Can You Change?

Have you seen the Bell commercials in recent months that show different characters deeply dependent on streaming videos? Our characters feel a connection with someone they are watching through their smartphones whether it be a newscaster, fictional heroine, or plumber. Unfortunately, their spotty, unreliable internet provider is jeopardizing their “relationship.” As their ideals point out the relationship will have to come to an end because of the poor service, our characters cry out, “I can change, I can change.” Can you change?

Victor Hugo’s epic novel and musical, Les Miserables, gives us two characters that represent two perspectives we can take with respect to personalities. Javert is a figure of authority, a police officer that sees others as scorpions. He judges them today solely based on how they behaved yesterday. Javert has little faith that people can change. Vastly different from Javert we have Jean Valjean. Valjean is a figure with a dark past that is committed to spending the rest of his life trying to become a better person. His past involved criminal activity which he has traded with hopes of proving himself as a value to society. Much of Les Miserables is a dance between Javert and Valjean. Our characters wrestle with whether people can change.

In a past article we talked about protecting ourselves from scorpions. We have limited control over others. We can make assessments on how they will behave in the future based on how they’ve behaved in the past. Scorpions sting. Therefore, stay away from scorpions. We can’t hope they will stop being scorpions. Jim Rohn writes in The Seasons of Life, “The only way to avoid being touched by life—the good as well as the bad—is to withdraw from society, and even then you will disappoint yourself, and your imagining about what is going on out there will haunt you and hurt you. Knowing this, there is but one solution that will support you when people and events hurt you, and that is to learn to work harder on your personal growth than anything else. Since you cannot control the weather, or the traffic, or the one you love, or your neighbors, or your boss, then you must learn to control you… the one whose response to the difficulties of life really counts.”

We can’t escape interactions with others in our personal and professional lives. It is a safe bet we will be stung by Scorpions. Rohn is suggesting that our job is to accept this and focus on developing ourselves. Rohn would pick Valjean’s path over that of Javert. How do you feel about your personality and change? Do you think you were largely born the way that you are today with respect to personality? Have you been forged into the person you are from a combination of biology and past experiences that is largely fixed? Are you a scorpion? Do you believe that your nature is set in stone?

We’re implored to know who we are. This is good advice. It’s good to be aware of what makes us tick. Yes, we want to have a sense of what our tendencies today may be. However, what are we to do with this information? Are we destined to be this same person forever? If we “know” who we are, are we labeling ourselves? Is this helpful? Are we giving our types too much weight? What if our type is little more than an expensive definition of our Zodiac sign? If our futures are predetermined, what’s the point of trying? It echoes the words the cartoon character Popeye used to explain his behaviors. “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” He would say or sing these words to reflect that he acts based on what his core nature dictates. He’s not changing. Similar to Popeye, The song Novocaine by The Unlikely Candidates gives us the lyrics, “I am what I am, I know what I know, …. I can’t change, Guess you could blame it on my left side brain, I should know better but you know I know, I know, I ain’t ever gonna change….” These lyrics are of someone looking for an excuse not to change. They just don’t want to so they declare that they “can’t.” For those that view change as not possible, it’s both defeatist and cynical. There are plenty that would argue this is largely or mostly true. As we’ve noted it may be helpful when considering the actions of others. We can’t control how they behave. We can’t make them change. We would do well to assume that they are like our scorpions and fixed in their personalities. We don’t, however, want to hold this perspective with respect to ourselves.

Harvard Psychologist, Ellen Langer observed, “If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration.” If we are each who we are and that’s that, then there’s little point in trying to change or improve. Our personal responsibility is decreased. If we adopt Javert’s perspective on personality for ourselves, we will believe we’re Popeye. In Be a Dog With a Bone, Peggy McColl writes “If you believe that you can’t, you won’t even try, and this attitude will hold you back from achieving what you want.” Before we’re willing to give our effort to something, we need to have some belief that our efforts matter. This is a downside of buying the perspective that we’re set in stone as scorpions. It excuses us. It absolves us of responsibility. If we are only who we are based on our genetic composition, then we’re, effectively, nothing. If we’re set in stone from the beginning, we’re just along for the ride. It is a pessimistic perspective. If we’re fixed, we’re not capable of change. If we’re not capable of change, why bother exerting effort at anything.

