The Relationship between Habits & Identity

Behaviors that are incongruent with our identity don’t last. I would argue that if they persist, they will change our identity. At that point, the two will realign themselves. A simple litmus test for determining if a habit is good or bad is the resulting identity it produces. If the habit is a vote for the type of person you want to become, it is a good habit.

Identity and habits work in a push-pull manner. We can harness the power of identity to adopt a more disciplined lifestyle. While I choose to create my own personalized workouts, which focus on strength training and short cardio sessions, I found Joseph De Sena’s Spartan Fit! very inspirational. I have incorporated some of the workout ideas into my training. Spartan Fit teaches you what it means to become a modern-day Spartan. You learn how to eat, train, and live a more Spartan lifestyle. It was fascinating to learn that the Spartans were not always renowned for their discipline and toughness. Sparta was unremarkable from the other Greek city-states; before the Lycurgus Reforms, which transformed Spartan society and produced some of the most well trained and disciplined soldiers the world has ever seen. Lycurgus was the younger brother of a Spartan king that ascended the throne after his older brother’s death. Falsely accused of plotting to kill his nephew, before he could come of age and ascend the throne, Lycurgus left Sparta to travel the Mediterranean. He studied the governments of Crete, Egypt, and Ionia and extracted lessons from the political teachings of Homer and other Greek writers. When he was asked to return to Sparta, he instituted a series of sweeping reforms that affected all aspects of Spartan life. He took what he believed was the best of each philosophy of governance to produce what would be called the “Laws of Lycurgus” also referred to as the “Spartan Constitution.

These are some of the reforms that produced this legendary warrior society: all debt was forgiven, all lands were seized by the state and equally divided among their citizens, the Helot, slaves, were assigned to the parcel of land they worked, foreign trade was banned, gold coins were replaced with iron, which was of such low denomination that the accumulation of wealth wasn’t practical. A system of checks and balances was created in which the newly formed Ephors, consisting of five annually elected citizens over the age of 30, could bring charges against the king. The individual was secondary to the state. Children were raised by their parents until the age of seven; then, they were raised and educated by the state in the famed Agoge until the age of seventeen. The role of each man was to win in battle or die in service to Sparta. Unlike the women of other Greek city-states, Spartan women were encouraged to learn, exercise, and display bravery, so that they could pass these characteristics onto their children. Producing the next generation of Spartan warriors was a woman’s primary role in Spartan society. The only citizens that earned a headstone in Spartan society were men that fell in battle and women that died during childbirth.

Lycurgus reforms also included the creation of common messes in which all Spartan citizens, including the king, would share a common meal. Each member of the mess would contribute food, including any game they had hunted, to the mess. Each new member had to receive the unanimous vote of the mess. Lycurgus’ justification for the creation of the mess was to ‘prevent them from spending time at home, being waited on by confectioners and chefs, fattening up in the dark like gluttonous animals, and ruining themselves physically as well as morally, by giving free rein to every craving of excess.’[i]It sounds like the ancient Spartans had to contend with many of the same temptations that we grapple with today. Plutarch says these messes lined a common road in Sparta. Boys also ate at the mess to learn how to speak and conduct themselves like men. Lycurgus didn’t want to compel the people with written laws. He wanted to ensure each citizen understood them by living them. While not known for their writings, which were few, the Spartans enjoyed an exceptional reputation for storytelling, song, and humor. Undoubtedly, they use stories to foster their culture of bravery in battle. Humor was used to help alleviate some of the stress and fear of battle. Music was used to bolster their courage while putting fear into their enemies. The Spartans utilized pipes that would create a cadence for marching and could be heard over long distances.

Everything the Spartans did was organized to create a fearsome fighting force. Spartans were taught to fight as a unit because, as a unit, they were much stronger. No man should break the ranks. They should fight side by side. The purpose of their shield was to protect their brother beside them, as much as it was to protect them. These reforms didn’t immediately produce the well trained-disciplined soldiers that would make the famed Battle of Thermopylae possible centuries later. Still, they are universally recognized for creating the system that would. His reforms shape Spartan society and its people. He created an environment that would mold its men into the most elite soldiers of their era. After instituting all his reforms, Lycurgus visited the Oracle at Delphi, who said that by adhering to the laws he had created, Sparta would enjoy a brilliant reputation. Lycurgus decided to starve himself to death to inspire his people to adhere to his rules. His sacrifice would not be in vain. His laws would endure for more than 300 years. All the ancients agreed that the Spartan way was best, but few wanted to implement the reforms necessary to adopt the Spartan system.

The Spartans believed that they were direct descendants of Heracles. Identifying themselves as descendants of Heracles strengthened their belief that they innately possessed superior skill, strength, and toughness than their adversaries. This empowering identity would be used as one more weapon on the battlefield. Identity is powerful. Some of the most powerful words you will ever speak follow the words, “I AM.” What you place after those two words will have a huge impact on who you become and what you invite into your life. We would be wise to choose words that empower us, instead of disempowering us. If you are a former soldier, athlete, or anything else that required physical toughness, you can make your journey easier by reconnecting with that identity.

A former soldier might think of themselves as a retired Spartan, reconnecting to the old disciplines to regain their strength and toughness so they can defend their family and be an example for them. So, they can be their child’s hero. How you see yourself influences your attitudes, behaviors, and decisions. Small shifts in your thinking can produce profound impacts over time. How you see yourself can give you that little extra push you need. When I am running, it helps to think of myself as a machine. I feel no pain, no fatigue, I am a machine. As we begin our day, it helps to think about the person we need to be to get everything done, instead of the tasks themselves. This subtle shift in mindset can make a big difference. See yourself as a disciplined person, focused on the task at hand, handling it efficiently. You are an unstoppable machine. You keep working until it gets done.

[i] Joe De Sena, and‎ John Durant, Spartan Fit!: 30 Days. Transform Your Mind. Transform Your Body. Commit to Grit.; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (August 2, 2016).

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