Book Chat: The Power of Habit

By Hannah Lee

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Duhigg has engagingly compiled scientific research on why habits exist. Readers learn why some people and companies struggle to change, while others seem to re-make themselves overnight.  We discover how the right habits were crucial to the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The book brings us inside Proctor & Gamble, Target, NFL locker rooms, and the nation’s largest hospitals to learn how implementing “keystone” habits can make the difference between success and failure, life and death.

The most fascinating chapters for me were the ones on societal change.  In “Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Duhigg describes the circumstances in which people were guided into religious practice and advocating for civil rights.  As a young seminary student, Rick Warren chose to go where the people were un-churched, “somewhere all of my seminary friends didn’t want to go.”  His search for virgin territory lead him to Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, which was the fastest-growing region in the fastest-growing county in one of the fastest-growing states in America.  He learned that the local residents self-identified as Christians but didn’t attend services.

Warren was inspired by the writings of a controversial theologian, Donald McGavran, who’d devoted his life to building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ.  McGavran’s strategy was to adopt the tactics of other successful movements by appealing to people’s social habits.  The evangelist would succeed by helping people “become followers of Christ in their normal social relationship.”  This tactic exhorted religious leaders to speak to people in their own languages, create places of worship where “congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors.”  Most importantly, wrote McGavran, ministers had to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community’s social habits would encourage religious participation.

Upon graduating from seminary, Warren moved his wife and baby to Orange County and rented a small condo.  His first prayer group consisted of seven people gathered in his living room.  Thirty years later, his Saddleback Church is one of the largest ministries in the world, with more than 20,000 congregants coming to its 20-acre headquarters and eight other satellite campuses.  Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? has sold 30 million copies, putting it amongst the biggest sellers in history.  Warren performed the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration and is considered one of the most influential religious leaders of our day.

At the core of his church’s success is a belief in the power of social habits.  Warren told Duhigg, “We’ve thought long and hard about habitualizing faith, breaking it down into pieces.  If you try to scare people into following Christ’s example, it’s not going to work for too long.  The only way you get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.  Once that happens, they become self-feeders.  People follow Christ not because you’ve led them there, but because it’s who they are.”

How did Warren teach his thousands of followers habits of faith?  First, he had to get them through the door, into his church.  He told people to wear whatever clothing was comfortable to them.  He brought in an electric guitar.  His sermons focused on practical topics, such as “How to Handle Discouragement,” “How to Feel Good About Yourself,” and “How to Survive Under Stress.”  They were easy to understand and they addressed everyone’s daily problems.

Warren’s biggest breakthrough was a lesson that seemed to me to come straight from the Chumash, when Moshe’s father-in-law encouraged him to share the burden of ministry by setting up a system of courts and judges (Exodus 18:1-20:23).  In Warren’s case, he assigned every congregant to a small prayer group that met weekly in individual homes.  It transformed church participation into a habit that drew on existing social urges and patterns.  “Now when people come to Saddleback and see the giant crowds on the weekend, they think that’s our success,” related Warren.  “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Ninety-five percent of the church is what happens during the week inside those small groups…You have this big crowd to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful.  Together, they’re like glue.”

Next, Warren created a series of curriculum, for use in church classes and small group discussions, which were designed to teach people new habits.  Every congregant had to sign a “maturity covenant card” promising to follow three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer; tithing 10 percent of their income; and membership in a small group.  “Once we do that, the responsibility for spiritual growth is no longer with me, it’s with you.  We’ve given you a recipe,” related Warren.  “We don’t have to guide you, because you’re guiding yourself.  These habits become a new self-identity, and at that point, we just need to support you and get out of the way.”  These lessons are analogous to my experience living in an Orthodox Jewish community, where issues of kashrut, chesed, and a daily minyan for reciting Kaddish quickly binds strangers into a thriving community.

The next example was from the civil rights movement and how King galvanized a populace of southern black Americans to stand up and walk for their rights.  When an exhausted Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955, she became the catalyst for advocacy and public demonstration.  But, she was not the first black person jailed for breaking Montgomery’s bus segregation laws.  The previous incidents did not, however, result in boycotts or protests.  “There weren’t many real activists in Montgomery at the time,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning civil rights historian, to Duhigg.  “People didn’t mount protests or marches.  Activism was something that happened in courts.  It wasn’t something average people did.”  When King arrived in 1954, he found a majority of the city’s blacks accepted segregation “without apparent protest.  Not only did they seem resigned to segregation per se, they also accepted the abuses and indignities which came with it.”

