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Blog // Adaptability
September 4, 2020

Personality Isn’t Permanent

For fans of personality tests, Benjamin Hardy’s Personality Isn’t Permanent might feel like a challenge. Turns out it’s a fascinating read. Here’s a review and summary of what I learnt from the book.

I adore personality tests. I’ve written about them before. They can be fun. You can gain insights about yourself and understand why you react the way you do in various situations.

Of course, they’re not perfect. Too often these tests make wild generalisations. People use them like horoscopes to predict behaviour. This can be deeply unhelpful in relationships or workplaces.

Benjamin Hardy isn’t a fan of personality tests. He believes they perpetuate myths about personality that have been debunked by research. Personality tests encourage us to view personality as innate and fixed. But this isn’t so. Rather, our personality can evolve and be shaped by the choices we make.

Hardy suggests that instead of doing a test to discover the personality we’ve inherited, we should be setting goals that will create the personality we want.

Your Personality Is Who You Will Be In The Future

Most people describe their personality by looking back over their life. They draw a picture based on past decisions and events. And that picture is who they authentically understand themselves to be.

Hardy’s contention is that this approach is wrong, self-limiting and potentially harmful. It’s not the path to a fulfilled life.

We should have a clear sense of who we want to become, then behave in ways that align with those goals. For Hardy, being authentic means being true to the person you’re becoming, and not the person you were.

So if our personality can change, why is the idea that personality is fixed so popular?

The reason most people don’t change isn’t because personality is fixed. People don’t change because change isn’t a goal for them. They are in a rut because of trauma or limiting beliefs. Or they simply don’t have an appetite for change.

The meat of Personality Isn’t Permanent is the way it addresses four reasons why people’s personalities stop evolving.

Personality And Trauma

Trauma is a negative experience that shapes your self-identity in limiting ways. Trauma is the most challenging reason why people’s personalities get stuck.

Hardy tells the story of someone in their eighties who had a lifelong passion to write and illustrate children’s books. They never did, though, because back in early adulthood a bad experience in a drawing class robbed this budding children’s book author of any belief in their drawing skills. So, despite a lifelong passion, and 50 years of trying to improve their drawing skills, they never wrote the books they dreamed of writing.

A lot of people have similar negative experiences with learning maths. This led Jennifer Ruef, a professor of mathematics education, to coin the phrase “fragile math identity”. People who suffer from this grow to fear maths, avoiding failure by not taking on challenging classes or problems – which, of course, limits their chances of becoming better at the subject.

The fear of failure leads them to become risk averse and inflexible, and then to avoid challenges that could stimulate personal growth.

This is the key to understanding how trauma shapes your personality. Unresolved negative experiences make a person less flexible when to comes to handling emotions. Negative emotions foster self-limiting beliefs, or what Carol Dweck calls fixed mindsets.

Eventually a person’s belief that they can’t reach their goals becomes a bigger barrier than any obstacles they might normally face.

This lack of flexibility increases the time it takes to get over negative experiences. This is made worse in the absence of an empathetic person to discuss the experience with, someone who sees them and helps them put their emotions in context.

“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
– Peter Levine

An important step in overcoming trauma is reconsidering the people in your life. You need to be able to talk openly about your struggles and experiences. As Hardy says, “…if you’re serious about transforming your life, you need to surround yourself with a whole new cast of friends, mentors, and supporters.”

An example of this is an entrepreneur who regularly gets together with a group of friends who keep each other accountable. They each keep a tally of personal metrics – things like income and net worth, health numbers, even the quality of their relationships. This radical openness allows each of the friends to process their emotions and insecurities.

Trauma is a fixed, deeply internalised memory that leads a person to avoid living fully. If the person learns to face difficult experiences and memories, usually with the help of others, the possibility opens up to reinterpret past experiences and learn from them. This might happen through friendships, or therapy, or both. The person can then learn to become more emotionally flexible and more able to imagine their future, self-growing and enjoying life more.

“Healthy memories change over time. A growing person continually has a changing past, expanding in meaning and usefulness.”
–- Benjamin Hardy

How Our Story Shapes Our Personality

We instinctively try to create meaning from the experiences we have. We use stories to do this. The story helps us define the experience, what happened, what is says about us, and what it says about the way the world works.

This is natural. But, if we’re not careful, these stories can define us in very fixed and limiting ways.

