Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.

Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

Chinese proverb



Our identity emerges from our habits. The definition and etymology of the words habit and identity provide insights into the relationship between the two words. Webster’s definition of a habit is a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition. The word habit is derived from the Latin habitus, meaning condition. The definition of identity is the sameness of character in different instances. Identity derives from the Latin idem, meaning sameness. Our identity is, therefore, our sameness of character in a variety of circumstances.

Our actions are not a product of our character. Instead, our character is a manifestation of our habits, or as Aristotle more eloquently stated, “We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.” Repeated actions create our identity the same way a bricklayer builds a structure, one brick at a time, stacked one upon another. Each action by itself is inconsequential, but together, they make us who we are.

We often set goals when what we really want is a new identity. We don’t want to read a book; we want to become a reader. We don’t want to train for a race; we want to become a runner. Your goal might be to lose twenty pounds, but what you really want is a lean physique.

Goal setting is helpful, but it focuses on an outcome. Once that outcome is achieved, the journey is over. Perhaps that is why a lot of people lose weight only to gain it back. Unlike goals, there is no finish line for identity, just as there is no finish line for habits. As soon as we quit doing something, it is no longer a habit.

When we focus on identity, the results take care of themselves. 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 identity it produces. If the habit is a vote for the type of person you want to become, it’s a good habit.

Sparta, Greece. Statue of King Leonidas at the town of Sparta, Greece

Identity and habits work in a push-pull relationship. We can harness the power of identity to adopt a more disciplined lifestyle. While I choose to create my own personalized workouts, focusing on strength training and short cardio sessions, I found Joseph De Sena’s Spartan Fit! Spartan Fit!: 30 Days. Transform Your Mind. Transform Your Body. Commit to Grit 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 elite 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 Crete, Egypt, and Ionia’s governments and extracted lessons from Homer and other Greek writers’ political teachings. When 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, foreign trade was banned, and 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.

Parents raised their children until the age of seven; then, they were raised and educated by the state in the famed Agoge until 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 creating 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. New members had to receive the unanimous vote of the mess. 

Lycurgus’ rationalization for 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 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. 

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. Spartans used humor to help alleviate the stress of war, and 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.

The Spartans believed that they were direct descendants of Heracles. This empowering identity strengthened their belief that they innately possessed superior skill, strength, and toughness than their adversaries. It was used as one more weapon on the battlefield. Identity is powerful. Some of the most powerful words you will ever say follow the words, “I AM.” What you place after those two words will have a massive impact on who you become and what you invite into your life. We would be wise to choose words that empower 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 grit and strength. Small shifts in your thinking can produce big results. It can give you that slight edge. When I am running, I think of myself as a machine. I feel no pain, no fatigue, like Kurt Russell playing Todd, a veteran soldier running against a young Caine 607, a new breed of genetically enhanced soldier, in the 1998 movie Soldier. As you begin your day, think about the person you need to be to get everything done, instead of the tasks themselves. It will reduce your subjective fatigue and make everything feel more manageable.

Everything the Spartans did was organized to create a fearsome fighting force. Lycurgus’ reforms shaped Spartan society. Like habits, or the flywheel effect Jim Collins describes in Good to Great, the change wasn’t immediate. It was the result of compounded efforts, one upon another creating something remarkable. He designed an environment that molded its men into the most elite soldiers of their era – producing the elite warriors that made the famed Battle of Thermopylae possible.  After instituting all his reforms, Lycurgus visited the Oracle at Delphi, who said Sparta would enjoy a brilliant reputation by adhering to his laws. Lycurgus starved 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. They were unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices. Fortunately for us, getting in great shape doesn’t require us to live like Spartans. It all begins today by choosing to adopt a few small habits, like exercising for 20-minutes a day, logging your food, and getting at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night. Download my Free Habit Tracker and start taking the daily actions that will compound to transform your body and identity in the process. 

Habit Tracker (Blank)

Scorecard – Habit Tracker

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[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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