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How identity-based behavior change saved my life
During my most formative adolescent years, my home situation left me as a prime candidate to fall in with the wrong crowd and head down a really self-destructive path.
Instead, I lucked into finding a structured program and a supportive community that lined up with my childhood dream, and by extension, stumbling onto a path that would forever convince me of how identity-based change can transform anyone's life for the better.
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As a young child, I had always been fascinated by airplanes. While most kids were naturally drawn to action figures or books, I was always deeply interested in aircraft and the thought of one day flying. I loved the movie Top Gun, but I couldn't care less about the story. I only cared about the dog fight scenes where Maverick hunted down the fake Russians in training.
The calm before the storm
I grew up in a small suburb north of San Francisco, and went to public school. My upbringing was in many ways very typical. I played soccer throughout elementary school and started playing the recorder in the fourth grade. During elementary school, I was always drawn to order and structure. If I wasn't building model airplanes, I was challenging myself with origami. I liked having a set of instructions to follow.
Apart from my chosen interests, as a child I didn't really stand out in any particular way. My grades were average at best and I was a middle of the pack soccer player. My parents are both immigrants from Ecuador who were constantly working, so I was largely raised by my grandmother in my early years. I was always embarrassed when I had friends over because I knew my house smelled funny from the food my grandma would lovingly prepare every day.
By the sixth grade I had picked up the saxophone and discovered that I had a knack for it. Before long I was the lead alto sax in a pretty competitive jazz band. I won awards and was given all the best spots to solo. By the eighth grade, I was beginning to think that I could make a run at being a musician. This little ray of sunshine however was about the only good thing going on at this time. My family life was falling to pieces.
A cruel mix of infidelity, alcoholism, and bankruptcy lead to my parents divorcing. My dad moved out and my mom was just starting to fall into the depths of a decades long struggle with alcoholism. My house devolved into squalor and my aunt and uncle had to eventually move in to raise my sister and me, alongside their two kids. Shout out to them since they also had a huge impact on making sure I was raised right.
Band balanced the scales, and I was still watching reruns of wings (the airplane show, not the sitcom) as a way of escaping to a place that made me happy.
When it all changed
Then, everything changed one day when my 8th grade class was called to an assembly. A small group of cadets from the local Junior ROTC unit were invited to make a pitch for joining their summer school program prior to my class starting high school.
Ten or so sophomores and Juniors all dressed in Airforce uniforms stood on a stage and told us about how ROTC could turn us into leaders. They explained the details of the summer program, and how it could turbocharge the path to becoming an officer in the military. One of the few things I knew about being in the military was that all pilots are officers.
I don't think I had ever left a school assembly more excited in my life. For the first time, I could see a clear path that would lead me to being a jet fighter pilot. These kids were pumped to be in uniform and their proudly displayed ranks and medals also spoke to my desire for structure when everything else in my life was in free fall.
I ended up joining that summer school program and met people who were just as enthusiastic about airplanes as I was. I watched what they were doing and started following a similar path. When I found out that ROTC and band were offered at the same time, and that I'd have to pick between them, I didn't think twice. It wasn't even a choice. I put down the saxophone and never looked back.
I learned that graduating from the United States Air Force Academy was often a direct line to becoming a fighter pilot and made it my mission to get in. It's a super competitive place to get into though, so I started taking school and extra curricular activities really seriously.
One of my new friends was taking community college courses while in high school to make himself a more competitive candidate, and I followed suit. Once I had my drivers license, I began taking math classes at my local community college and by the time I graduated from high school, I had completed calculus 4. I also quit soccer to lead an after school drill team, and I volunteered in my town's city council as a youth representative.
We had to wear our ROTC uniform every Wednesday during high school, and while many of my classmates hated the ridicule that came with it, I loved it. Looking the part allowed me to see myself as a fighter pilot in training, and once I really started to believe it, I found myself happily doing the things that many of my classmates were reluctantly doing to please their parents.
My friend group slowly transformed as I spent more time with people who were just as driven as I was. Looking back, I'm certain that had this positive support group of friends not been in place, my roiling family life and desire for belonging and purpose could have easily caused me to fall in the wrong crowd and go down a self-destructive path. I know this because that did eventually end up happening down the road in my mid 30's.
The power of identity-based habits
The environment of ROTC transformed my general interest in airplanes into a crystal clear identity that I ran wild with during my formative early teenage years. Many years later, heading into my 40's, I came across James Clear's book Atomic Habits, and saw an idea that I knew deep in my bones was true:
“Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit”
“Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”
Taking on the fighter pilot identity was about as transformative an experience as I have ever had, turning me from someone who was fairly aimless into a driven and disciplined person. I also love that this tactic is always available to anyone who is striving to achieve lofty dreams that appear to be a million miles away.
I did end up successfully applying to the Airforce academy and getting pretty far down the process before learning that my eyesight disqualified me from the kind of flying I wanted to do. It was the first time I had ever had a dream shatter before my eyes. I did end up picking myself back up, but how I dealt with that is a story for another post.
I had only applied to two colleges coming out of high school, the Air Force Academy and UC Berkeley, and UC Berkeley was really more of a backup plan because it was a good school that happened to be nearby. Luckily, all the hard work I had been doing effectively amounted to accidentally creating a compounding system that had begun to pay great dividends, and harvesting that work would eventually open unexpected doors that would again profoundly impact the direction of my life.
I started this newsletter because I'm excited by the transformative power of compounding systems, and I'm eager to meet others who feel the same way. I'd love to hear any feedback you might have for post.
Please leave a comment letting me know if I lost you anywhere or if my story resonated with you at all. In case you’d like to see a spoken version of this essay, be sure to check out this post on YouTube.