing in victimhood and feeling like, oh, this happened to me, you know, like how bad it was or whatever. And then for whatever reason, some kind of like switch flipped and I was just like, I’m just going to try to focus on getting a little better each day, you know, like maybe, maybe it’s just physical therapy at first. Maybe it’s, uh, you know, maybe, maybe it’s just like going out and playing catch for the first time in, you know, six months or whatever. But at some point, I just started focusing on trying to get a little bit better and stopped worrying about, like, where I used to be or what was taken away. That helped me a lot through those like two years.


Jonathan Fields: [00:23:24] Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting too, because, you know, obviously in hindsight, you know, you can see all the dots come together. Were you that person who was sort of like focused on like, you know, having a very open and optimistic affect and then just willing to do the small incremental growth thing before this, or was this moment something which kind of like something changed where you’re like, you know what, let me reframe how I need to come back from this in a, in a more positive, incremental way, which, which eventually became, you know, sort of like the heartbeat of the way you live your life and now operate your profession.


James Clear: [00:23:55] Right? Yeah. So, I mean, the book that I wrote is all about small improvements, right? But I didn’t have a language for it then that I it’s only now that I would say like, oh, I was just trying to get 1% better each day or something like that. Like I would have never said that when I was in high school, but I don’t I don’t think of that moment as like an epiphany or a transformation. I just think of it as like a challenge that I faced. And I also don’t think, I mean, I should just say this. And overall for this whole context, like, I don’t think I have some heroic story or legendary thing, you know, like everybody deals with stuff in their life. I mean, like I said, my sister had cancer, you know, like everybody’s got something that they deal with. This just happened to be the thing for me. And so I don’t think that it like radically transformed my personality. I think I probably was that person who had a positive affect or tried to. I enjoyed optimizing or improving or getting better. It’s just that this was such a pivotal moment in my life that it gave me a very. When you’re forced into an extreme situation, you find out a lot about yourself. And it forced me to figure out, like, okay, if this really is who I am, like, I’m going to need to double down on my strengths here, right? Like I’m going to I’m going to need to rely on this identity that I have to get through this. So I think it may be pulled out the best in me, but it didn’t necessarily transform me or turn me into something new.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:05] Yeah. I mean to a certain extent it feels like it was. It forced you into a context where there was something, there was a huge challenge and something really big to work towards in a very specific way that made you say, okay, so how do I do this? Yeah. How do I how do I how do I catalyze the way I am to make this happen? And it was deeply meaningful to you as well. This ends up becoming, I mean, you know, like the, the, the short end of the, the baseball story is that you start to make all these small improvements and you start to realize, like a little bit every day, a little bit every day, a little bit every day. And you end up was that, I guess, towards the end of college, not just, you know, becoming good again, but becoming, achieving all these incredible goals as a, as an athlete.


James Clear: [00:25:48] Yeah. I think again, like I, you know, I don’t think my story is legendary or anything. I never ended up playing professionally, but I do think I fulfilled my potential. And that was just as meaningful in the long run. Yeah. So I you know, my senior season, I was an academic All-American. There were only 30 players across the country that were chosen for that. Selected the top male athlete at Denison University, which is the school I went to when I graduated. I was in the record books for eight different categories. Yeah, I mean, it ended up being a great career and, um, and that it’s so strange to look at how lackluster my high school career was compared to how, um, great my college one was. It makes no sense to compare the two. You never think they’re the same athlete that you know, in a sense, like my story is kind of an encapsulation of the ideas and atomic habits. It’s it’s about how small improvements can compound over time. Yeah, that kind of happened to me.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:38] So you also use the word potential fulfilled your potential, which is thrown around. And it’s pretty murky. Deconstruct that a little bit for me. What do you actually mean by that?


James Clear: [00:26:49] Well, it’s kind of a it’s kind of a hard thing to say. Oh, I fulfilled my potential because potential is interesting in the sense that it’s kind of limitless, you know, like nobody ever feels like they’ve fulfilled their potential.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:00] Like, Oh, I’m There.


James Clear: [00:27:00] Yeah, there’s always something more you could do. I say that, but what I, what I really mean is I feel like I did the best I could with the time I had that I think is what I mean in the context of this. And so, you know, I faced these challenges and I slowly came back and I ended up having a good career. And, you know, if I had continued to play, if college careers were six years long instead of four years long, I think I could have got better for another two years. But the time that I had those four years in college, in those six years after the injury, I think that that was the best I could have done.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:29] Yeah, it’s funny because I think one of the biggest pain points, especially when you when you describe it that way for so many people that I’ve seen in conversation, is this feeling that they’re not doing that. Is this sort of like persistent knowing in the back of their mind that there’s something out there, there’s something within them that is greater that there, that there’s more that they’re capable of in some way, shape or form in different domains in their lives. They can’t quite define or understand what it is, and they don’t know how to get there or work towards it. And it’s just this, this, this knowing and this discontent that seems perpetual in so many people.


