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Katy Milkman

The Science of Identity, Believing in Yourself & Setting Goals


Our life is full of decisions — both big and small. While some decisions bring us clarity about our identity, other choices can make it difficult to see the person we are meant to become. The weight of these uncertainties often weighs heavily on our minds until they finally manifest into a confident decision or action. 

But even then, there’s no way to guarantee it will be the best choice for us in the long run. Sometimes, all you need is a firm belief in yourself that you can overcome whatever obstacle life throws in.

If you’ve been wanting to get a clear understanding of your identity and set goals for yourself that you believe in, this interview is for you. Friends, I’m so excited about our guest today, Katy Milkman. She is an award-winning behavioral scientist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

In this episode, we discussed the biggest internal barriers holding you back from changing your life, what science says about how to believe in yourself more, and so much more. There is so much value she shared during our conversion and I’m sure you’ll love this episode of The School of Greatness. So, let the class begin!

Who Is Katy Milkman?

Katy Milkman is a summa cum laude graduate in Operations Research and Financial Engineering from Princeton University with a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s joint program in Computer Science and Business. She’s also a host of Choiceology, a popular podcast from Charles Schwab that explores the lessons of behavioral economics to help people change for good and improve their judgment.

Katy is also the co-founder and co-director of The Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work is being chronicled by Freakonomics Radio. Her research is regularly featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio

Before turning 30, Katy was named one of the “World’s Top 40 Business School Professors” under 40 by Poets and Quants, and she was a finalist for the Thinkers 50 2017 Radar Thinker Award.

She has received numerous awards for her research, including an award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences during the early years of her career. She also gave the TED talkWhy We Fail and How We Stand Up Afterwards,” where she discussed why we fail and how we stand up afterward. 

We all have our days where we feel like giving up on something — whether it’s a project, an exam, or even something as simple as going to the gym. There are times when we don’t want to push forward and finish the task at hand, but understanding what is stopping us is vital in handling the obstacles and getting past them.  

The Barriers Holding You Back from Changing Your Life

It’s easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day mundanity of life. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re stuck in a boring routine that never changes, and it seems like you have nowhere to go and nothing left to strive for.

Life is not always easy and it doesn’t always make sense. But the truth is, you’re not alone. In fact, there was a study that showed that 80% of people feel stuck in their lives. Why it is so hard for us to want to change and create the life that we truly desire? We have dreams, but why are we still stuck from making the necessary changes to make our dreams happen, as if there are barriers that are holding us back? Katy provided some insight: 

“There are two categories of barriers. … One of them is structural and social and sort of outside of your own control, … [and] there’s not much we can do about that. … So I want to focus on the second category,  — the internal barriers that would prevent us from reaching our goals, that can make us feel stuck.” – Katy Milkman

The only thing standing between you and your goals is YOU! That’s right — it’s not the lack of time or money, and it’s not the people in your lives, either — it’s you.

Sometimes, there are inner voices that tell you things like “I don’t deserve it” or “I can’t do that.” Katy called these “internal barriers,” and they’re based either on past experiences or just fear of failure in general. Katy discussed the two common internal barriers that are holding you back from changing your life.

Barrier #1 – Status Quo Bias

How many times have you come to a crossroads in life and felt paralyzed by all the possible paths? It’s so easy to get stuck in the status quo, imagining the possible worst-case scenarios, which keeps you on “the safest path.”

“[There are many] internal barriers, [and] one of the biggest actually is status quo bias. This is something that behavioral scientists have been studying for many decades. It’s the tendency to want to stick to whatever path you’re on to feel like any deviation from it will be a loss. It’s frightening, it’s overwhelming, and so, it leads a lot of us to keep doing things that aren’t productive and stay in ruts.” – Katy Milkman

“Status quo bias” is a cognitive bias in which people prefer things to stay the same. It’s easier for us to keep doing what we’re doing than change our habits and try something new. This can be seen when people are resistant to new technologies or changes in their environment, even if they could benefit from the change.  Unfortunately, status quo bias can limit our creativity, opportunities, and future success for ourselves and others around us. 

Barrier #2 – Escalation of Commitment

Another type of internal barrier is “escalation of commitment,” which is a psychological phenomenon in which people will continue to invest more time, energy, or resources in something due to the amount they have already invested. This effect often leads to compulsive behavior that can be harmful to both the individual and those around them.

“Escalation of commitment … is another bias that has been extensively documented. [This is] the tendency we have when we’re on a path to stick to it in part because we tend not to ignore sunk costs. So a sunk cost is like something that you can’t recover, like … all the birthday presents that you purchased, … [and] all of those things that are irrecoverable, they’re historical, they’re behind you, [and] you can’t get them back.” – Katy Milkman

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you feel like there is no way out because you’ve already invested so much time into it? For example, maybe you’re staying in a toxic relationship only because you’ve invested so much time into it trying to fix it. Deep down, you know that you’d be happier without it, but it’s just become such a normal part of your life that you don’t know any different. This is an escalation of commitment, which is another barrier that gets you stuck and prevents you from moving forward.

There are many reasons why people don’t take action when they want to improve their lives. Fear, regret, and uncertainty can all hold us back from moving forward. Luckily, there’s a way to overcome these barriers, and the process of overcoming them starts with taking small steps and believing in yourself that you can overcome any barrier, which is critical in navigating the ebbs and flows in life.

