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James Clear & the Abrupt POV Shift

It’s kind of like changing your face or name.

Most of us think of points-of-view as things we assume and then invite other people to share.

That’s limiting at best. POVs only have meaning and value as social agreements, as an important defining term in a relationship with someone else. “I am standing here” is just an echoing shout in an empty canyon unless others understand precisely where you stand and where you’re coming from.

Not a stance; a standpoint.

So when you change your POV, you’re not simply adopting a new opinion. You’re requesting that others change their relationship with you, and come to understand you in a new way. If you don’t make this change carefully — if abruptly, for instance, assuming the audience will catch up to you — you risk that relationship. (Think about novels in which the author abruptly shifts POV and how disorienting that can be.)

An example of how this plays out badly in practice: the author James Clear and his new email format.

I’ve admired Clear for years for his long-form, twice-weekly emails that laid out rigorous, research-based ways to build better habits and personal as well as business systems.

(The best introduction to Clear’s thinking is this two-sentence quote: “We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.” Many a tragedy is entombed within that aphorism.)

Clear’s twice-weekly emails became the basis of his first and bestselling book, “Atomic Habits.” Soon after “Atomic Habits” was published, however, Clear’s emails to his list changed — for the worse.

First, he started sending them less frequently — once a week instead of twice. These emails focused heavily on promoting the book by featuring excerpts and promotions, not new material.

Then, Clear changed the format of the emails to what he calls a “3 ideas-2 quotes-1 question” structure — three short ideas, two quotes from others, and one question designed to prompt fresh thinking. One charitable way to describe these emails might be “inspirational.” A less charitable way might be “research-free” and “bumper-sticker material.”

3 IDEAS FROM ME

I.

Your actions are your real priorities.

II.

Modern society is defined by an excess of opportunity. We have more information, more products, and more options than ever before.

As a result, curating, filtering, and refining are more important skills than ever before. Those who edit best will find the signal in the noise.

III.

It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.

It’s remarkable the business you can build if you don’t stop working.

It’s remarkable the body you can build if you don’t stop training.

It’s remarkable the knowledge you can build if you don’t stop learning.

You get the picture.

Now, Clear didn’t get suddenly stupid. I suspect he thinks he’s doubling down on the same advice he developed through those excellent twice-weekly emails, and that the effect will be the same.

What he doesn’t seem to understand is that his power came from a specific POV: he a) attacked a problem (bad habits) almost all of us could improve on from the standpoint of b) a deep bench of research-based insights and rubrics. That POV had an unusually large impact footprint, if we trace it across the four POV axes of 1) past-future, 2) dispassion-advocacy, 3) fox-hedgehog, and 4) risk & agency vs. trends and context. (“Hedgehog” in the graphic below is indicated by the triangles, and risk/agency by the color brown.)

In this first POV, Clear used knowledge from past studies to guide you to set a better course for your future. He was an advocate, but with the classic dispassionate tone of the researcher. He was a hedgehog, hammering away at a couple of great concepts. He stressed risk and agency in your habit formation, rather than trends and context. (Although environment is an important part of habit formation, Clear advocates optimizing it to give yourself the best chance to form good habits.)

In his new emails, that POV is gone. The second POV has a much smaller impact footprint — it’s a kind of bumper sticker advocacy that lives in the present, is all over the place like a fox, and vacillates between risk/agency and trends and context:

For me and for others with whom I’ve spoken, Clear’s new POV is forgettable. And it’s a short step from here toward becoming forgettable.

It would be easy to say: Clear’s mistake has been to abandon research. But “Atomic Habits” isn’t just research. It’s research that’s extremely problem- and solution-focused, careful assembled into a framework for and narrative of progress.

What Clear has abandoned is his POV — the standpoint upon which that framework was built, and which made his writing and insights so powerful. He might as well have abandoned his name.

2.5 million research papers are published every year — so how are research-driven organizations breaking through the noise? Find out: subscribe to my weekday emails on research communications and authority content.

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Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz

Founder & principal, Science+Story. Guiding researchers to become public experts & research organizations to share their expertise publicly.

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