Our memory isn’t a perfect recorder. We create the memory in the way we tell the story of our experience. We can choose to describe the same experience either as a failure or as the courage to overcome a disappointment. It’s a lesson I had in talking my PhD attempt.

It’s possible to strategically rewrite your history to serve the person you want to become.

An example of this is “the gap and the gain” idea Hardy cites from Dan Sullivan. The gap mindset constantly frames experiences as disappointments which prove you don’t measure up to the standard and will struggle to improve. The gain mindset would frame the experiences as proof of the progress you’ve already made and your potential to improve.

“Your authentic self is your future self. Who you aspire to be.”
– Benjamin Hardy

Shifting Our Subconscious

Emotions happen in our bodies. Our bodies are like living memory banks. This idea was popularised by Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps The Score. The language with which the mind and body speak to each other is emotions.

Our bodies become accustomed to having the same kinds of emotions and the chemicals that carry those emotions. Our bodies have an “internal thermostat” for emotions and seek to return to familiar (but not necessarily comfortable) emotional states (as described in The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks).

If we don’t process these emotions and deal with our subconscious, then our body may manifest these repressed emotions as pain. As John Sarno explains in Healing Back Pain, our body can manifest physical pain as a way to distract attention from emotional pain. Physical pain can even be your inner self crying out for attention. As Steven Ozanich explains in The Great Pain Deception, pain can be a manifestation of “…unresolved internal conflict”.

Our subconscious is like a circuit that’s constantly running throughout our bodies. It keeps pulling us back to familiar emotional states, even if those are unpleasant. We must engage in actions that rewire the circuit. Hardy recommends three: keeping a journal to log emotions; practising fasting; and making regular charitable gifts. There are more, however, which are explored in the Science of Well-Being course. IL9

Designing Your Personality

In a 1979 study by Ellen Langer, graduate students designed the interior of a building so it looked like something from 1959, then invited eight men in their seventies and eighties to live in it for five days. Pretty soon they changed. Not only did they act like they were younger, being more active; they changed physically. They got taller and their hearing, eyesight, memory and appetite improved.

They improved by being in an environment designed for them.

If the environment around us doesn’t change, then we tend to fall into routines, with predictable attitudes, behaviours and habits. Our personality remains constant because our environment encourages us to be consistent.

This is perhaps most evident in the people around you and the role your place in society has in shaping your self-identity and the way you behave. Your social group will influence everything from health to ethics, academic achievement, productivity and success.

Hardy suggests you be intentional about designing the environment around you. One way to do this is make sure you’re surrounded by reminders of what is possible for you and not just reminders of who you were. You should ask whether your environment pushes you forward or pulls you back. You might what to swap those old posters full of nostalgia for art that challenges you to see the world in new ways.

“Look at your closet and get rid of anything your future self wouldn’t wear.”
– Benjamin Hardy

Being selective and setting boundaries isn’t limited to things; it also applies to what has your attention. There are so many things you could focus on, but precious few that really matter if you have clear goals and desires. In order to be focused you’ll need to become comfortable with things that might have the attention of those around you.

Finally, you can force change by imposing limitations. Hardy recounts the story of Christina Tosí, of Momofuku Milk Bar fame, who was writing food safety plans for the Momofuku restaurants when David Chang challenged her to come up with a dessert that would be served that night in the restaurant. He then pushed her again to open her own outlet, Milk Bar, to sell her fantastic ideas.

When you commit to doing something, with a time constraint, where quality matters, you find more motivation to succeed. Hardy calls this a forcing function and suggests we build these kinds of loops into our regular life.

Ultimately, this enhances our imagination, giving us permission to dream bigger, to see ourselves doing things we didn’t fully believe we were going to be able to do.

Your Personality As You Age

But as you get older, it almost feels like society is designed to lock you into the past and into self-limiting stories. Nostalgia is the default mode. Even digital technology feeds you the past through algorithms, suggested playlists and recommended viewing. It’s assumed that from your thirties onwards you are looking backwards more often than you are looking forwards.

I wish Hardy had spent more time on the role of people in your life. Knowing when to cut people from your social circle. Or how to coach those who remain to have the right kind of mindset for future-oriented personality growth. This is a challenge that never goes away.

Personality Isn’t Permanent is a welcome reminder that you can rewrite your self-limiting stories, that your past isn’t your destiny, and that your personality ought to evolve over time. You can change, and here’s the science to prove it.

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