Gretchen Rubin

How Penn Jillette, Famous Magician and Performer—and also Rebel—Lost More than 100 Pounds.

How Penn Jillette, Famous Magician and Performer—and also Rebel—Lost More than 100 Pounds.

Because of my ongoing fascination with my Four Tendencies framework, I'm always watching for examples of the Four Tendencies in the world. I watch what Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels do, and think about what works for them.

Don't know about the Four Tendencies—don't know if you're an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take my quick, free quiz here (more than two million people have taken the quiz).

I recently read Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette. Penn Jillette is half of the world-famous magical duo, Penn & Teller. He's written books, appeared in movies, and starred in and created TV shows. And boy, judging from this book, he's (no surprise) a Rebel.

I disagree with many of his ideas, conclusions, or analysis; nevertheless, I loved the book.

I'm going to quote from the book, and you'll see that I'm taking out the curse words—not out of prudery but to avoid tripping spam filters.

It's an absolutely fascinating example of how a Rebel can change habits. Penn Jillette quit smoking (which he mentions in passing) and changed his way of eating (which is the main subject of Presto!). He managed to give up cigarettes and to lose more than a hundred pounds, in very Rebel ways.

In my book Better Than Before, I write about the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits. Different strategies work better (or worse) for different Tendencies. For Rebels, the Strategy of Identity is the most important strategy.

Penn Jillette used this to quit smoking. He writes:

I was probably smoking more than a pack a day, but I couldn’t quit because I wasn’t a smoker. I never bought any cigarettes. I was coughing every morning and getting headaches if I didn’t have my borrowed cigarettes all the time, but I wasn’t a smoker. One day when I was talking to a friend, I said out of the blue, "I guess I’m a smoker." That was the day I quit.

To change his eating habits, he uses the Strategy of Clarity to tap into the Rebel values of authenticity, freedom, choice, and self-determination. He also uses the "I'll show you how tough and extreme I can be! You think I can't do this? Watch me!" that often appeals to Rebels. He explains:

I never wanted showbiz, or my art, or even my life to be normal. I didn’t want to be adult and fit in with everyone else. I wanted to be a f--king nut. I always pushed for that in my job and in stories with friends, but I never ate nutty. I ate normally. I ate like a twenty-first-century American. I was a regular old American obese fat f--k on a regular old American diet. As far from crazy as possible…Getting surgery for being obese was extreme, so I had six months to take it to any other extreme I wanted. It was time to turn my health to rock-‘n’-roll-free-jazz-beat-poetry-outlaw-transgressive-comedy performance art, and that’s something I can do.

In a letter to himself on December 2, 2015, he reflected:

Our hero, Bob Dylan, sang, ‘To live outside the law, you must be honest,’ and you pride yourself on having the strength to do that. The New York Times and the government tell you to take better care of yourself, and you eat a few Krispy Kreme doughnuts and feel like you’re sticking it to the Man. You aren’t. I can tell you what no one else dares to tell you: you are exactly like everyone else. You are not honest; you are living well inside the law; and you’re doing that by lying to yourself.

Enjoy the difficulty. Everything you love in life, everything you’re proud of, you had to work for…Don’t believe the hype that there are easy ways to get healthy. Live outside the law. Be honest. It’s easy once you get there, but it’s difficult to start. You’re bucking the whole system. The law says make thing easy—so do things that are hard….Don’t go on any diet that’s easy and makes only small changes. Penn, please go crazy. Obsess. Change. Have fun.”

I was staggered when I read this! That very line from Bob Dylan is included in my book The Four Tendencies, because another Rebel quoted it to me. Clearly this is a motto for the Rebels—along with my favorite of the Rebel mottoes: "You can't make me, and neither can I."

We can all achieve our aims, but there are no magic one-size-fits-all solutions. What works for Penn Jillette as a Rebel probably wouldn't work for me as an Upholder. We can both get where we're headed, but we take different roads.

Rebels often ask me, "How can I change my habits, if as a Rebel, I can't tell myself what to do?" Do it in the Rebel way. There's so much power in the Rebel Tendency; harness it so that it can take you where you want to go.

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