Today's Reading


Given all this, why do we sometimes see change within and around us? We may have become less shy than we were during high school. We may observe friends who have become more stable or confident as they got older, or who underwent radical life transformations. People in our workplaces tell us we have "potential" and send us to workshops to develop our "soft skills." The premise that we can change is central to the work of many coaches, psychotherapists, counselors, psychologists, and other practitioners of personal development. Their insights align with the latest developments in personality and neuroscience research.

Over the last 20 years, researchers have shown that people's personality profiles continue to change throughout adulthood. For example, people tend to become more agreeable and conscientious as they age, which makes sense given that, over time, we often gain social skills and are better able to control our impulses. The field of neuroplasticity has shown us that the brain can change itself, that it is plastic. It means that so-called hardwired neural pathways can be rewired. This happens whenever stroke patients regain their speaking skills, when we acquire new habits, or when we sharpen our perception and memory as adults. What seemed like a personality destination suddenly looks like a plateau at which we are resting before our next developmental climb.

But isn't our personality genetic? Not entirely. Genes give us a physiological predisposition called a temperament; for example, a higher sensitivity to sound or taste, or a fast reaction time to emotional stimuli. Our learned way of dealing with that temperament will result in a personality trait. While one person with higher sensitivity to sound may avoid contact with others and become shy, another, living in a family of musicians, may learn to use their heightened sensitivity to connect with others through music. We can think of our personality traits as early skills in living with our temperament within our unique environments. This means that, as adults, we can learn other ways of living with our predispositions and, therefore, grow our personality.

Instead of considering personality traits as our destinations, we can think of them as early inner skills, as temporary plateaus from which we continue to grow. Instead of seeing our undeveloped traits as boxes in which we had better get comfortable, we can leave them and develop parts of ourselves long left dormant. If we are emotionally unstable, we may seek to build emotional resilience; if we are chronically extroverted, we can learn to be comfortable in solitude. This is a true expansion of our way of being, not a willful and forced surface change in behavior while the rest of the self pulls us the other way. The feeling of being unfulfilled often comes from staying in our box and not exploring and developing our supposed weaknesses. We can leave our boxes and continue to grow, develop, and expand.


Knowing that we can change brings us to the central topic of this book: how do we change deeply without falling back into old ways of being? And why do we fail so often at what should come naturally—developing toward our possible self? Understanding why we fail so often will help us set up the right conditions for lasting self-growth.

One reason why we fail to change is that we often focus our attempts on our behaviors, the most visible and measurable parts of the self. Behaviors can be observed and counted, which gives us a quick reference point for our progress. But the self is not just our behaviors, it is also our mind, emotions, motivations, and past learnings carried in our bodies. These parts of the self are like spokes of a wheel that must act together if we want to move without breaking. When we act only on behaviors, it's as if we try to move one spoke one way while the rest of the wheel is pushing in the opposite direction.

Even when we expand our effort beyond just behavior, most of the self-change techniques available to us tend to focus only on a few parts of the self. For example, habit-building highlights behaviors and motivation; cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on the mind, emotions, and behavior; and trauma-based therapy delves into emotions and memories carried in our bodies. To activate the natural movement of development and produce lasting change, we need to activate all five parts of the self, at the same time. To do that, we must know how each part of the self moves, what makes it get stuck, and what it would take to restart its momentum again.

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