How to change your personality, according to science

We live in a world that celebrates “authenticity” and encourages us to “just be ourselves.” However, recent scientific research estimates that around 60% of people would not just like to change their personality, but are actively working on it.

To be sure, some may feel deeply offended by the notion that their character could do with a bit of editing, not to mention an upgrade, but there’s no reason to get emotional. In fact, it is precisely those who regard their personality as flawless that may benefit most from changing it. How about a dose of humility, a touch of self-awareness, and a little less narcissism?

Because personality is largely shaped by genetics and early childhood experiences, it is unrealistic to expect major changes once we have reached adulthood. Humans are creatures of habit, and most of us tend to become more exaggerated versions of our earlier selves as we age. However, significant changes have been documented by recent research, such as people’s tendency to become more emotionally stable, self-confident, pleasant, and less impulsive, between their 20s and 40s.

Importantly, there is also some evidence on what is needed to change.

Self-awareness

This is about understanding what makes you you, and how you differ from others. The best way to get there is to ask people who know you well—and who are willing to give you honest feedback—to describe what you are like. Or, you could try any science-based assessments (here is a very quick free one my team and I created).

Most people have a distorted view of their personality, which stops them from identifying the most relevant attributes to change. For example, if I think of myself as generous when I’m actually quite stingy, or I see myself as creative when I’m really highly unimaginative, I will miss an important opportunity to get better. 

Openness to feedback

This is about taking the feedback (from others or an assessment) seriously, even when you intuitively disagree. Seeing yourself from another perspective will not just enrich your self-concept, but also trigger your will to change. This is especially true if you experience an uncomfortable gap between the person the feedback reveals and the person you want to be. In contrast, being oblivious to feedback will isolate you in your mental cocoon, perpetuating a self-serving sense of denial that favors positive self-views at the expense of self-knowledge. Sadly, this state of mind is quite common in leaders.

Brutal determination

This is about being relentlessly and patiently committed to change. Change is hard, especially when we have to do it. Most people would like to have changed, but few are driven and persistent enough to actually accomplish it. Think about how hard it is to lose weight, boost your fitness, change your health habits, or learn a language. It takes double the effort to become a kinder, humbler, smarter, funnier, or nicer version of you, particularly if you want these changes to last.

Crucially, this will require the exact opposite of being authentic or playing to your strengths. It is essentially about learning how to go against your nature, so you can become a more expanded version of yourself. But the rewards are high. Improving how others see you will enhance your career success, and upgrade your professional persona. Only those who are privileged and entitled can afford to just be themselves, to everyone else’s peril. 

Help from others

This is about getting people to support you in your plans for change. Whether through formal coaching interventions, which are an effective way to improve your personal reputation, or by enlisting mentors, colleagues, employees, or friends in your transformational journey, you will be much better off than going it all alone. Just telling people that you are working on fixing certain habits, changing your typical or default behavioral tendencies, and trying to become a better version of you, will likely commit them to playing a role in your ambitious quest to upgrade yourself. 

It is often said that we can’t change our personality, but we can change our behavior. However, since personality is what we typically do, if we are able to build and sustain new habits, we will, in effect, change our personality. We are what we repeatedly do, so we all have a chance to change in much more fundamental ways than we may think.

Because change is hard, only those who truly aspire to understand themselves and are self-critical, ambitious, and have enough grit stand a real chance of reinventing themselves. Great people are always a work in progress. Like great wines, they tend to get better with age. For the rest of us, the best bet is to find the highest number of people who like (or at least tolerate) us, just as we are. 

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