Perhaps the biggest myth in Western culture is that we are born with a fixed and intrinsic personality — that who we are when we’re born is who we’ll be when we die.
This view is extremely dominant among Baby Boomers, who grew up in homes and with parents who had been absorbed in “trait” based value systems.
In Chronological order, let’s examine the dominant leadership theories over the past 180 years.
- 1840’s — “The Great Man Theory” of leadership assumed that ONLY MEN could be great leaders. If you didn’t have the TRAIT of being a man, you were not destined to be a leader. Your nature is fixed, and you have NO ABILITY to rise up to challenges or grow into your goals. This theory was the pervasive and cultural belief system for nearly 100 years.
- 1930’s and 40’s — “The Trait Theory” of leadership assumed that people are born with certain qualities that make them excel in leadership roles.
The Obsession With “Traits” Continues
Although the dominant theories in academics have shifted over the past 80 years, common practice shows that most businesses are continuing to operate in the 1930’s and 40’s. According to Harvard Business Review, the use of personality assessments are on the rise, growing as much as 20% annually.
The dominant view continues to be that people are who they are — and that you can’t change them. There continues to be, for most companies, almost a complete disregard for the power of context, environment, and the ability to radically transform people.
The research in psychology shows a much different story. To quote Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer:
“Social psychologists argue that who we are at any one time depends mostly on the context in which we find ourselves.
But who creates the context?
The more mindful we are, the more we can create the contexts we are in.
When we create the context, we are more likely to … believe in the possibility of change.”
Who you are depends on the situation you are in. In one situation, you’re one person. In a different situation, you’re someone else.
Your greatest power as a person comes when you realize you can create the situations around you. That you can alter your own environment. According to Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, “If you do not create and control your environment, your environment creates and controls you.”
Very few people take ownership over their context. This is your creative control. You can change your surroundings AND your inner states. Both are connected.
Very few businesses intentionally design their culture — but instead build their business around “personality” types… which then go on to unconsciously create a culture that has no power. Because it wasn’t designed intentionally.
When you create your situations, you then are made aware just how much power you actually have to transform yourself. According to what psychologists call, “The Pygmalion Effect,” you are either rising up or falling down to the expectations of those around you. Hence, Jim Rohn has said, “Don’t join an easy crowd; you won’t grow. Go where the expectations and the demands to perform are high.”
Your Brain Changes —And You Can Change
In that same HBR article, the author argues that the use of personality assessments to hire is a bad idea. Measuring a person’s integrity or cognitive ability are far more predictive of success. Both integrity and cognitive ability are fluid, not fixed. They can be changed, and in radical ways with the right influence and behavior.
For example, the cerebellum, which is the area of the brain focused on brain function and mental ability only makes up 10 percent of brain volume, yet houses over 50 percent of the brain’s total neurons. Your neurons are the tool through which your brain changes, as they make new and distinct connections which form habits of thought and behavior.
According to Psychology Today, neuroscientists are perplexed by this disproportionate ratio of neurons in the cerebellum. Put simply, you have a lot of potential for change in your brain’s ability to function and process.
Brain plasticity is a common term used by neuroscientists, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age — for better or worse. As your brain changes, your personality changes.
- Research has shown that physical exercise and increased fitness can improve brain functioning by literally increasing your brain’s volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels.
- Pushing yourself mentally strengthens the connections between neurons (synapses), improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning.
Put simply, if you push your body and mind regularly, your brain will literally change in size, dimensions, and connections.
Interestingly, routine activities do not challenge the brain, but actually keep it stuck. Doing the same thing over and over isn’t optimal for growth. To quote Napoleon Hill, “A good shock often helps the brain that has been atrophied by habit.”
Good habits will take you a long way, but not if they become too routine. You’ll get stuck. You need to continually be pushing yourself to the next level of difficulty. You can’t get stuck in one mode or role.
As you advance yourself, you’ll need to take on new roles and continually re-invent yourself. Take what you’ve learned and use it to propel you to new heights. To quote Leonardo DiCaprio, “Every next level of life will require a different you.”
What made the Beatles so brilliant? They never plateaued. They never got too routine with their work. They always re-invented over and over. Music theory professor David Thurmaier explains:
“Above all, the Beatles remained curious about all types of music, and they continually reinvented their own music by injecting it with fresh influences from multiple cultures. This experimentation adds a dimension to their work that separates it from their contemporaries’ music.”
Extreme Pain or Extreme Curiosity
What leads most people to change? Usually, it’s either extreme pain or extreme curiosity. Both is best.
The problem for most people is that their life isn’t so bad that it forces them to face some hard truths. As the world becomes increasingly industrialized, life becomes pretty comfortable for most people.
People aren’t necessarily happy. But they’re getting plenty of dopamine through their addictions to technology, processed foods, and other self-defeating behaviors.
Moreover, very few people are extremely curious — the type of curiosity that compels you to continually ask the hard questions. To question the common assumptions. To get to the heart of the matter. To figure out how everything is connected. So see how far the rabbit-hole goes.
