Today's Reading

Between Our First and Last Breath

Development—a natural process that makes living beings grow over time into possible future selves—is a hallmark of all life. When it works well, it does so seamlessly. It's difficult not to be impressed by the process that turns earthy bulbs into flowers and helpless infants into speaking beings. Yet what seems so simple for flowers and infants is far more complicated for adults. The very process that propels life toward its potential can slow, or sometimes stop.

Development is possible throughout our lifetime, until our very last breath. As adults, though, we find that this same force that is supposed to move us to our potential can stall. While we may have times of rapid development, we can also experience plateaus in our growth where we remain in stagnation, sometimes for years. When we encounter a seemingly intractable problem in some domain of our life and try to change—to stop overworking, to find self-confidence, to cultivate better relationships, or to become better leaders—we can find ourselves at a loss. What makes us stuck? Why can't we change? And should we even keep trying? The battle for self-change is often grueling and painful, and we may want to give up, but giving up the struggle feels like abandoning the person we could become, our possible self.

As a personality psychologist teaching in a school of management, every day I encounter professionals who, despite their accomplishments, feel stalled in some domain of their life. They have tried, many times and in many ways, to change the part of themselves that keeps them back, without a lasting success. Often they are on the verge of giving up and accepting their limitation as "who they are." This book is my call to them to not give up. It is also my answer to their questions: What is the self? How does self- development work, and why? What makes it go fast or slow? And why does it fail so often for so many of us? The book is written not just to inform but to help transform—with techniques that we can use to get unstuck and create a lasting change in our lives.

The central premise of this book is that no matter how long we have been stuck and how hard we have struggled to change, we can get unstuck and keep growing. But before I explain how this process works, it's important to address a counter-assumption that lurks in the background and negates the very premise of lifelong development—a corrosive suspicion that adults can't really change who they "are." It is this assumption that can make us want to give up on self-development, so it's important to ask ourselves where it comes from and how true it is.


One way we start believing that people don't change is by looking around. After all, many around us don't change, no matter how much they try: friends who are always on a diet, spouses consumed by anger, people repeating relationship mistakes, uncoachable bosses. We can also spend years of our lives trying to change some part of ourselves without success. It's natural that we may start believing this is just "who we are." And up until the beginning of this century, scientists would have agreed with us.

"Set like plaster" is how some researchers have described personality as recently as the 1990s. Personality traits—stable ways in which we interact with ourselves and others—were supposed to be set into an unchangeable form by age 30. Traits were considered "hardwired"—genetically determined and therefore immune to change. If, as adults, we encountered a problem, we were supposed to focus on changing problematic behaviors. The idea was that while the trait (who we "are") couldn't change, we could use our willpower to change our behaviors and try to keep them steady, usually through habits.

The outcome of this way of looking at adult development was a proliferation of personality tests ($2 billion worth of them) that are supposed to help us understand who we really are by identifying which "traits" we have and which "type" and "style" we belong to. In professional settings, we are often told to lean into our strengths because they're all we have, and we'd better make the best use of them to transcend our weaknesses. From this perspective, the message is clear: the plateau we reach in our life is our destination. We can try to fix behaviors as necessary, but there is nowhere else to go.

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...