How do ordinary people become superstars? What makes one person able to defeat the limiting identities that stop others? How do top athletes and business leaders unleash their potential and capacity on the field or in the boardroom?
New York Times Best-Selling Author® and performance advisor to athletes and business executives at the highest-level Todd Herman tells you how. We discussed his book The Alter Ego Effect, the power of secret identities to help transform your life, on my “Now to Next” podcast.
A Common Theme Among Top Performers
Creator of the 90-Day Year Performance System and recently named as one of INC 500’s fastest-growing companies, Todd Herman is known as the guy who helps people get all of their capabilities onto the field of play. His book, The Alter Ego Effect, presents the toolkit he uses to help top performers achieve wildly outrageous goals while enjoying the process.
As a kid in Alberta, Canada, Todd took every opportunity to socialize and play sports, including badminton, which was well organized in the area. He became a nationally ranked player.
Todd also played football. He wasn’t the largest player or an especially gifted athlete, but he was able to perform at a level that won some college football scholarships. When Todd stepped onto the field, he would step into an “alter ego” named Jeronimo. It wasn’t part of his training protocol, but in the mindset of Jeronimo, he was able to play to maximum capacity.
When Todd started as a performance advisor in 1997, his first clients were teenage kids. By working with outstanding mentors and coaches and consistently up-leveling his skill, he started to work with some outstanding athletes, including pros and Olympians.
With the consistent performers, he noticed a common theme weaving them together. Repeatedly, players would mention an alter ego. When they stepped out to play, they stepped into a performance-enhanced version of themselves.
Key to Enhancing Performance
In 2003, while preparing an Olympian for the Athens 2004 games, she casually mentioned her alter ego. At that moment, it clicked. Todd recalled all the other similar conversations with top athletes, including Bo Jackson who has an alter ego you would never expect, and realized this was a powerful tool.
He started unpacking it more, including interviewing clients and developed a protocol.
The essence of his question was, “How do I build a performance identity to allow me to dissociate from my own story and narrative of what I think I can and cannot do?”
We all have a narrative about who we are: I am short, tall, from a city, from a farm. Sometimes these narratives limit us.
Fortunately, we also come hard-wired as kids to be playful and use our imagination. By playing with the idea of stepping into someone and something more resourceful than our current self-image, we release skills, potential, and capabilities embedded inside of us. We are no longer shackled down to our narrative.
Alter ego is NOT “faking it until you make it.” It is not being inauthentic or putting on a performance like an actor.
The Alter Ego is an extraordinary model you can use to help anchor yourself to a better idea of how you would like to perform. It is a tool to be authentic with our capacity and use our creative imagination to step into a new self-concept.
Cicero coined the term alter ego in 44 BCE. In a letter to a friend, he described it as “the other I, a trusted friend inside.”
The Truest Versions of Yourself
In Chapter 3 of The Alter Ego Effect, Todd puts the model together. He demonstrates how the self that we act through daily is a habit.
For example, in his work as a coach to public figures and leaders, Todd works with strong personalities and big egos. You would see these people on highlight reels on ESPN and sportscasts. At work 8 to 12 hours a day, he must be tough enough to break through his client’s hard exterior and protective insulation.
That mindset at the office, showing up as a challenger gets results. But, what happens if he brings that same attitude and style home with him to a wife and little kids?
Some people are stuck in one role. They might say, “That’s just me. I am tough or talkative or the one in charge.”
It is just the muscle you’ve been working. It’s the attitude you’ve been practicing. It does not encompass the totality of you.
Instead of coming home in work mode, Todd asked himself how he could show up for his kids and be a great dad. His answer was to be creative, fun, patient, and playful.
He thought of two models of this behavior: Mr. Rogers and his dad. Keeping these two models in mind, Todd can ask himself, “Is this something Mr. Rogers would say?” The models serve as an anchor point to remind him of how he wants to show up.
Creating alter egos to excel in different contexts is NOT about being fake. It is a tool to liberate the real self or truest self.
Words trap us up. We hear “true self” and think it is a singular experience. There is no one you. There are many versions of each of us.
The truest version of ourselves means we have a whole bunch of traits, capabilities, attributes, and qualities we can tap into anytime. The alter ego helps us tap into those things sometimes forgotten in our capacity as human beings to be and exist.
What Uniform Are You Wearing?
Mike Tyson is another familiar name who used a specific mindset in the ring. Once describing how he navigated the inner game and why he felt he could dominate better than others, Tyson said he didn’t take anything in from outside the ring except what would help him win.
Sometimes in creating an alter ego, people get hung up on the idea of performing. It is not performing for praise, claps, and applause, but it is performing for a result. Maybe we’re starting a new venture or business or becoming a parent for the first time.
Every time we take on a new role, there is extra friction at the beginning created by dragging the old identity into the new one.
One example from the book started at Fort Knox, where Todd spoke about The Alter Ego Effect. After the presentation, the Colonel took Todd aside.
The Colonel almost was choked up as he shared something very personal. He spent his career preparing young men to go off to battle and was great at his job, but when he got home he treated his 7- and 9-year-old the same way he treated his soldiers. His sons weren’t ready to be soldiers, but the Colonel couldn’t turn off the military persona he’d worked so hard to build.
Knowing that uniforms are a powerful totem or trigger, Todd asked, “Do you go home and take off the uniform?”
The Colonel said he sometimes wore the uniform for dinner, but he never took it off in truth.
Todd helped him create a new uniform — the dad uniform. The Colonel chose khaki shorts and a specific brand of golf shirt. With a few in his closet, he would have a home uniform to change into.
Then, they developed the meaning of the dad uniform.
Two and a half months later, Todd got the best email ever. It was a thank you from the Colonel with additional background information. The nine months before the Colonel spoke with Todd, he and his wife had been sleeping in separate rooms. There had been fear and tension in the household. The kids never greeted him at the door.
When he wrote the thank you email, the Colonel and his wife had been back together for seven weeks in the same bed, and his kids now ran to the door to greet him.
That was a meaningful win.
One of many Todd has achieved during his career and helping people cultivate the alter egos they need in the many different scenarios of their lives. In fact, we covered so many great topics in my interview with Todd, I’m going to split them into two blog posts so we can really dive into all the wisdom he shared… so look for another post with insights from Todd and the alter ego coming soon!