James Clear: [00:28:07] I mean, I think everybody has an incredible amount of potential within them. And I don’t know the perfect answer to, like, how do I realize that? How does it go from this feeling of something I have inside me to something that, you know, I feel like I fulfilled my potential or whatnot, or I did the best I could with the time I had. But the thing that the only thing that worked for me, the only path I know is to work is to, you know, put the effort in. That’s so baseball. For this example, I was training in the gym 3 or 4 days a week. Right. So like I’m there for an hour or two. I mean, that’s that’s work, right? Those are reps. That’s effort. I’m out on the field for, you know, our practices were usually ridiculous or like three hours long. So, you know, that’s more reps like we’re out there and I my point is I can feel that way because I got to the end of the four years and I knew that I had put that time in. I knew I had put so many reps in. I was like, yeah, I there weren’t more reps to put in, you know, like, I did what I could. My dad used to tell me when I was growing up that like on any performance day. So like, you know, like I’m pitching that day or I’m going out or taking a test or something like that. And he would be like, just trust your preparation and that you can only say that if you put the reps in. Right. But like, it’s a very it was a very powerful thing for me when I would like go in to perform, I’m going into a big exam. I’m going into a, you know, like a big game. And if you have prepared, you can just trust your preparation. You can show up and have that like quiet confidence, step onto the field.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:24] Yeah. I mean, were you able to do that because I know I’ve heard that said a lot. And I know some people are like, yeah, I can totally own that. But I also know other people that are have legendary work ethic. They have put in the work. They’re astonishing at what they do. And when they come up to that moment where, okay, everything’s on the line, this is where whether it’s athletic, academic, social, whatever it may be, there is there is a relentless spiral of mental chatter that just keeps pulling them away from you. And you can say you’ve done the work. You’re incredible. Like trust, trust the preparation. But I think so many people have this, this firestorm of opposing mental chatter that pulls you away from that trust.


James Clear: [00:30:05] And I have had plenty of experiences where I perform poorly and have been a victim of that myself, You know? 


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:11] I know I have also.


James Clear: [00:30:12] I think I had a coach in high school, basketball coach said something just I don’t know why, but it struck me one practice where he said confidence is just displayed ability. And so his point was like, if you want to be a confident free throw shooter, then go shoot free throws until you’ve made ten in a row Or 20 in a row or 30 in a row. You make 30 in a row. Like, yeah, that’s what you get from that is confidence. You’ve displayed your ability. And so now you believe it. And so I think that that line like trust your preparation, it becomes easier to believe to truly like hold on to and to not let that mental chatter creep in with experience. It becomes easier with displayed ability. So what really, in the beginning, like my dad saying that to me was probably conditioning me to get ready to perform. And then as I gained experience and performed more and more and I’ve done, you know, okay, all right, I’ve thrown 50 games now. And, you know, I know that I have put in the reps and that this is going to work out okay. Then I can actually step onto the field and actually trust my preparation in a deeper sense.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:08] It’s like now you’ve got proof to point to. It’s like, okay.


James Clear: [00:31:10] I think that’s a huge thing though. You know, I talk about this in chapter two of the book about this idea of like identity based habits, and we need evidence to believe things about ourselves. You know, like any anything that we’re talking about like this with mindset, a lot of times people say things like, fake it till you make it. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to take like a positive view of things, but fake it till you make it specifically asks you to believe something without having evidence for it. And there’s a word for beliefs that don’t have evidence. It’s called delusion, right? And at some point, your brain doesn’t like that. It doesn’t like the mismatch between wanting to believe something and not having proof of that being you. And that’s another reason why I think small habits are so important. Because whenever you perform a small habit you like, cast a vote for being that type of person. You build up a little bit of evidence, a little bit of proof that this is who you are. So, you know, even if you do five push-ups, that doesn’t do a whole lot. It doesn’t transform your body. But it is a little bit of proof that I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Or you sit down to write one sentence, and that’s a little bit of proof of I am a writer. And so those small habits seem like not that much from a physical or external results standpoint, but they can actually be very meaningful when it comes to reinforcing beliefs like trust your preparation, or be confident in your abilities, or believe in yourself or things like that, because you actually you only develop that true sense of belief when you have some evidence behind it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:34] Yeah, I so agree with that. The running on 100% faith thing and just fake it till you make a thing just never sounds really good on, you know, like Instagram but practical in the real world. It just I’ve rarely ever seen that carry somebody beyond just a tiny little bit of progress.


