March 31, 2010, “Habit” first appeared on the site—and is revisiting the home page today as I’m on the road.
Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning zoologist, had a pet goose that he allowed the run of the house. The first day when the goose waddled in the door, there happened to be a mirror near floor height; the goose mistook his own reflection for some rival bird and flew into attack mode.
He pecked the hell out of the mirror before moving on to the kitchen and the rest of his day. Next morning: same thing. After a few days, Mrs. Lorenz removed the mirror so it wouldn’t get broken—but the goose kept pecking the same spot. It never stopped. Over a lifetime, every time that goose webfooted its way into the Lorenz house it was compelled to peck that very spot where the mirror had been.
That’s habit. But here’s the intriguing part: the goose’s offspring, who had never seen the mirror, learned the habit too. Two generations later, every one of them, when it first entered the house, was still pecking the spot on the wall where the original goose had kicked off these shenanigans years earlier.
The point of this story is that habit is powerful, not only among us humans but in the animal kingdom as well.
Habit can be a mighty ally in the day-to-day struggle against Resistance.
We usually think of habits as bad. A drug habit, an alcohol habit. But habits can be tremendously positive too. The habit of going to the gym, of meditating, of daily visiting someone who could use a little kindly attention.
What I’m trying to do, myself, day-by-day in my professional regimen, is to reinforce the habit of a regular work schedule. I don’t succeed all the time. Days definitely get away from me. But the goal never changes and I never let up. I want to build a groove, I want to establish a positive, momentum-generating pattern.
Why? Because habit eliminates thought. Negative, Resistance-spawned thought. If I’m a ballet dancer and I make it my business to take class every morning, habit will compel me to get ready mentally the night before. When morning comes and it’s time for class, habit makes me grab my gym bag without thinking about it, throw in my sweats, my shoes, my Evian water. Habit keeps Resistance from raising its ugly head and starting to talk me into sluffing off. Before I know it, I’m out the door and on my way to class.
The Muse favors habit. Each day when she looks down on us from Mt. Olympus, her first question is: Where is that S.O.B. who was sniveling and beseeching my aid yesterday? If she sees us in our studio, at our desk, making our calls, a warm glow suffuses her immortal heart. Ah, she says to herself, a true devotee! The Muse is like any other boss; she values talent, yes, but what she favors even more is devotion, dedication, perseverance. When she sees our butts in our seats, she can’t help herself; “Okay, okay, I’ll give this poor sucker a couple of ideas today.”
Habit builds up energy over time. The repetition of any action–good or evil–generates power. Energy concentrates and accumulates. Bad habits become harder to break. But good habits do too.
If we think about collective endeavors, like team sports or military drills, the process of “training” is primarily the inculcation of habit. Our basketball coach makes us go to practice every day. He’ll bench us if we’re late or miss entirely. Why? Because he knows how powerful habit is, for good or ill. In the army we run Immediate Action Drills in case we’re ambushed or come under fire. Why? So we don’t have to think when trouble strikes. Habit will take over and save our lives.
In sports or the military (or any communal endeavor), discipline and habit are imposed on us from the outside. Some VP or senior staffer makes us do it. In the world or the arts and entrepreneurship, it’s different. We’re on our own there. We have to teach ourselves the right habits. Our discipline as artists must be self-discipline. We ourselves have to make ourselves show up, run those lay-up drills, do those wind sprints. We need to reward ourselves when we do well, and take ourselves to the woodshed when we drop the ball.
The goal is habit-inculcation to overcome Resistance.
Habit borders on superstition. If we could look into Konrad Lorenz’s goose’s head, my bet is that there was a ritual component to its pecking of the wall. “I did this before and that Bad Goose ran away; if I do it again he’ll bolt today too.” Superstition gets a bad rap these days; it’s perceived as irrational, nutty, OCD-esque. But ritual has been a powerful tool since cave man days. It’s a tremendous weapon against Resistance.
But the most positive aspect of habit/ritual, in my view, is that it’s a step on the way to “having a practice.” I’ve already done one post on this subject, but I’d like to get into it a little deeper next week. When our daily labor becomes ritual and then an actual practice—like Musashi Miyamoto with the samurai sword—then we have elevated our endeavors to a plane beyond mere ambition or aspiration. More on that next week. But first I must validate myself for continuing the weekly habit of writing these posts—and I must validate you, dear reader, for continuing to read them. Thanks and we’ll see you next week!