Aspirational Identity: Making it easy to be a better person

I tried this mindfulness technique the other day and am loving it. It’s super simple:

  1. Imagine your total perfect world, no limitations fantasy. See yourself in it, visualize yourself walking around in it and watch yourself interacting with others. Not where you are, what you’re doing, how you feel, how the other people feel.
  2. Now replace yourself in your fantasy with someone else and describe them. What makes them, them?

That’s it. For me it’s especially simple, because when I imagine my fantasy life, there’s already a person that exists that embodies the ideal, she’s a world class mountain runner, she’s fully of joy, all smiles and sunshine, she’s making bread from scratch and growing her own food and teaching yoga. Now that you have this description, short or long, that’s your vision, or your aspirational identity. And you don’t really have to do anything else, because now, anytime you do something small in your day to day life that is in line with that vision, you’ll just feel happy and satisfied. And you just do! It seems to just happen naturally, but you already have to have that aspirational identity in mind.

I’ve already made some headway in being nicer to tourists because of this. Yesterday I was out running on the packed down trails and I ran into two groups of tourists. I’m never actually rude to tourists, I’m always polite and answer their questions, but instead of being annoyed when I saw them, I chose to radiate joy and greet them cheerfully and both of the resulting interactions ended up being totally delightful, and I felt AMAZING afterward because I was acting in line with my aspirational identity. Aspirational identity is incredibly powerful for achieving your long and short term goals, but you have to have a strong image of it and an even stronger connection to it. I read once the easiest way to change your habits is to change your concept of your own identity, and I used to agree with that because I remember the day I decided I wanted to be a mountain runner, and suddenly I was easily willing to do literally anything to become that identity.

But then, it’s not enough to have a goal and be like, “I want to lose weight.” And then now you are making every decision in your life aligned with that, because that doesn’t work. It’s not as straightforward as, “change your concept of your identity.” I think there’s really something to this aspect of visualizing your aspirational identity and then replacing it with someone else, that’s key to being able to describe it. There’s a big difference between “I want to lose weight.” and “I want to be a fit, strong person who nourishes my body with a variety of homemade, plant-based foods and runs ultras.” You have to have that image of who you want to be, and it has to matter a whole lot to you. I don’t know about anyone else, but despite being someone who previously had an eating disorder, how I look has never been compelling enough to change my habits. In order to eat more healthfully, I’ve had to connect that idea of nourishment to something I want more, like mountain running. I have a friend who’s in school to be a nutritional therapist and I’m guinea pigging for her right now, and while the changes are super hard, the one thing that’s compelling enough to keep me off sugar and gluten and all sorts of other complicated things is, “All of this will be worth it to future Sarah who can run in the mountains again with ease.” It’s that image of myself as a mountain runner all over again.

Over the years I’ve thought dozens of times, I should really try to be a better person. I want to be a better person. I want to be like sunshine when I walk into a room. I want other people to think, “That Sarah, she’s so nice.” I was working on Elena Brauer’s Art of Attention book the other day and she says, “You can change the way you see people, and the way people see you.” Finally, this aspirational identity exercise was like the thing that really helped me make the change to fully embody that idea of me being so nice.

Deena Kastor, famous both for being one of the world’s best runners and a beacon of positivity, has this amazing quote that I think sums up all of this: “We make choices. I hate to say ‘sacrifices.’ When I speak, I say ‘we don’t make sacrifices. If we truly love this sport and we have these goals and dreams in the sport, the classroom, or in life, they’re not sacrifices.”


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