James Clear: [00:32:50] It’s not going to carry you. It’ll just be a momentary change.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:53] Right.


James Clear: [00:32:53] It’s not going to sustain.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:54] It’s and I agree, we’re so wired for evidence and for feedback. I think it’s interesting because there’s I sometimes say belief precedes behavior. And a bunch of people called me on it. They’re like, no, no, you have to act first. And that creates belief. And then I’m like, yes, and but think about the I’m always focused on the first action. Like I’m always focused on going from zero to the very first step. And I’m like, you know, in a, in a perfect world where time and resources are abundant and there’s no cost to you taking that first action. Yeah, maybe you’re right. I don’t know anyone that lives in that perfect world. Like there is always a cost to taking the first step. There’s always a there saying no to something else, to taking that first step. So maybe you don’t need to 100% believe that something positive will come your way to take it. But you’ve got a 3% belief, you know, and that requires very, very often something more than faith because you’ve got to say no to something else, to say yes to this first step. And like, there’s got to be something else that you can point to that says, okay, I’m not sure this is going to get me something, but at least I can see the possibility of it getting me something I can. My brain can point to this to rationalize, you know, like that first behavior and then, like you were saying, you start to get this feedback loop that becomes repeating evidence in the process.


James Clear: [00:34:14] I think we just call that hope. Yeah. You need some aspect of hope to drive you, but I so I would say that you’re both right you and it’s that beliefs and behavior are a two-way street. It’s like a feedback loop you know like and you see this all the time, right? Like once someone you can have positive beliefs, like I’m the type of person who works out or you can have negative beliefs like I’m bad at math or I’m terrible at directions, or I have a sweet tooth or whatever. And once you adopt those beliefs, once they become part of your identity, it they can reshape your next action. Right? Like motivates you to act in a particular way. But where did they come in the first place? Like you weren’t born as a baby with a belief of I have a sweet tooth, or I’m bad at math, so it, you know, it gets reinforced over time. Sometimes your actions feed into your beliefs, and sometimes your beliefs feed into your actions. But they both work with each other. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:35:01] Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting also, you keep circling back to this word identity. And I know in a lot of the work that you’ve done around understanding habit, understanding why what we do, you know, works or doesn’t work and, and your whole philosophy around, you know, like incremental slow, like 1% better every day, that it feels like the foundation of that is building an identity as somebody who is a doer in X domain.


James Clear: [00:35:25] Um. Yeah. So, I mean, one of the things I say in the book is like, the goal is not to run a marathon. The goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to write a book. The goal is to become a writer. And so it’s like, yeah, become the type of person who in X domain, right, become the type of person who works out each day, or who writes a sentence each day, who meditates for ten minutes or whatever the particular identity is that you’re looking to build. And the reason I bring that up, and I think it’s important is because. Once you there’s like one. It’s one thing to say like, I want this, but it’s something very different to say I am this. And once you have adopted a particular identity, you’re not even really pursuing behavior change anymore. Like, you’re just you’re really you’re acting in alignment with the type of person you already believe that you are. So like, for me, weightlifting has been a big part of my life now since I’ve finished like competitive sports, and going to the gym doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice to me anymore. It’s just like, that’s what I do. It’s part of who I am. And so I don’t have to, like, motivate myself, so to speak, to, to go there. I think that’s true for any identity that you adopt someone who identifies as a smoker, they don’t they don’t have to motivate themselves to smoke a cigarette. It’s just like how they see themselves. It’s what they do. It’s the habit that they have. It’s automatic. In many cases. Bad habits can be instructive that way because they tend to be very sticky. And so it’s like, well, why? Why do these bad habits stick around? You can start to invert that and look at some of the things that work well for bad habits and apply it to your good ones. But I think that same principle of once you’ve adopted an identity, you’re not really pursuing change. You’re just acting in alignment with who you already think you are.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:58] Yeah, it makes a lot of sense too. And it kind of jives with some of the more recent research I’ve seen around passion, where, you know, one of the sort of how do you tell if something, you know, if this is a passion of someone’s is when they start adopting, at least according to some of the research, when they start moving away from saying, I do X and they start adopting an identity level expression of it. So like I instead of I write, I am I am a writer, you know, instead of I run, I’m a runner.


