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Acting School

A study at Harvard concluded that when people are faced with a chronic lifestyle disease—diabetes, heart disease, smoking, chronic stress—and their doctor says, "Hey look, here's the deal. You really have to change your ways, and if you don't it might kill you," seven out of eight of us would rather die than change. *

Why is it so difficult for us to act, and how can we change? I would be presumptuous to suggest I have solved this, but I can share some thoughts. I will examine three things that inhibit action, with interventions for each. Those things are Short-Term Bias, Fear, and Limiting Beliefs.

A lot of people know what to do but they don’t do what they know. —Jim Kwik

Short-Term Bias

Our brain’s frontal lobe performs executive functions, including the planning and pursuit of long-term goals, like saving for a house. This brain area is evolutionarily young, and its directives are often subordinated to deeper urges. Those urges move us toward desires, like eating ice cream or playing video games, that aim at doing what is easy and pleasurable. The gains from delayed gratification, and the costs from impulsivity, both have weak feedback between cause and effect, so we opt for instant gratification, leading to poor choices that eventually become bad habits.

The human brain did not evolve in a delayed-return environment. —James Clear

The most effective intervention for changing habits is to change our environment to add or remove habit triggers. If you want to exercise more, put your running shoes where you will see them.


Fear can keep us safe, but it gets in the way when it stops us from acting in situations that are not dangerous. Grasping this can free us to stop wasting energy.

The most effective antidote to unfounded fear is having a “mortality wakeup call.” This can come from a loved one passing away, or a near-miss experience by yourself or someone close to you. Those experiences shake us up and wake us up, underscoring that life is short. They tell us that if we want to do something we better get started.

Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. —Steve Jobs

Limiting Beliefs

Our beliefs can also keep us from acting. Limiting beliefs are the most pernicious. These can be beliefs about our race, gender, religion, or physical ability that we think prevent our success. The trouble appears when these beliefs become excuses.

The most effective intervention against limiting beliefs is to ask if they are really true, and to seek counterevidence.

An example is Muggsy Bogues. At 5’3”, he is the shortest person ever to play in the NBA. He is nearly three standard deviations shorter than the average NBA player, and if you think he washed out after half a season, you would be wrong. He played for 14 seasons, which is three times the NBA average. So stop your excuses!

*The opening paragraph is quoted from Jamie Wheal in his 2015 Talks at Google Recording with Steven Kotler.


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