A wise teacher was taking a stroll through the forest with a young pupil and stopped before a tiny tree.
“Pull up that sapling,” the teacher instructed his pupil, pointing to a sprout just coming up from the earth. The youngster pulled it up easily with his fingers. “Now, pull up that one,” said the teacher, indicating a more established sapling that had grown to about knee high to the boy. With little effort, the lad yanked and the tree came up, roots and all. “And now this one,” said the teacher, nodding toward a more well-developed evergreen that was as tall as the young pupil. With great effort, throwing all his weight and strength into the task, using sticks and stone he found to pry up the stubborn roots, the boy finally got the tree loose.
“Now,” the wise one said, “I’d like you to pull this one up.” The young boy followed the teacher’s gaze, which fell upon a mighty oak so tall the boy could scarcely see the top. Knowing the great struggle he’d just had pulling up the much smaller tree, he simply told his teacher, “I am sorry, but I can’t.”
“My son, you have just demonstrated the power that habits will have over your life!” the teacher exclaimed. “The older they are, the bigger they get, the deeper the roots grow, and the harder they are to uproot. Some get so big, with roots so deep, you might hesitate to even try.”
Creatures of Habit
Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Merriam-Webster defines habit this way: “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”
There’s a story about a man riding a horse, galloping quickly. It appears that he’s going somewhere very important. A man standing along the roadside shouts, “Where are you going?” The rider replies, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!” This is the story of most people’s lives; they’re riding the horse of their habits, with no idea where they’re headed. It’s time to take control of the reins and move your life in the direction of where you really want to go.
If you’ve been living on autopilot and allowing your habits to run you, I want you to understand why. And I want you to let yourself off the hook. After all, you’re in good company. Psychological studies reveal that 95 percent of everything we feel, think, do and achieve is a result of a learned habit! We’re born with instincts, of course, but no habits at all. We develop them over time. Beginning in childhood, we learned a series of conditioned responses that led us to react automatically (as in, without thinking) to most situations.
In your day-to-day life, living “automatically” has its definite positives. If you had to consciously think about every step of each ordinary task—making breakfast, driving the kids to school, getting to work, and so on—your life would grind to a halt. You probably brush your teeth twice a day on autopilot. There’s no big philosophical debate; you just do it. You strap on your seatbelt the minute your butt hits the seat. No second thoughts. Our habits and routines allow us to use minimal conscious energy for everyday tasks. They help keep us sane and enable us to handle most situations reasonably well. And because we don’t have to think about the mundane, we can focus our mental energy on more creative and enriching thoughts. Habits can be helpful—as long as they’re good habits, that is.
If you eat healthfully, you’ve likely built healthy habits around the food you buy and what you order at restaurants. If you’re fit, it’s probably because you work out regularly. If you’re successful in a sales job, it’s probably because your habits of mental preparation and positive self-talk enable you to stay optimistic in the face of rejection.
I’ve met and worked with many great achievers, CEOs and “superstars,” and I can tell you they all share one common trait: They all have good habits. That’s not to say they don’t have bad habits—they do. But not many. A daily routine built on good habits is the difference that separates the most successful amongst us from everyone else. And doesn’t that make sense? From what we’ve already discussed, you know successful people aren’t necessarily more intelligent or more talented than anyone else. But their habits take them in the direction of becoming more informed, more knowledgeable, more competent, better-skilled and better-prepared.
My dad used Larry Bird as an example to teach me about habits when I was a kid. “Larry Legend” is known as one of the greatest professional basketball players, but he wasn’t known for being the most athletically talented player. Nobody would have described Larry as “graceful” on the basketball court. Yet, despite his limited natural athletic ability, he led the Boston Celtics to three world championships and remains one of the best players of all time. How did he do it?
It was Larry’s habits—his relentless dedication to practice and to improve his game. Bird was one of the most consistent free-throw shooters in the history of the NBA. Growing up, his habit was to practice five hundred free-throw shots every morning before school. With that kind of discipline, Larry made the most of his God-given talents and kicked the butts of some of the most “gifted” players on the court.
Like Larry Bird, you can condition your automatic and unconscious response to be those of a developed champion. This chapter is about choosing to make up for what you lack in innate ability with discipline, hard work and good habits. It’s about becoming a creature of champion habits.
With enough practice and repetition, any behavior, good or bad, becomes automatic over time. That means that even though we developed most of our habits unconsciously (by modeling our parents, responding to environmental or cultural associations, or creating coping mechanisms), we can consciously decide to change them. It stands to reason that since you learned every habit you have, you can also unlearn the ones that aren’t serving you well.