James Clear: [00:37:24] There was a famous study done on voting behaviors. 1 in 1 cohort. They asked people to say like, you know, I am voting tomorrow. And in the other cohort they got people to say, I am a voter. And the people who identified were more likely to go to the polls and actually vote versus the people who just said what action they were going to perform.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:43] Yeah, it’s so fascinating. It reminds me also of, uh, you know, Cialdini’s sort of legendary work where he really started to talk about this thing called the consistency principle. You know, once we put something out into the world that says, you know, like, I’m the type of person who does this, right? There’s something in our brains that makes us want to act consistently.


James Clear: [00:38:00] The last person in the world we want to contradict as ourselves.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:03] Yeah.


James Clear: [00:38:03] So it’s like once you’ve stated your claim to I’m the type of person who does this, you find yourself feeling compelled to continue that behavior and good or.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:11] Bad, right? Exactly. Your positive or negative outcomes. Because sometimes we dig in when we really should be letting go. Right? You brought up something which I think bears exploration to the example of smoking, because what that brings in to me is kind of an interesting conversation around the relationship between habit and addiction. And there is some interesting research. I know you write about this, about what was seen as an addiction when soldiers were away in the environment, and how when they came home, things changed in a way which really changed our understanding of this relationship.


James Clear: [00:38:44] Yeah, it’s a very interesting story. So it happened in the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War. These two congressmen went over to Vietnam. They hung out with the soldiers there and visiting them, and they found out that tons of soldiers, US soldiers in Vietnam, were addicted to heroin. They ended up like sending a special force over to our unit, over to figure out, like, how deep the problem went. And it was a really high percentage, like 15 to 20% of soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. Just a crazy number anyway. So they they created this whole special action task force and like trying to figure out what this was. Well, the war ends and the soldiers come back home. And the belief at the time, the prevailing view of addiction at the at the time was that once you were addicted like that, that it was, you know, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do or it was like a very difficult battle and that most people would relapse, that like 90% of people would, would relapse. Well, the soldiers came home and the literally the exact opposite happened, like only 5% of them or so, maybe 10% would get addicted to heroin again. Most of them became clean, like almost overnight.


Jonathan Fields: [00:39:48] So this was of the 15 to 20% who were addicted when they were in theater, right? When they came home, a tiny fraction of those people stayed users.


James Clear: [00:39:58] Yeah. So I don’t know the exact number, but let’s just let’s move away from percentages. So it’s not confusing. Let’s say that a million soldiers were addicted to heroin when they were over there, and then they all come back. Well, 90% of those would were clean once they got back and they ended up not falling back into heroin usage. So this was like this was very confusing to a lot of researchers at the time because they were like, we thought when someone was addicted, they were, you know, they were hooked. Lee Robbins was the researcher who kind of headed up this, this group, and she published a couple papers on it. And anyway, the punch line of all this is that your environment heavily influences your behavior. And so if you are a soldier who’s in a stressful environment like a war zone, surrounded by easy access to drugs, surrounded by a social environment where other users, many of whom are your friends or people in your unit who are also using. It’s very easy to see why so many people would try heroin in an environment where that is, you know, so soul-crushing like that, but then you come home. Home and all those things are gone. You’re no longer in a war zone. You don’t have to be stressed each day like that. You’re not surrounded by other users. You don’t know where to go to get heroin because you haven’t used there before. And so suddenly the behavior shifted radically. Now, what’s interesting about this is if you think about how it compares to what we do now for people who are addicted, whether it’s heroin or another substance, usually they get addicted in their neighborhood or at home, around by their friends and so on. Then they leave and go to a new environment, like a detox center or a clinic to get clean.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:24] And then they come back.


James Clear: [00:41:25] Right.


James Clear: [00:41:25] And so and that works. It works the same way that, you know, uh, soldiers leaving Vietnam worked. But the difference is now they go back to the very place that they got addicted in the first place. Now they’re surrounded by their same friends, same neighborhood, all the same cues, everything. So in one, the weird thing about the Vietnam example was they were able to leave the environment that addicted them behind. And it’s so hard for modern addicts to do that. And I should just add as a caveat, like, I don’t consider myself an expert on addiction. I think addiction is like an extreme version of a habit, almost like the habit loop is a little bit broken in the sense that for most habits, the process of learning still continues. So if the outcome that you want, even if you’re doing it on autopilot, if that outcome vanishes, your brain learns and updates for the next time. But with addiction, it doesn’t quite work that way because the reward is taken away. It doesn’t really benefit you, but you still keep doing it. You’re not like learning. And that’s one of the definitions of what an addiction is. It’s you continue to repeat a behavior despite negative consequences. You know it’s not good for you. You know it derails your life and you still have a craving to do it. So it’s kind of a special use case or a broken case of habits. And there are many people who understand addiction much better than I do. But it definitely overlaps with a lot of the work that I do.


