The Myth of Personality

An artist looks in a mirror and paints a self-portrait.
Well, sure, that's your self-portrait today...

If you were to describe me, you might say something like, “he has blue eyes, brown hair…hmm….reads a lot, likes foreign languages…hmm….I don’t know?” None of these things are wrong, in fact they’re all correct, but after this, you’d struggle.  Not because I inherently defy description, but because it’s difficult to describe anyone past their obvious physical appearance and a few basic observations about their likes, dislikes, and habits.

Go ahead, try it, attempt to describe any of your friends.  You’ll feel you have a sense for what they’re like, but you will find it difficult to attach any concrete statements to their various qualities.

Now for something really mind-bending: try and describe yourself, beyond your physical appearance. Be honest, but try and be as detailed as possible.  Not very easy, is it? And so brings us to the thesis of this post: for all practical purposes, personality is a myth.

Everyone is Always Changing

I know, that’s a controversial statement, but necessarily so. The reason it’s so difficult to describe your friends or even yourself in any meaningful way is that people are not constants, they are constantly in flux.

What you like one day is not what you like the next.  How you act one day is not how you act the next, and how you act in three years is probably even more different. You develop bad habits and break them, you learn new skills and apply them, you treat others poorly one day, and royally the next. To describe yourself as “loyal” or “unreliable” or “petty” or “friendly” is really just an approximation – every person has such a range of possible behaviors, opinions, and opportunities for growth or recession that words simply fall short of appropriate description.

This is not meant to be linguistic exercise, but rather a celebration of the flexibility of the individual. Who you are today is who are you today, and nothing more. If you decide that you want to be someone totally different tomorrow, that is completely within your power.

I am not a flamenco dancer, neither am I a water-skier, but there is nothing to stop me from being resolute about becoming both in small steps throughout the next three months. Similarly, I could decide to examine my opinions on, say, my ideal morning routine, and completely change the way I do things.  I could stop snoozing my alarm, stretch for twenty minutes after getting out of bed, eat fruits and yogurt for breakfast, and get a run in before my morning shower. Those things are completely within in my capability, and the only thing standing between me and realizing them is other choices I’ve made, consciously or unconsciously.

Speech Becomes Reality

So how do these changes in your personality come to be? Well, in large part they are shaped by your thoughts about yourself and others’ statements about you. Have you ever had someone say, “Don’t be so difficult,” when you didn’t feel you were being difficult at all? And then maybe you sat and thought about it, and realized you weren’t acting very reasonable? Or conversely, maybe you had plans to go out with friends, or to the gym, and for no particular reason, started thinking, “I’m really tired, I don’t really know if I want to do that.  I know I had already made plans, but I’m tired.”

And maybe you were actually tired, but likely you felt more tired after the thought occurred to you. The thoughts you vocalize, out loud or mentally, have a strong effect on your perceptions. Just look at this recent post on Lifehacker about impulse spending, and about how you’re more likely to lose your thrift if you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. The fact is that your state of mind can color your thoughts, and those thoughts end up becoming statements that define your actions.

Your will power has a similar effect. A desire to have a certain result, say physical fitness or good grades or a more comfortable paycheck, can rewire your statements about yourself and create a different personality.

What Does Your Self-Talk Sound Like?

For practical purposes, you personality could be more accurately defined as the tone of the self-talk that guides your choices and actions. If you’re doubtful of your own capabilities in your self-talk, thinking things like “I wish I could learn to be organized,” or “I know I need to study for that exam, but I just don’t have the drive,” then your actions will follow suit.

As an exercise, try and imagine what someone is successful in your field thinks on a daily basis. Does Steve Jobs wake up in the morning and think, “I just don’t know how I’m going to come up with any good ideas today.” Well, maybe he does, but he clearly does let that thought process continue.  As Descartes’ Latin adage goes, Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” so to do your thoughts create the subtleties of your existence.

New research suggests it takes up to 66 days to form a new habit, so clearly rewiring your thoughts, and therefore your personality, can take some time, but this may explain why the changes in others’ personalities often go unnoticed, as they are very gradual. Gestaltism suggests that our brains try to make sense of chaos and look for patterns and constancy, so our perceptions of others are likely no different.

Recognize now that no one has a concrete personality, and you are no exception. It is possible to change and improve and to divine the seemingly impossible from yourself, but it starts, as with most things, with imagination.

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