Most people don’t want to face the hard truths. They prefer the comfort of what’s cultural. They don’t want to deal with the implications of a higher or different plane of understanding.
The pursuit of excellence requires an intimate relationship with both pain and curiosity. Growth can’t happen without pain. Nor can it happen without the insatiable desire to see how far it can go.
The amount of time spent on an activity doesn’t matter.
Some people spend 10,000 hours on something and don’t really get any better at it. They’re in routine. They aren’t being pushed. They aren’t digging into the pain. They aren’t curious enough to uproot their current assumptions and replace them with more expansive ones. In learning theory, true learning is known as a “disorienting dilemma,” because it can be disorienting to have limited belief systems replaced with new ones. This only happens as, like the Beatles, you experience new information and experiences.
If you’re not seeking to disrupt your own belief system, you’re not curious enough to become a master at your craft. You’re not curious enough to become a master of life.
In the biography, Michael Jordan: The Life, author Roland Lazenby tells of when Michael really started to stand-out as a player in high school. What surprised recruiters most was that the first thing Michael asked them was, “How can I get better?”
He wanted to be disrupted. And as Peter Diamandis has said, “If you’re not disrupting yourself, someone else is.” If you’ve decided to be stuck, that’s fine. But others are going to blow past you.
In the case of Michael, he was dealing both with immense pain and curiosity. He wasn’t born a phenom. He became a phenom as he was driven by demons of his troubled childhood — and as he desired to disprove parents and coaches who undervalued what he could do and be.
The question is, are you willing to intentionally create pain in your life? The type of pain that creates growth. To quote the poet Douglas Malloch, “Good timber does not grow with ease; the stronger the wind the stronger the trees.”
Additionally, are you interested in life enough to become curious? The type of curiosity that will lead you to higher truths and more expansive connections. This level of curiosity becomes less black-and-white. To quote Brené Brown in Braving the Wilderness, “It’s definitely messier taking a nuanced stance, but it’s also critically important to true belonging.”
You don’t have to agree with EVERYTHING someone says to take SOMETHING from it. You don’t only focus on a narrow slice of ideas or people. You’re willing and open to both religion and science (and everything else)… and can see the pros and cons of all sides as you mature as a thinker. You’re open and honest in your communication. Your fine dealing with messiness and emotions. All the while, you’re still discerning and have grounding. Your worldview is moving forward, not just spinning in circles.
Every Decision Matters
The amount of choices you could make and information you could consume is extremely abundant.
The amount of time you have is scarce.
Who you become as a person is directly influenced by your ability to discern and decide which choices you make and information you ingest. What you consume determines who you become.
What you consume — in food, information, experiences — determines what you produce and how you act. It determines the impact you have on the world and the lives of the people around you.
How you act directly influences your personality. Your personality isn’t a fixed and unchangeable thing you were born with. Your personality is something that continually develops. It develops as you change your brain. It develops as you change your environment. It develops as you heal suppressed emotions and traumas that freeze your personality and keep you stuck.
There’s a popular phase that says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” Although true, this quote ignores the fact that 20 years ago, you were planting something.
You did plant a tree 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 5 years ago, and 1 year ago, and last week. That tree is expressed in your current conditions and personality.
Your past is powerful. It’s showing itself in the person you are and the life you have. What have you been planting? Want something different? Then plant different seeds. Make different choices.
Although powerful, your past isn’t fixed, but fluid. You absolutely can change your past. Memories are inherently flexible and continually change based on new experiences. As you take in new experiences through your curiosity, your memories change… permanently.
Own your past. Take responsibility for it. Then change it by intentionally living to a higher level today and tomorrow. Don’t get stuck in your past. Don’t let it overly define you. Change it. Own it.
When you realize how powerful your choices are, you become very discriminant about every choice you make. Every little choice determines who you become.
Every book you read matters.
Because you could have been spending that same time reading something else. What you consume determines who you are.
Every choice makes an impact. But not just on you, but the people around you. Your choice to work that extra hour has consequences. You could work that hour or spend that hour with a friend or child. Or helping someone in need. Or playing video games…
You could spend that hour deeply engaging with your child, or you could spend that hour distracted on your smartphone.
That decision determines who you are. It also determines your relationships, your context, and your environment. Are you consciously creating your environment, or is your environment unconsciously creating you?
When you start intentionally making decisions, knowing fully the gravity of what those decisions mean — then you can become who you want to be. Then, you can create the environments that allow you the greatest freedom to transform yourself. Then, you won’t live a life of regret. Then, you’ll own your past. You’ll own the trees you planted, and the present reality you have.
Additionally, your curiosity and imagination — combined with your increased ability to intentionally create and act — will give you CONFIDENCE in your ability to plant whatever trees you want in the present so you can more fully own your future. As you own your future, you more fully own your past, because your new experiences reshape your past.
What will you choose?