Jonathan Fields: [00:42:39] Yeah, and especially because this idea of habits like two A’s on one side, addiction on the other side automaticity, which is, you know, in theory, if you’re trying to create the neural grooves to create a good habit, one that you want to just become, you know, completely automatic in your life, and you want to just like, have your brain rewire itself. So it’s just always there and it’s taking a lot less energy. That’s a really good thing, you know? But if those same neural grooves wire that way towards a destructive habit. So I do see a really strong relationship there. So even if the even if the, you know, the, the chemical addiction may be removed from your body in a relatively short period of time, you know, it’s the same process on either side. You know, like the neural wiring doesn’t it doesn’t just get washed clean.


James Clear: [00:43:24] This is something I talk about in the book that, like, habits are a double-edged sword. They can either work for you or against you. So you a lot of the things that I just mentioned this a couple moments ago, but in many cases it’s instructive to look at bad habits or addictions from like a high level, like, you know, a kind of outside and above the problem to say, like, what’s actually going on here? Why do we get so hooked in to these behaviors? And can you learn a little bit from that and then like apply it to your good ones. But yeah, there there are plenty of similarities. It can yeah. They can compound for you or against you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:52] Yeah. It’s interesting too because there’s recently reading some of the research and talking to some people in who are working with some, quote, psychedelic substances and exploring the idea of how it works in, in with addiction also, or with people who are just. And it was described to me, one particular substance as essentially smoothing out the grooves in negative behavior that is formed over a period of years or decades to allow you to create a new imprint. And when you talk about some people who have moved out of these experiences and all of a sudden feel an almost instant freedom from behaviors that had fiercely constrained every element of their life before, it’s it’s not like they will never retreat back to them, but it’s almost like the expression is, I feel like, you know, like the the grooves have been smoothed out. So I have now this I have the opportunity to create new grooves towards a positive end. Instead, it’s a whole different rabbit hole.


James Clear: [00:44:47] It’s fascinating though, what you can do with that. I mean, so I have a secret chapter that got cut from the final book, but I have as a download on on my site. It’s called The Biology of Bad Behavior, and it’s all about what scientists and physicians and pharmaceutical companies are doing to try to reshape our bad habits and our addictions. There’s I mean, some of these I hesitate to talk about them because I don’t want people to think they’re like a magic solution that just, like, flips the switch and you won’t be addicted anymore. But there’s some very interesting research going on in Italy right now, and National Geographic ran a piece on it last year. It’s called TMS machine transcranial magnetic. And so they they put this little like wand next to your brain. And essentially it just generates some magnetic waves that will activate the neurons in that region of the brain. Well, they can put it over the region of the brain that’s responsible for decision-making and resisting temptation and things like that. So they’ll have a cocaine addict come in, lay down, receive this treatment, and activate the region of the brain that’s like dialed down during addiction. Instead, crank up the, you know, the region that can resist temptation, and they’ll walk. Out the door and be like I, for the first time in, you know, six years. I don’t crave cocaine or something. It’s like they’re totally new person. So I don’t know. I’m not sure where all that’s going to go.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:03] Yeah, I think we’re in the early days, but it is really fascinating. Yes, to think about that. I think TMS is like being used for a whole bunch of really different things right now. It’s using depresison as well.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:11] Depression, Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s so fascinating to see how modalities like that, which are non-invasive and like potentially could be very widely available at very low cost, might change the face of how we can live.


James Clear: [00:46:22] It’s interesting to think about like the interface between typically the conversation around psychology habits has been like a psychology one. But now we’re talking about like hard science, neuroscience, biology, like the anatomy of the brain, which region is turned on or off. And so you have this like merger of worlds now, which I think is great for having a deeper understanding of what a habit is and where it lives and how it, you know, is driven and what parts of the feedback loop, the biological feedback loop are involved in this. It just increases our depth of understanding. And the more precise our understanding becomes, the more it’s like. It’s like a form of internal judo, you know, like, you know, just the right place to apply pressure or just the right place to apply, in this case, magnetic resonance to get the result that you’re looking for. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:10] When you start to realize that, yes, there’s a behavioral and psychological element to it. There’s a biological there’s an environmental element to it. You start to more readily. I’m curious whether you’ve seen this in your work. There’s a shame element to quote bad habits that you keep trying to shake and you can’t shake. But when you start to zoom lens out and say, okay, so this isn’t about me just, you know, being a total slacker or not having the willpower needed, you’re like, yes, there’s a behavioral element, but there’s also this environmental stuff, and maybe there’s biological stuff or maybe even genetic stuff that plays into this, which you explore all as well.


