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The Diderot Effect, Identity-based Habits and the Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail
What we can learn from the folly of an 18th century writer.
Hello everyone! Welcome to the last edition of the Stuff They Never Told You for 2021. We’ve both had an amazing year of growth and change, both personally and with IHD. Oh yeah, and Shane published a book! We’ll share a review of lessons learned from the past year in an upcoming edition, but we want to close out 2021 with a few announcements and a look into identity-based habits. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
French philosopher and writer, Denis Diderot on the real cost of nice things:
"I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain"
Every little thing that you think that you need Oh I bet that you'd be fine without it.
Source: "Every Little Thing" by Peter Doran
Denis Diderot is a French writer and philosopher from the first half of the 18th century. Despite his notoriety as a co-author of Encyclopédie, one of the most prominent encyclopedias of the time, he lived most of his life poor.
He came into wealth only when Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia bought most of his personal library for an inflated amount. This purchase was more of a favor than an honest transaction as Catherine wanted to help Diderot to find the funds to pay a dowry for his daughter’s marriage.
Having come into wealth for the first time and, presumably, after he paid the dowry, Diderot got himself a beautiful new scarlet dressing gown1.
He writes about how beautiful his new robe was and how good it made him feel, but that elation didn’t last. He immediately began to lament the shabbiness of the rest of his possessions in comparison to his new robe. Possessions that satisfied his needs for years now made him feel that "everything is out of tune."
As he describes in his essay "Regrets on my Old Dressing Gown," Diderot soon spent all of this newly acquired wealth to upgrade the rest of his possessions to match the beauty and sophistication of his new robe. He bought a large mirror, new art, a new writing desk, a Moroccan leather chair, and many other items to bring "more ensemble, more unity, more beauty" to his home.
Today, this common spiral of consumption has come to be called "The Diderot Effect" and we are all prone to its implications. While gifts and gifting are wonderful, the Diderot Effect shows us how easily justifications for ever more consumption can creep into our thinking.
You got a new coat and now feel compelled to get shoes and jewelry to match.
You got a new computer and now want a new backpack to carry it.
You just signed up for a gym membership for the new year and now feel that you need a whole new set of exercise clothes and shoes.
The Diderot Effect shows us that we are not perfectly rational consumers. Rather, we make purchase decisions based on the perception that we hold about our identity as a consumer. Diderot began to consider himself the type of person who has nice things. He then had to make purchases to continually affirm this identity. This phenomenon might better be called “identity-based habits” because it applies far beyond our shopping patterns. Our daily actions and success rate in new goals are not a matter of willpower alone. We often act in accordance with how we already see ourselves. Similarly, we can only create and maintain new patterns when we reinforce them with new perceptions of ourselves. So rather than focus on the actions alone (go to the gym), we need to focus on teaching ourselves to become the type of person who goes to the gym every morning. Ironically, this begins with a flexing of willpower to build momentum — we need to go to the gym enough to feel like a person who goes all the time — but the most important factor is not what we do at the gym or for how long we do it, it is the fact that we went in the first place.
And this brings us to the 30x30.
We created the 30x30 Challenge to provide the initial momentum to help you build any productive habit that you desire. The course is made up of 30, 30-minute videos meant to be completed daily within a month (though you can space things out as they best fit your life). Each day begins with a 5 to 8-minute movement session followed by a 10 to 15-minute lesson on a self-development principle and then closes with a 5 to 7-minute guided meditation. It is not the end-all, be-all of fitness programs or meditation courses. It is simply a guided and bite-sized way to introduce you to several different self-development modalities and to help you create the identity of someone who consistently does things to better themselves. It is a program built to train you in the principles necessary to create desirable behavior changes throughout your life.
In the past, this program has been completely self-guided but this year we are making it much more personal. We are hosting a session of the 30x30 within our membership community, the IHD Seekers, to begin on January 1. Join the group for both the guidance and accountability to complete the program. A study from the University of Scranton has shown that over 92% of New Year’s resolutions fail, but committing to new habits within a community is the best way to make them stick.
In addition to the group session of the 30x30 Challenge we have a few announcements of upcoming events and challenges:
Read War and Peace in 2022. War and Peace is often called the best book ever written yet most translations come in close to 1000 pages. While most attest that the juice is worth the squeeze, it is still a daunting task. Fortunately, it is broken into 361 extremely short chapters (average of 4 pages) and makes the perfect daily reader. Join the Seekers to read and discuss War and Peace throughout 2022.
Annual Review Workshop. Dan, a neurologist and IHD Seeker, plans to host a free annual review workshop on January 8th and 9th. He’s broken it into four sessions across two days and you are free to attend any and all sessions. I plan to attend on day two and look forward to his guidance and insight. Ironically, the week that Dan shared this plan, Shane and I had been talking about putting together a similar workshop (I’ve done an annual review for myself since 2014). I could not be more excited to attend and hope to see many of you all there as well. Learn more and sign up here.
And finally, here’s a neat photo of Marika and me on a night climb in Joshua Tree this year. This was after 10 pm and felt quite dark to us except for the light of our headlamps. But the long exposure shot with the light of a campfire and a starry sky makes it seem almost bright!
Thank you for reading this week (and this year) and remember, life is too short to be normal.
Sources are unclear as to whether the robe was a purchase or a gift.