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Nouns AND Verbs Matter

This past spring I bought a few of my graduating high school students Austin Kleon’s latest book, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. I bought myself a copy, of course, and found myself reading the little book in one sitting.

His third point is this:

Forget the noun, do the verb. Don’t focus on the job title, or the type of person you want to be — instead, focus on the action it takes to be that [whatever it is]. The assumption is the noun will come on its own by doing the verb.

  • You become a writer by writing.
  • You become a good parent by practicing good parenting skills.
  • You become a physically active person by doing physically active things.
  • You become an engaged citizen by engaging in the society in which you are a citizen.

I get this. It’s so much easier for me to want things, to make plans and strategize best-laid practices …rather than doing the work it takes to get there. This is pretty normal for the human experience, so I know I’m not alone. But this is overall a good idea for me — to focus on the verb instead of the noun.

However — I think the noun is important, too, so I’m not quite on board with full-on “forgetting” the noun. In Atomic Habits, my current favorite non-fiction read for this year (and I read it in January), James Clear makes a good argument for identity-based goals. He shows evidence that in order for us to truly care about building a desire into a truly ingrained habit, we need to absorb it into who we are

This is because it affects the way we think about ourselves and the world around us — with outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve; with identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.

  • The real goal is not to write a book, the goal is to become a writer.
  • The goal is not to read a book, it’s to become a reader.
  • It’s not to run a 10k, it’s to become a runner. 
  • It’s not to vote in the next election, it’s to become an engaged citizen.

This sounds like the opposite of Kleon’s point. And in a way, it is.

Which is why I like both ideas for me, and both work well played in tandem. It helps me to think about both the identity I want to embrace as a core part of me, and the steps it takes to get there. 

I want to be a financially-literate novelist and yogi who also runs, and is a loving and engaged spouse, parent, friend, and citizen. 

I also want to set up my self-employed business with certain specific financial practices, to run and do yoga several times a week, who keeps up with the news and shows up to play my part as an informed citizen, and also prioritizes my relationships with Kyle, my kids, and my friends by spending time with them and focusing on our time together without distraction.

Both nouns and verbs. Deciding who I want to be as a core part of my identity, and doing the steps necessary to become that person. Both are important to me. I’d wager they’re important to most of us.

How about you: which tactic resonates more with you — focusing on the noun or the verb?

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

Reading Time:

2 minutes





  1. Amy Shea

    Wow. So timely! I’m reading Elise Cripe’s new book, Big Dreams Daily Joys, and she has a lot to say about this but not in these words. I agree with what you say about how it is both! We set goals (the nouns) and then we decide on what verbs are going to get us there, and then we live in the tension of the in-between and it is awful and great at the same time. I love it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. KC

    I think starting with the nouns (identify identity changes) and then focusing on the verbs (pick action items, drop the wistfulness) is my preferred course?

    I’ve been thinking about the unpeelable onion of levels of identity desire for a while; you can want green vegetables; you can want to want green vegetables (but not want them yet); you can want to want to want green vegetables (so, you neither want green vegetables, nor do you yet want to change enough to actually want them because your identity is still comfy over here in the cupcake box, thanks, but there’s still some appeal/aspiration there) – around that point things get blurry/sticky, but you get the general point.

  3. Rachael Alsbury

    I would love this book! I have Atomic Habits on hold at the library right now. My other favorite book on habits is Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before! She talks about personality types and how we form habits. It’s one of those books I read years ago that I still think about all the time.

  4. Evi

    Hi there!!! I’m having a transitional phase. I got a bit unemployed this September (I only work part time now and that changed quite a few of my plans. Anyway! So, that changed my time (and tiredness!). I have more time and it’s great! 🙂 I have set goals for this year and after reading your post, I feel that I’m more like focusing on the verb. I’m an overthinkiner and I get tired just by planning or thinking about doing something, so I’ve realised that it has helped me focusing on the verb. Just go and do it! Greetings from Greece! xx

  5. Heather

    Though I fully agree with your thoughts here, I have to say that s an enneagram 9, I can noun it up all day long. I definitely need to work on my verb game.

  6. Lynn

    I like both of these ideas, and I can see how they are both important. I think it’s more helpful for me to focus on the verb because I can spend too much time in my head thinking about things instead of doing them. Identity-based desires are harder for me to latch on to because, in short, Enneagram 9, and my identity feels like it’s many different things at different times.

  7. Olga

    Hi Tsh! Is the option to download podcasts directly from AoS gone for good? Thank you so much for all your work from long time listener in Minsk, Belarus 💜💜💜

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