James Clear: [00:47:41] Yeah. There. I mean, so I want to come back to the genetics point in a moment.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:45] Yeah.


James Clear: [00:47:46] I don’t want to get like too woo woo with it because I’m very scientific with the writing that I do. I mean, the book has over 300 references and endnotes, but if you when you start to see the big picture, the total picture, your biology, your physical environment, the people you hang around even down to like the neurological level, your genes, neurons. So on the different synapses that are connecting for any particular behavior, you really start to see the universe as one collected collective thing, right? That is working together like there are all of this is interacting to shape your habits. It’s not just you for, you know, whatever you is in your mind, whatever this image of I or your identity is in your head, you don’t have to be guilty or feel shameful for that. What you really are looking to do is just to reshape the environment a little bit, reshape your collective relationship with the universe so that you can get some of the stimuli that you need or want that shape you and nudge you in a particular direction. But yeah, it’s about much more than your willpower, so to speak, you know, which is what people often feel like. They’re like, oh, if I could just try harder. I knew I was going to blow it, you know, to bring it back to the genetics point. So I tell this story in the book. I think it’s I think it’s like a cool thing about habits that, that most people haven’t thought about or that we don’t talk about enough.


James Clear: [00:48:58] So the story is about Michael Phelps. And Phelps, You know, everybody knows his story. One of the most successful swimmers of all time, maybe the best Olympian of all time. He competed at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and he was competing the same year that another guy that most people haven’t heard of, his name is Hicham El Guerrouj and he’s a runner from Morocco. He was a fantastic athlete in his own right, and so he’s at the same Olympic Games sometime around that period. He I think, held the world record in the mile, the 5000 meter and the 1000 meter races all at the same time. So really great runner. And Phelps and El Guerrouj are both fantastic athletes, but they differ in one interesting way. So they’re very different in height. Phelps is six foot four, the runner I think is five-nine. So there’s like seven inches difference. However, they have the same length inseam on their pants. So the runner is basically all legs and like no torso. And he and Phelps is basically all long back for pulling through the water and like relatively short legs for how tall he is. So the question that I had was, what if these two switch sports, you know, so Phelps was one of the greatest Olympians of all time. Could he be an Olympic-level runner? And the answer is almost certainly no.


James Clear: [00:50:06] So El Guerrouj and all the other people competing in those races competed around 130, 135 pounds. Super lightweight. Phelps at peak fitness when he was in the Olympics, was 194 pounds, so he would have stepped up to the starting line and been doomed from the start. I mean, in distance running, every extra pound is like a curse. So he’s 60 pounds overweight before the race even begins. Same thing is true for the runner. If they switch places, every single person that’s competing in these races with Phelps, they’re all like six, three, six, four, six, five. I mean, they’re all basically, you know, these like giant tall trees going through the water. El Guerrouj is five nine. He would have been at a significant height disadvantage as soon as he jumped in the pool. Not to mention the polling problem because his back is, you know, relatively short compared to the others. So my point here is that they are fantastic athletes, literally world-class, world record-holding athletes, and they couldn’t switch sports and perform at the same level, not because they aren’t good athletes, but because that particular environment is not well matched to their strengths. And this is one of the key insights about genes and behavior. We often don’t like to talk about genes or because people get into this like biological determinism thing where it feels really fixed and it’s like, well, why bother talking about it if it’s so fixed? But your genes are the usefulness or the utility of your genes is dependent on the context.


James Clear: [00:51:22] So if you’re seven feet tall, that’s really valuable. If you want to play basketball, it’s a great hindrance. If you want to like do a gymnastics routine on the balance beam. And so I think the applying this not just to physical characteristics, which are very easy to understand because they’re obvious we can all see them. But your genes also influence your psychological characteristics. And so I think the really interesting question for me is how can you match yourself to an environment where you are well suited? It’s well suited to your particular strengths, whether that’s, you know, you’re the equivalent of being seven feet tall or you’re the equivalent of being five-nine. But really what you want is success is about it’s like a matching problem. I think the my theory, my hope is that the great thing that this could mean is that right now it’s mostly just random. It’s just, you know, it’s like luck that. Michael Phelps grew up in a family that prioritized swimming, and he happened to have, you know, the perfect body for that and the type of work ethic for it and so on. That doesn’t discount any of the hard work he did. By the way, for many, many years, it’s just that he was fortunate to grow up in an environment that was well suited or well matched to his strengths, in addition to working hard.