What changed with Parks was a shifting political climate and an example of social networks in action.  Rosa Parks was deeply respected in her community.   She had friendships and affiliations that cut across the city’s racial and economic lines.  “She was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, attended the Methodist church, and helped oversee a youth organization at the Lutheran church near her home.  She spent some weekends volunteering at a shelter, others with a botanical club, and on Wednesday nights often joined a group of women who knit blankets for a local hospital.  She volunteered dressmaking services to poor families and provided last-minute gown alterations for wealthy white debutantes.  She was so deeply embedded in the community, in fact, that her husband complained that she ate more often at potlucks than at home.”  Parks “transcended the social stratifications of the black community and Montgomery as a whole,” related Branch.  “She was friends with field hands and college professors.”  She had what sociologists call “strong ties” — first-hand relationships.   The power of these friendships were evident from the moment she landed in jail and she called her parents.  Her mother contacted the wife of the former head of the Montgomery NAACP, who called her husband and told him to bail Parks out of jail.  He did and he also enlisted the help of a prominent white lawyer who knew Parks because she had hemmed dresses for his three daughters.  These two men, E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr, were looking for the perfect case to challenge Montgomery’s bus segregation laws and asked Parks for her cooperation.  Her husband warned her, “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” but Parks couldn’t refuse her friends’ appeal.

The call for a boycott of the city buses spread within 24 hours of Parks’ arrest, but this could have fizzled out as for many other small protests.  What distinguished this act of civil disobedience was another aspect of social habits.  The Montgomery bus boycott became a society-wide action because of social peer pressure, the “power of weak ties” which made it difficult to refuse participation.

Some nine years later, the Mississippi Summer Project called upon students to commit to a 10-week project registering black voters in the South.  Later nicknamed “the Freedom Summer,” it was known to be a risky undertaking, and of the thousand applicants accepted into the program, more than 300 later decided to stay home.  In the 1980s , a sociologist at the University of Arizona, Doug McAdam, studied why some people participated in Freedom Summer and why others backed out.  His initial hypothesis was they had different motivations, but this did not hold true.  Neither did opportunity costs, as in spouses or jobs at home.

His final hypothesis was to look at the applicants’ memberships in student and political organizations and the list of 10 contacts to be kept informed of their summer activities.   “Imagine you’re one of the students who applied,”  related McAdam. “On the day you signed up for Freedom Summer, you filled out the application with five of your closest friends and you were all feeling really motivated.  Now, it’s six months later and departure day is almost here… you’re walking across campus and you see a bunch of people from your church group, and they say, ‘We’re coordinating rides — when should we pick you up?’  These people aren’t your closest friends, but you see them at club meetings and in the dorm, and they’re important within your social community.  They all know you’ve been accepted to Freedom Summer, and that you’ve said you want to go.  Good luck pulling out at this point.  You’d lose a huge amount of social standing.  Even if you’re having second thoughts, they’re real consequences if you withdraw.  You’ll lose the respect of people whose opinions matter to you.”

King and the other civil rights leaders shifted the struggle’s burden from his hands onto the shoulders of his followers.  He activated the social habits of weak ties and the Montgomery bus boycott became a self-perpetuating force.

The book has other fascinating chapters on how Paul O’Neill turned Alcoa into the “best performing stocks in the Dow Jones index” by making it the safest company in America; how Starbucks turned self-discipline into an organizational habit; how Dr. Mary Reich Cooper rescued Rhode Island Hospital from a morale-draining pit of surgical errors by changing its medical culture; and how Desmond Fennell used media coverage of his investigation into the disastrous King’s Cross station fire in London to galvanize organizational change.

For people who wish to change their own personal habits, there are chapters on how to recognize the habitual cycle of cue, routine, and reward.  Only by understanding the nature of the cue (which could be different for each person), could one change the routine to trigger the same reward.  It requires a belief in free will: “If you believe in change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real.”  What bad habits do you want changed?  Read The Power of Habit and learn how to make the most of the summer ahead.

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