However, the suggestion that our personalities are set in stone isn’t universally accepted.  There are plenty of perspectives all along the continuum between the extremes of personalities are fixed to we and our environments influence them. Psychologist, Benjamin Hardy, writes in Personality Isn’t Permanent “personality, it turns out, is far more dynamic and malleable than was previously thought.” The field of Neuroplasticity is an exploration of how what was thought to be fixed development of biological brain structures can be altered with effort over time. Even our physical brains aren’t set in stone.  Yes, we’re born with some kind of personality. We have defaults that have been hardwired into us since birth. How much of this can you change through choice and application of your will? Who knows? If we accept that our biology isn’t a 100% driver we receive two things as a result. First, we have hope. There’s now hope for change. We aren’t stuck in a predefined box. Second, with that hope comes responsibility. We have responsibility to adapt ourselves to create what it is we want from life.

Adopting a belief that we are capable of change gives us a chance to adapt. We’re not dependent on external circumstances. We are able to act and influence the world in order to give ourselves a chance to succeed. We want to accept responsibility for our own development. We want to be able to adapt and grow to a changing world. We don’t need to be destined to a limited experience as a result of our past. We can become the person we want to be. A belief that we’re capable of changing ourselves is even more important in a world where studies suggest less than 13% of people report being satisfied with who they are. If we’re not happy with who we are, we may want to adopt the anthem of legendary Nanaimo based band, Trooper, where they sing, “if you’re not happy where your life is at, then rearrange it.”

The Frog and the Scorpion parable paints the perspective that History Repeats. We are what we do, yes. But that’s not the same as we are what we’ve done. What’s worth noting is that history repeats itself, until it doesn’t. Think of the disclaimers placed at the end of investment prospectuses that include verbiage like “This document contains forward looking statements. Past performance does not predict or guarantee future performance.” This cover you’re a$s language is intended to reduce exposure to those offering it. Typically, the marketing document is bragging about past performance of a investment vehicle. The disclaimer is the fine print at the end of the document offering that what happened in the past has nothing to do with the future. What if we, as scorpions, aren’t biologically engineered to sting, but simply choose to do so? What if you can choose change for yourself?

If we view the idea that we are what we do and we choose what we do, then the capacity for change does lie within us. With respect to ourselves, we don’t want to limit our ability to grow and improve by seeing ourselves and our personalities as being set in stone. We want to take the view that will give ourselves a chance to succeed. We want to accept responsibility for our own development. We want to be able to adapt and grow to a changing world. We don’t need to be destined to a limited experience as a result of our past. We can become the person we want to be.

Our actions today may be influenced by our past and our biology, but today is independent from yesterday. If our actions are the result of our choices, we can choose different actions. Dumbledore helped Harry Potter understand that he wasn’t born to be a Gryffindor. Dumbledore said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Whatever nature gives us is one thing, but what we become is driven by our own actions which follow our choices. You get to decide what kind of person you want to be. Psychologist and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, referred to our ability “to choose one’s own way” as the “last of human freedoms”. We have choices which imply that our actions matter more than whatever our innate capacities are. Stan Beecham writes in Elite Minds “If the belief changes, there can then be a change in behavior. No change in belief equals no change in behavior.”

Our belief in our ability to change and who we are is a stronger driver of behavior over time than pure drive or willpower. We need both that something matters to us as well as self belief in order to be motivated to pursue change. We may be able to compel ourselves to change for one time or a few times, but lasting change follows a belief that we are now a different person. The starting point to being willing and able to pursue positive change in both our personal and business lives is a belief that we can change. Before we worry what to change as part of our New Years resolutions efforts, we should spend time developing a belief in our ability to change. An absence of belief in ourselves may help explain the sad reality that 93% of New Year’s resolutions fail to be achieved.

As important as setting goals for ourselves (and our businesses) is; so, too, is developing the belief that change is possible. Whether we’re doing this for ourselves or for businesses, we can build our belief in our capacity for change by reflecting on examples of where we’ve been successful in the past. What have we changed successfully? Where have we learned something new? What new skills or business initiatives have been undertaken and brought to a positive conclusion in recent years? Drawing on our past successes proves to ourselves that we can do it again today.

Scott Adams offers in his book, Loserthink, that you are what you do. We can change what we do. Each day is new. We aren’t destined to live Groundhog Day over and over again. With respect to ourselves, we don’t want to be defined by our past. Each day, each choice, is an independent event. It’s not predetermined based on what happened in the past. Just because you’ve landed on tails for the past five days in a row or the past 500, or even 5,000 days in a row, doesn’t mean that you are destined to be a tails today. Today is it’s own day. It’s own event. Things can be different. The coin of you doesn’t just have two sides. You can influence the side of the coin that surfaces. No matter what has happened in your past, you can make changes today. You can choose differently today than yesterday. Our past doesn’t have to equal our future. Our future is influenced by the choices we make today. In Burn Your Goals, Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert point out, “You decide what you are going to do and who you are going to be everyday. Even choosing to do nothing is still making a choice. THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Who are you deciding to become?

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” -Daniel Gilbert, PhD