James Clear: [00:52:27] But what if we could provide that for every child, right? Like, what if there are enough niches in the world that once we more properly or deeply understand the psychology and the makeup of each person, their particular genetic code, we could better match them with opportunities that they might be excellent in. It’s not like saying you have to do this right. It’s not a prescription, but it’s just saying, look here, based on your genetic makeup, these are maybe 30 things that would be like interesting to you or you could be really good at and then let them explore and do that. But it’s kind of like giving them a more curated shortlist rather than just saying, like, well, I played piano, so you should play too. You know, I don’t know if that could actually work. You know, maybe there’s maybe it logistically it’s impossible. Maybe we will never have the depth of knowledge to do that. But I love the idea that everybody should be able to feel what it’s like to be excellent at something. And in many cases, excellence is not only a result of hard work and work ethic, but of the luck of being exposed to something that is well-suited to your strengths. Anyway, it just makes me hopeful for the future and that maybe will one day be able to get to there.


Jonathan Fields: [00:53:31] Yeah, that’s so agree. And I think the idea of you know, what can we do to narrow the universe of possibilities which a lot of people fight against because like, I just want to be able to do anything and everything all the time and forever and that can be devastating for so many people because it ends up paralyzing you, because then you try and do a little bit of everything all the time. And because there are so many opportunities, it’s just it takes exponentially longer to find any one thing where it feels aligned in some way or it’s aligned with, you know, a million different expressions or traits or, you know, things that might connect in any way to a genetic expression, epigenetic expression, and the idea of, can we do a little bit of questioning, a little exploration in the name of potentially dramatically narrowing the world of possibilities so that we can run experiments that will be more fruitful more quickly to really find out, find our thing. To me, that’s where a lot of my work lies. So I get that. And I also know that I’ve had similar conversations and a lot of people really resist the idea.


James Clear: [00:54:34] Well, I mean, the truth is you you can’t try anything, everything already. I mean, you only get one life to live. You only have. I mean, you know, for example, you could spend the rest of your life dedicating it to the violin or to, I don’t know, I mean, a million things to writing books, to becoming a meditator to, you know, like pick whatever domain you want. You could dedicate it to knitting. It doesn’t matter. You can, you know, whatever you would want to be world-class at. But my point is you can’t try them all and any one of us could become a billion different things. It’s like they’re like infinite potential dotted lines or paths emanating out from you right now in the present moment to what your future could be. But you only walk one of those paths. And so this is really just about trying to find a more, a more beautiful set of paths for you to consider, you know, a more appropriate or appropriate, maybe even be the wrong word, a more a greater potential set of paths, right? Ones that maybe you’re more aligned with.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:27] Yeah. I mean, where there’s sort of like a bigger to me, it’s like, you know. How do you find that thing where you have the optimal opportunity for expression?


James Clear: [00:55:35] Mhm.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:36] Whatever it may be. And maybe it’s not one, maybe it’s a handful of different things or a blend of things. But how do you agree. I mean you can’t, you can’t walk a million paths in the time we have on the planet. So the faster you can get to the ones that really.


James Clear: [00:55:48] Feels authentic for you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:49] Yeah, yeah, I’m all for that. So coming full circle here. The book you’ve written, by the way, we haven’t even really talked a whole lot about, like, the nuts and bolts. So let me just toss this out there. The book you’ve written, Atomic Habits, is really astonishing, just as a piece of work, as an instruction manual. In a funny coincidence, one of the actually, I think it was the first conversation we ever taped for Good Life Project. when we launched as a video series was Charles Duhigg, who’s the author of The Power of Habit, which became this massive sort of social phenomenon for years. And I was incredibly enamored with his work. And at the same time, one of the things that I always wanted more of was tell me on a granular level, how to implement this in my life. And I feel like your book has sort of like after, what, 6 or 7 years, maybe longer now stepped in and said, do this, wake up, do this, then do this, then do this. And you explain the psychology and everything behind it and the science behind it. So I look at it as almost an operating manual to integrate intelligent, constructive habits into your life. So probably important to mention that it’s been jamming on a whole bunch of more nuanced topics for a while. I’m curious when you put a book out like this, especially because I know, you know, like you were a big fan of Charles’s book in the early days, and you’ve been spending years now deep into this space. So when you spend years of your life then cloistered, working on taking all of your knowledge, distilling it into one thing of pages, and you put that out into the world, do you have an intention for what you want to happen? Do you have an expectation or you just hold yourself completely open?


