The Seven Habits of Highly Effective “Mini-me”s
Each day, I spend about 10 minutes scrolling through my Instagram feed. One of the people I follow is an exceedingly manly person named Jocko Willink. He’s an ex Navy Seal with the brow ridge of a Neanderthal and the intensity of a metal concert.
Practically half of his posts are a photo of his bulky Ironman Triathalon watch with some ungodly time displayed: “4:17AM”, “3:57AM”, “4:08AM”. Interspersed between these watch shots are black and white pictures of a sweat-drench gym floor or an extremely manly hand with torn-up blisters.
He’s a strong mofo and he wants you to know it.
He’s also an absurdly self-disciplined mofo.
You can’t wake up and do deadlifts at 3:57AM each day unless you have the discipline of a… a… Navy Seal .
If you look at what he preaches on his podcasts and in his books you’ll notice a theme. His basic advice boils down to: be disciplined, have standards, have clear and unified goals, follow simple plans, prioritize, etc.
Solid advice, right?
Yes. But advice that’s suited to a particular type of person.
Let’s do a quick thought exercise. I want you to close your eyes and imagine someone who’s in the military.
Have them stand up.
OK—now I want you to tell me what they look like. Be as specific as possible.
They’re probably standing quite straight, right?
They probably look kind of stiff. It’s almost as if their body is all tensed up, ready to salute—“sir, yes, sir!”
Now I want you to get this soldier to walk over to their house, open their door, and walk inside.
What does their house look like?
It’s probably pretty organized. Each thing has its place.
Walk into their bedroom.
Is the bed made?
It probably is.
Now open the door to their closet. Are the clothes neatly folded or are they sitting in wrinkly piles?
Probably the former, right?
OK—you get the picture. People in the military are really disciplined and organized. They’re orderly. They have to be.
Now, the question becomes: Did the military make them disciplined and organized, or did they join the military because of this pre-existing set of personality traits?
From what we scientists know about personality and how it’s formed, it’s most likely the latter. We’re all born with a certain set of predispositions that cause us to seek out certain activities and environments. These predispositions also cause us to shape our environments to better match our characteristics.
In other words: we choose and shape our environments much more than they shape us.
If you’ve ever lived with someone who was messier (or neater) than you, you know what I mean.
You probably didn’t get messier (or neater) because of their influence. You probably just got annoyed. You may have even moved out sooner than you were expecting.
What does this have to do with conscientious Navy Seals and self help literature?
You see, pretty much all self help gurus are falling prey to what I like to call “Mini Me Syndrome".
Did you ever see the move Austin Powers? Remember “Mini Me”, Dr. Evil’s identically dressed sidekick?
Dr. Evil was so enamored with himself that he decided to create a follower in his image—Mini Me.
This is the exactly what all self help gurus do. Jocko Willink, Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, you the name the messiah.
Look at their advice then look at them.
Practically all of their advice is trying to get you to shape your personality to be as similar to theirs as possible.
Jocko is preaching conscientiousness, conscientiousness, conscientiousness. Be orderly, be disciplined, be dutiful, be self reliant, be achievement oriented (these are all the subfacets of the Big 5 trait, Conscientiousness).
Tony Robbins preaches energy, movement/activity, focus, and clear, lofty goals (these are personality subfacets that fall under theBig 5 traitsof Extraversion and Conscientiousness – Tony’s 2 particularly strong personality traits).
Tim Ferriss preaches creativity and outside-the-box thinking (hacking) combined with disciplined and well-measured action. He’s trying to get you to have high Openness and Conscientiousness—just like him.
You may be thinking: “But Jason, what’s bad about trying to be like Tony Robbins?”
Well, the problem is that it’s futile. Our personalities are mostly determined by the genetic lottery (roughly 85% of the variability in personality is genetic). If you’re really disorganized and messy, you’re not going to suddenly turn into a Container Store savant.
Sure, you might be able to change your behavior for a period of time by putting yourself in an extreme environment (like the military), but once you remove yourself from that extreme context you’ll snap right back into your previously messy ways.*
This is why 99.9% of self help programs fail. Their creators are asking you to do the impossible.
When they do “succeed” it’s largely an illusion caused by selection bias. Hyper-conscientious people are going to be more attracted to Jocko Willink’s message than the average person (since it re-affirms how awesome they are), and many of those people will attribute their subsequent success to his teachings (when they would have achieved the same success regardless). How do I know that? Simple. Conscientiousness is the #1 personality predictor of job performance.
Does this mean that self-improvement is futile?
Yes and no.
The traditional approach to self improvement is futile. Almost every floor is America is littered with some angrily discarded self help book or another.
But there’s another approach that works wonders. Instead of changing your personality, you focus on using your personality—surfing through life by utilizing both your strengths and weaknesses.
I have a book coming out on it at some point in the next 3-4 months. The tentative title is “The Successful Personality: Why Winners Win and Losers Lose”, but that may change.
I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s out. Before that, though, I’m going to write some articles laying out the basics. Stay tuned.
PS: I help companies hire better people using the most up-to-date personality science. If you're hiring and interested in learning more, respond to this email.
*In all likelihood, you’ll just quit the military after a short period of time… extreme environment-personality mismatches are very stressful.