“Change is easier when you adopt the right strategy.” @katy_milkman  

What Science Says About How to Believe in Yourself More

A lot of people may be quick to tell you that your dreams are too big or you’re not good enough. And even if they don’t say it out loud, sometimes your mind is telling you the same thing. But here’s the truth: You deserve to have a chance at chasing your dreams, and anything worth having is going to take hard work. And when it comes down to believing in yourself more, there is no better person than YOU! The only one who can make things happen for you is yourself. However, the people around you can also influence how deeply you believe in yourself, so it’s important that you surround yourself with people who support you and challenge you.

“The most powerful thing is who you surround yourself with. So I think the social context you create and the people around you have so much to do with whether or not you believe in yourself. … [However,] you can have excessive confidence that can be harmful. So this is a little bit dangerous.” – Katy Milkman

Believing in yourself is a wonderful thing, but it has its limits. It’s important to remember that believing in yourself doesn’t mean you’re invincible. There are still things that can go wrong with your life. If you have too much faith in yourself, you might not be as prepared for the obstacles ahead of you and could miss out on chances to grow or learn more about the world around you. 

“You want to be confident enough and believe in yourself enough that you’re going to lean into the opportunities and work towards the goals because you believe you could achieve them. But if you’re like, ‘I’ve got this, I’m perfect,’ but you’re not going to practice, and you’re not going to work hard, [nothing will change.] … So there [should be] … a little bit of a delicate balance.” – Katy Milkman

There should be a balance between believing in ourselves and also understanding when enough is enough. Although self-confidence is something that many people strive for, what happens when you have too much self-confidence? One study found that individuals with high levels of confidence are more likely to take risks, ignore advice, and disregard the consequences than those with moderate levels of self-esteem.

“How do you get to that right level of belief? Everything I know from research points to the structure of the people you surround yourself with — whether it’s the people you work with, the people you train with, … the people you socialize with — they give you a lot of those beliefs in yourself and you can choose them. … It shapes so much about our confidence.” – Katy Milkman

The people you surround yourself with can shape your self-confidence. So, it’s important to be around people who make you feel good about yourself and help build up the person you are on the inside. The more time you spend with these types of people, the better your outlook becomes — you will feel happier and less stressed because you’re surrounded by positivity.

Here’s the bottom line: If you want to change your life for the better then start surrounding yourself with uplifting and supportive people.

Why You Should Listen to This Katy Milkman Podcast Episode Right Now…

Guys, this is a powerful conversation with Katy Milkman, and I’m sure you’ll find value in our conversation. Listen to the full episode for more insights from her, and don’t forget to share it with your friends! You could change someone’s life today.

This is the first episode of the two-part series, and I suggest you check out part two of our conversation where we discussed topics like, “temptation bundling” and how Katy links guilty pleasure with a healthy habit, the best time to make a new habit, the barriers that are holding us back from making positive changes in our lives, and so much more!  

To get more wisdom from Katy Milkman, check out her website and get access to the different episodes of the Choiceology podcast, where she shares stories of irrational decision-making — from historical blunders to the kinds of everyday errors that could affect your future. You may also subscribe to her newsletter for monthly updates on her interviews with leading behavioral scientists about their research and how they can help us make better choices.

If you enjoyed this conversation, please make sure to spread the message of greatness with your friends or someone you know would greatly benefit from it. It would be great if you could also tag Katy, @katymilkman, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of this episode and your greatest takeaways.

I want to leave you all with this quote from Ralph Ellison, who said, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” We all have the power to change our lives. The only thing that stops us is not knowing what we want or not believing it’s possible. But once you discover who you are and what your dreams are, you’ll be free! 

And I want to remind you all if no one has told you lately, my friend, — you are loved, you are worthy, and you matter. You know what time it is. It’s time to go out there and do something great.

To greatness,

Lewis Howes - Signature

“The closer you are to someone, and the more their situation resembles your own, the more likely you are to be influenced by their behavior.” @katy_milkman  

Some Questions I Ask:

  • Why is it so hard to make a change in your life?
  • What is the biggest internal barrier to making a change in your life?
  • Why is it so hard for us to get started? What holds us back?
  • Do we need a bigger pain in our life or can we change even when things are going well?
  • How does our own sense of identity help or hurt us?
  • What does science say about how to believe in yourself more?
  • What qualities should your inner circle of friends have?
  • How do people build inner confidence even when others don’t believe in us?
  • What is the difference between habits and behavior, and which one should we be focusing on to make a difference in our lives?
  • What are the most common behaviors that hold us back?
  • What are the behaviors that research shows get you the best outcomes?
  • If we break our word to ourselves does that affect our confidence negatively?

In this episode, you will learn:

  • The biggest internal barriers holding you back from changing your life.
  • How our sense of identity helps and hurts us.
  • What science says about how to believe in yourself more.
  • Why setting big goals is actually hurting your ability to succeed.
  • What “Commitment Devices” are and how they lead you to a better life.
  • And much more…
Katy Milkman & Lewis Howes
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Katy Milkman

Transcript of this Episode

Music Credits:


Kaibu by Killercats

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