Have you ever heard something or read something that changed the way you think forever?
One of the exciting—and sometimes most frustrating things— about my work as a writer is that I never know where some insight will come from.
I’ll be talking to a stranger, or reading some article, and I’ll come across an idea that may end up changing my entire view of the world. Often, however, I realize the importance of that idea only later! One reason that I spend so much time taking notes is that if possible, I want to hang on to that seed of an idea. Sometimes I manage to catch it, sometimes I don’t.
Usually, however, it’s not the actual anecdote or fact that’s so important; it’s the train of ideas that it starts.
Here’s an example. I have no memory of the context, but many, many years ago, I read a description of just a few sentences about a certain man, and, because it puzzled and intrigued me, I never forgot it.
Years passed, and I became very interested in the subject of how we make or break habits—an interest that turned into my book Better Than Before.
As I was writing that book, that anecdote about that man floated through my memory, and ended up having a huge influence on my thinking.
Here’s the story:
There was a man who had many, many issues with his health. He was extremely overweight, and many of those health problems would be improved if he lost weight. He very much wanted to lose weight, but he felt powerless to resist the temptations of food. If he encountered something delicious, he felt that he just couldn’t stop himself from eating.
At a certain point, however, he became increasingly committed to observing his Jewish faith, and he decided to keep kosher—that is, to follow the strict Jewish laws about eating and drinking. And, he found, he had absolutely no problem following the kosher rules.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reflected on this little story. I don’t remember when or in what context I read it; I didn’t pay much attention to it as I was reading it; who knows, do I even accurately remember the details?
But it doesn’t really matter. Because that story highlighted for me an essential truth: For us humans, ideas matter, symbols matter, imagination matters, meaning matters. For our habits, for our behavior, for our experience of the world.
As I was writing Better Than Before, and as I was pondering the example of that man and his eating habits, I also considered a much less elevated example of the same principle.
High-energy little kids, who seem temperamentally incapable of doing anything other than running around and making noise, will instantly fall still and silent for a game of Hide and Seek or Hush Puppy (if you’ve never played Hush Puppy, the object of the game is to be the last person to make a noise; the most still and silent person wins Hush Puppy).
What we think is not possible may be possible, through the power of an idea.
If you want to read a sample of my book Better Than Before, or learn more about it, go to gretchenrubin.com.