James Clear: [00:57:31] Yeah. Great question. So well, first of all, just thank you very much. I’m glad that you enjoyed the book and found it useful. I, I thought Charles wrote a great book. I still do, actually. I it’s funny, after writing a book, I appreciate it even more now, you know, because you know how much work he put in and how much effort it took. But I did hear from a variety of my readers and other folks who said similar to what you said, like, this is a really good book for understanding what a habit is, but like, I really want to know how to implement it. And so that was a key like piece for me when I was writing this, my intention and my hope, and I think that it was successful. I wrote Atomic Habits to be the definitive book on how to build a good habit or break a bad one. Like if you actually want to know what do I do? How do I apply it day to day, then this is the book.

Jonathan Fields: [00:58:50] Yeah. When you do work like this and not even just the book, but the work you devoted now years of your adult life to going deep into really understanding why we do what we do and and don’t do what we do and how to do things better for you. I’m always curious, where do you find and this is a hard question to answer. I don’t know if you can. Do you feel like you’re more driven by either the investigation side of things, the creative expression side of things, or the outward impact side of things? Or do you feel like, do you feel like any one of those, if you really just got honest, was like, if I could just geek out, like if this was the thing that really, really moved me to do the work I’m doing in the world, do you feel like there’s one that really draws you more? Do you feel like it’s a blend?


James Clear: [00:59:33] I certainly all of them play some role, but outward impact is the is the answer. And I didn’t know that about myself until I wrote this book. And the way that I found out was that, you know, for many years for, let’s see, 3 or 4 years before I signed the book deal, I was writing an article every Monday and Thursday on And so I would write those articles and I would, you know, the cycle time for an article is very fast. You can write the article, you get it. You know, I even I spend a lot of time on my articles. I spend probably 20 hours or so on each one, but which is a lot. But you can get it out in a week, and I’m immediately getting feedback from people in the inbox. Right. Like within an hour I’m hearing from people. And so, in other words, within an hour I have signals of the outward impact it’s making. And I did not know that about myself, but I feed off of that. Feedback is really it’s very motivating for me because as soon as I get emails from readers saying this was useful, my brain starts being like, all right, I got to write something else that people find even more valuable, or like, I need to work on the next article or whatever. It’s very motivating with the book. I was in a cave for like a year, right? And then I’m writing and I got about a year in and I realized, okay, one, this is not enough time, I need another year.


James Clear: [01:00:40] So I had to ask the publisher for an extra year, and they very graciously gave it to me. But two, I have no feedback. I’m not hearing from anybody. Like, are my ideas good or bad? Like what? You know, what’s going on here. And so eventually when. One of the things that really helped me was hiring an outside editor. I don’t need feedback from hundreds of thousands of people, but I do need at least some signal from somebody that you’re on the right track. And I think that’s because I feed off of that outward impact, knowing that it matters to people, knowing that it’s useful to them, knowing that it’s helpful. You know, I mean, at the end of the day, like, I want the same things everybody else wants. You just want your work to matter a little bit. You know, you want to, like, make your little contribution to your corner of the world. And, you know, I try my very best to do great work and to do work that matters. You know, I don’t think it’s necessarily the best work in the world or anything, but as long as people are finding it useful and I’m getting a signal of that, then I have a reason to show up again the next day and work hard again.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:34] Yeah. Love that. It’s kind of interesting too, because in your case, it sounds like the outside editor was sort of serving as a proxy for the voice of those who seek to serve. Yes, to a certain extent they didn’t know it.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:44] Yeah, but it’s Like it’s like my little secret.


James Clear: [01:01:47] Yeah, I think that’s right.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:49] That’s funny. This feels like a good place for us to come full circle, too. So hanging out here, Good Life Project.. If I offer out the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


James Clear: [01:01:57] Um, well, I think a lot of it actually has to do with that. What I just stated, this idea of like, how can I contribute my little bit to the corner of my corner of the universe, you know, like, how can I, I think a lot about can I contribute more than I consume, you know, can I get can I be like a net positive life, right. Like I gave more value than I took out. If you’re honest with yourself, you realize you take a lot from the people around you. You know, you’re learning a lot from the from others. You’re consuming things other people make all the time. You know, whatever you have for your meals or the car you drive or, you know, like the clothes you’re wearing. I mean, somebody else put work and effort into that. And so for you to add your little bit to that, you know, collective mountain of humanity, I think is, is a life well lived.


Jonathan Fields: [01:02:37] Mm. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [01:02:40] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Gretchen Rubin about the four tendencies or how we meet our own expectations. You’ll find a link to that episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me. Jonathan Fields and Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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