Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction author, is one of a small handful of people to have a set of laws named after him. Clarke’s Three Laws are simple, profound, and provide an excellent framework for understanding the the very edges of what is possible.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke intended these laws as a way to craft science fiction stories and to give humanity a context for understanding the process of discovery. They appear frequently in his work and even more frequently in the lives of people reaching just past their comfort zone. The third law seems especially appropriate for people setting off onto a journey of behavior change.

For many people struggling with unwanted nutrition and behavioral habits, people who behave differently (like those of us in the field professionally) might as well be magicians. Some of them watch our behavior with just as must as much awe as we would watch an alien species preparing its meals and training their bodies. We simply “do” things like go to the gym, get stronger, and lose weight that they have struggled to learn for decades. And not only that, we seem to enjoy it! We might even post pictures of ourselves working out and sweating on Facebook, or have whole blogs dedicated to our awesome kale recipes. Not for any nefarious reason; we might just love working out and kale! But just as two alien cultures struggling to find a common vocabulary, communication problems can arise. Some of our clients have never cooked a meal for themselves and we might hand them a shopping list with magic words like, “Dino Kale,” “Free-Range Omega-3 Eggs,” and “Organic, Grass-fed 96/4 Lean Ground Beef.” We might have well handed them a list that said, “Eye of Newt.” Or we might tell them they just need to “eat less and move more” which is about as helpful as telling someone who’s never seen a cellphone they just need to download Google Maps to find out where the party is. The small changes necessary to reach health and fitness goals might seem obvious to us, but the reasons we do them and how we learned them are in murkier territory. Because just as their health and fitness habits mostly happen below their level of awareness, our health and fitness behavior is often just as automatic, unseen, and totally reliant on things we completely take for granted.

The Little Lies We Tell Ourselves

Neal, Wood, Labrecque, and Lally (2011) asked a very simple question: “When you drag yourself to the gym each morning, is the behavior due to your ardent hope of fitting back into your favorite jeans or to myriad environmental cues that keep you locked into your morning habit?” The answer, according to their research, was that people perform habits because of cues in their environment and independently of their goals, or even that sometimes we write our goals after-the-fact to match our preexisting habits (more on the Habit-Goal interface is in this month’s Habit Research Review). Humans crave a neat, causal explanation for our behavior when often none is there. We tell ourselves we are fat because we do not work hard enough or aren’t disciplined enough to earn it. We tell ourselves we are fit because we make good decisions about our bodies. But the reality is more complex and has more to do with context than will. We are creatures of our environment and after a while the influence of our environment becomes so automatic that it might be the last thing we notice. The actions become automatic too, and before you know it someone’s asking us “what’s your secret?”

We need to remember how our clients see us. To them, we might be magicians pulling rabbits out of hats but the real question is who is fooling whom? They see a magician, but when they ask how we pulled that rabbit out of the hat, what do we tell them? Do you remember what it was like to go from the couch to that first 5k? What is the story that you tell yourself and your clients about how you did it? Looking back, how much did you tackle at once and how much of that journey was slowly learned? How much easier did it get when you made new friends who were fit? How much easier was it when you moved to a place with better running paths? How did you learn to cook? These are questions we need to be asking ourselves, because as you’ll see in this month’s UNSEEN DEGREES, helping people craft their context is about a powerful a coaching tool as we have to offer, and one that we might be completely blind to ourselves.

The Empty Vault

Hard work. Sweat. Tears. Sacrifice. Pain. Injury. These are the words in the common narrative about how people get to Point A from Point B in fitness. And yes, all journeys have their struggles and their obstacles, but how much time did Ulysses spend slaying Cyclopes and how much time did he spend just hanging out on a boat with all his other friends who were just as desperate to get home as he was? Most of the journey is showing up and putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the slow accumulation of little changes to one’s environment and the habits that go along with it, performed for and encouraged by the people in our lives that matter to us. When our clients ask about our journey, what’s the story we tell them? And when they ask for our secret, what do we tell them?

Penn Jillette, the larger, louder half of Penn & Teller, has a wonderful way of describing the profession of being magician. “A magician is just a security officer, guarding an empty vault.” Is our profession so different?