If you’re going to be a better person tomorrow than you are today, you’re going to have to act the part.
I was reminded of this again recently on coming across a quote I’d highlighted from Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, book 3 in his ongoing Stormlight Archive series. A major character named Dalinar was changing over the course of the story in ways that set him apart from the rest of his people. He’s had to deal with the resulting ostracisation while also struggling with his own internal feeling of being an imposter.
And then in a conversation, another major character says to him, “You’re not a hypocrite.” To which he replies that he is and then says this:
But sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a person who is in the process of changing.Oathbringer: The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
That line puts a finger right at the heart of one of the hardest things about changing: how wrong it often feels to us even when it’s a change we desire.
We all want to be better people so we can act better, but in practice, it’s far easier to act better so we can be better people. It’s easier to get to identity change by way of behaviour change than the other way around.
This insight is the real genius behind ideas like behavioural scientist BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits or author James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Both books advocate that powerful change starts with breaking things down to small actions you can easily repeat—the repetition being what leads to identity change.
For instance, I can become a reader by simply reading a page everyday. Or a runner by putting on my running clothes. Or a Christian by going to church.
(Most Christians I know will push back against that last one, but hear me out.)
Our habits make our identity. As Aristotle is supposed to have said:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Not actually Aristotle
And of course, it works the other way around too: an identity shift can produce marked change in behaviour. In religious terms that’s called conversion—and even there it’s not something that you make happen, but something that happens to you.
Why would you take a far more difficult path to the same place? Yet that’s just what we’re do anytime we fall for the idea that behaviour change must follow identity change rather than precede it.
The idea of being authentic has often been made out as a virtue in itself. Being real, being honest. And it’s not surprising, given we live in a world in which even kids know how to produce spontaneous-looking TikToks. And some of it goes back to our conviction that we are able to spot when people aren’t being real. (Spoiler alert: the evidence points to the contrary.)
The problem with being “real”, though, is it can too easily get in the way of being better. Again and again, I see people who want to be better, but who also want to remain “authentic”. And so when you suggest ways they can take action you might get responses like, “But that’s just not me”, or “I would feel like such a hypocrite if I did that.”
Except, that’s exactly the point.
See, the word “hypocrite” is rooted in the word “hupokritēs”, which was how the ancient Greeks referred to their actors. It’s easy to see, of course, how the word has come to mean “pretender.” And we don’t trust people like that, or feel proud of it when we act that way. But that’s just one side of acting: it’s certainly not how the actor sees it, if they’re any good. While we’re right to see hypocrisy as acting, there’s another layer to it that we often miss: that actors take what they do very seriously.
To a skilled actor, the entire point is to fully embody whatever character they’re playing, to bring the character to life. They, in a sense, really become the character, even if only for a couple of hours. And while they play whoever they play, they really mean it. That’s what leads us to really buy it.
It’s not much different from the work of trying to be a better person. The reality is it always begins as an act. Because of course you’re not yet that person—not fully. And yet you kind of are, because there’s something in you that wants to be that person.
In Christian theology this liminal state of being is referred to as the “now and not yet”. It’s more than just an in-between state of being, like Britney Spears described in her 2001 hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman—that’s more like a trip where you’ve left your origin, but haven’t got to your destination. No, this is a state of being both, and yet not fully either, all at once.
That’s what creates the tension—knowing you are, and yet aren’t what you want to be.
But therein also lies the resolution: every step you take in the direction of who you want to be moves you that much closer. Each tiny action is one such step.
What matters, is that you really mean it. You take the steps, whether you feel like it or not. You act the part with all your heart. You read the book, you put on the running clothes, you go to church. And you do it with all your heart—which means, on some days, you just do it, because you don’t have that much heart, and that’s okay.
And like a good actor—as hypocrite, as the ancient Greeks would have had it—you don’t do it to impress people. As the best actors know, you impress people best when you aren’t focused on the people, but on the part you’re playing.
That’s how to be a true “hypocrite”: act the part with all your heart.