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Hacking the System: Why My Habits Didn’t Stick

One of the most helpful books I read last year was “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. It’s a book breaking down the science of how habits are formed, and what we can do to create good habits and stop bad ones. I read it during the holidays last year, which was well-timed since I tend to think about the goals that we want to achieve in the new year. The resolutions I set fizzle out after a few weeks as my willpower dries up, but this books has helped me stick to them longer than other years.

I’m going to spend the next few posts sharing what I’ve learned and also how I’ve implemented it in my life.

“Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs.”

This quote from is in second chapter of Atomic Habits, and it was one of the most impactful things I read in the entire book. Because beliefs are where it all starts. What you believe, and how you came to believe it is the driver of all our actions. I've found the most ingrained beliefs were taught to me when I was young and impressionable, and those are the ones that have stayed with me till now. Here’s two examples of it.

It was around 2004 when the investor of our record label “Broken for Good” had a meeting with us who were on the label. That summer, we had finished a one month, 16 city tour, that was a musical success, but a financial failure. During the meeting he laid out the economics of what we had to achieve to earn a “modest salary” doing music full time. I was twenty years old then with dreams of wanting to pursue music. I don’t doubt he was well-intentioned, but I left that meeting feeling like my dreams were too unrealistic. It cemented the belief in me that it wasn't sensible to make a living as a musician. Ever since then, I haven't wrote a song or thought about pursuing it professionally.

In June of 2009, I was debating with myself whether I should pursue photography. I had been taking photos for two years, and loved it. But my parents taught me that getting a corporate job was the most secure, prudent thing to do. If being a musician wasn't sensible, a life of photography definitely wasn't either. That‘s what led me to go to business school and apply for an accounts position at an ad agency. It went well for a few years, but my time there was anything but secure. In my last three months there, the highest-paid employee was let go every two weeks. Everyday we came in wondering who would be next. One day, the owners announced that a majority of the firm, around 85% of people, including me, were laid off. That was the opportunity I needed and I seized it. I went in head first, built a portfolio and took on every job that came my way. I’ve never looked back since then.

These are just two examples, but when I look back at all the meaningful changes I’ve made in my life, it started when my actions aligned with my beliefs. I believed I couldn't do music full time, and so I never pursued it. A corporate job didn't mean security or stability, and so I became a freelance photographer.

So when it came to my health, I realized there was this disconnect. Because for the past few years, I’ve been wanting to become healthier and lose weight, but I haven’t been able to do it. I came up with this cheesy saying that I want to lose 30 pounds before I turned 30. I turned 35 a few weeks ago. It’s not that there wasn’t enough information out there, or that I couldn’t afford to eat healthier foods. Something was misaligned, and it wasn’t until I dug into the system of what I believed I found the reason.

I believe that I am unacceptable, and my weight was the most obvious reason why. When you’re young, you quickly learn what the standard of acceptance is, and you are rejected and ridiculed if you don’t meet it. I was told I was fat growing up, and for most of my life I was overweight or obese. I was an insecure teenager, aching to fit in, when an older guy nicknamed me “Minnow,” a small fish (it was a pun on my Korean name “Min Ho”). I was anything but small. I hated that nickname for years until I embraced it in high school. The system of beliefs that were established was one of rejection and unworthiness.

But humans have a deep need to belong. I wanted to belong, to be loved. So the thinking went: “If lose weight, then I would be accepted and loved by others right? No, what’s the point. I’ve been rejected before, and what’s to say I’ll be accepted now? But I really have to try. Ok, what can I do to lose this weight. What’s the fastest way to do this.”

It’s obvious now why I haven’t lost weight: my actions aligned with my belief of futility. So if I am to become a healthier person, it’s not about gritting my teeth and trying to stick to the latest diet. It’s about understanding and bringing to light the system of beliefs I held—this belief that I was worthless—and hack the system.

It was similar with wanting to be more creative. I was great at photographing weddings, but for years I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to do more personal projects; I wanted to write more, and even start a podcast. But I was never got myself to actually do it. There just wasn’t enough time. I was busy with other things. But really a lot of that came from the same belief system, “What’s the point? Do you really have something important to say? You won’t amount to much, don’t try so hard to be accepted.”

That was the harsh reality I had to face and understand. I’m so inclined to just do more things, and stay busy but taking a step back, staying still, and digging deep is really hard for me to do.

“This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continually edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.

Clear’s book then goes on to give a simple process to unlearn your identity and upgrade it. I’ll talk more about that in the next post, but the advice isn’t just, ”think more positive thoughts!"