“Personality” and the Growth Mindset

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I’ve been using this coffee mug for several years now. I specifically bought it for the inspiring quote and cool all caps font.

But I am aware of some ambivalence about this quote. Just beneath the surface, I find myself asking “is it really? Is life about creating myself, and not about finding myself?”

This nagging question cuts to the heart of a debate that has run through academic psychology for years: Is personality a thing? Is there really a fixed and consistent constellation of traits and aptitudes which hangs together neatly over the course of a human life?

Or, on the other hand, are you and I largely shaped by our environment – the people and circumstances and heartbreaks and successes we encounter – suggesting that a different set of circumstances might well have yielded in you or in me an entirely different “personality”? And can we engage with that process – choosing and directing and shaping it as we go?

PIP COVERBenjamin Hardy, Ph.D., comes down firmly on one side of that debate in his new book Personality Isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story. The author suggests that the idea that personality is one’s true and authentic self is a myth. In fact, he argues that the search for authenticity reflects a “fixed mindset.”

While a “fixed mindset” (Dweck, 2006) identifies and focuses on the ways in which we are born with certain gifts or talents, with weaknesses in other areas, a growth mindset emphasizes the ways in which any of us – regardless of congenital gifts or advantages – can develop social skills, dancing competence, athletic prowess, and facility with small engine repair. Dr. Hardy suggests that believing one must “discover one’s personality” is a giveaway that we are operating from a fixed mindset.

Reading this book, then, I relaxed into the possibility that – as my coffee mug suggests – life is not about finding myself but, rather, is about creating myself. In my workshops on the topic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we emphasize the crucial functions of the corticostriatal loop – the neurological pathway which connects the reward and planning centers of the human brain. We review the fact that the corticostriatal loop is, in fact, a “loop” and operates in both directions. We can activate this loop from the “back end” with stimulant medications, and treatment response to stimulant medications (as indicated by increased on-task behavior, and decreased avoidance of nonpreferred tasks and increased ability to act in the here-and-now on some hoped-for reward in the future) is proof positive that the pathway has been activated.

And this neurological loop can be activated from the front end as well. By anticipating a future reward. By thinking how great it will feel to wrap up your homework, to hear the POW when you slam the math book shut, to feel yourself bounding down the stairs to enjoy a free hour watching television with your sister, and to imagine the delight in your teacher’s eyes when you hand in your completed homework the next day, and to anticipate the pleasure of hearing the coach announce three weeks from now that you are still on the team because you have maintained your grades. All of this imagining and smelling and hearing – in advance – activates the corticostriatal loop from the front end. We literally act as Ritalin to our own brains. We can activate our salivary glands by anticipating some delicious food. We can actually experience the swelling of pride in our chest – in advance – by anticipating some future victory or achievement.

Try it now: think of something that you’re really really looking forward to in the next few days or weeks.

  • Who will be there?
  • How long will this experience last?
  • What are you going to wear?
  • Where will you be when this awesome event is happening?
  • What will be the very best part of it? And how will you know when that very best bit is happening, right now?

In Personality Isn’t Permanent, Dr. Hardy offers the reader this challenge: “How much time do you spend imagining your future self?” Philosopher Robert Grudin (1982) refers to this this as the art of “extending ourselves into the future.” It is not enough to know what would feel good for me today. We also find ourselves considering what would feel really, deep down, sustainably good tomorrow, and next week, and around the time of our planned retirement.

I imagine that future self – the me of next week, or a version of me next year – and I organize my current behavior in the service of that future self. Many times each day, adults are able to say, “well that’s enough fun stuff for now, let’s do something really horrible.” Let’s put down the delicious and fun thing and do something really dull – some profoundly nonpreferred task – in the service of our imagined future selves.

This imagining which Dr. Hardy recommends to the reader may be a strategy of activating our own corticostriatal loop, a way to increase our own levels of dopamine in the here and now, and can actually help us “get moving” with our here-and-now choices and actions, in the service of those longer-term goals.

The author references a study (Quoidbach, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2013) which found that while subjects are able to clearly identify changes over the past 10 years of their lives, they don’t expect significant change in the upcoming 10 years. What about you? Do you think the next 10 years will include as much growth and change is did the previous 10 years? If not, on what basis do you believe that your learning has now stopped, or even that it has slowed down a bit?

And although Dr. Hardy clearly comes down on the side of personality as flexible, malleable, and based on context, he does not suggest that personality change is easy. Consistent with everything that research tells us about neuroplasticity, he points out that intentional change is emotionally and mentally rigorous.

You may remember how difficult it was to learn how to ride a bicycle. You likely approached riding a bike with a profound commitment to the growth mindset. There was no part of you which considered “maybe I wasn’t a born bicycle rider.” You firmly believed that you could, and would, become a bicycle rider. You tried, you tipped over, you tried again, you fell down, you had some initial success, then you tumbled, maybe you bled, you might have cried. And you persisted.

You may not remember how difficult it was to learn to walk. But man, that did not come easy. You tried, you stumbled, you and you did it again. There was no part of you which entertained a fixed mindset allowing the possibility that “some people just aren’t born walkers.” You. Were. Going. To. Walk.

We might, then, approach any “personality” characteristic in the same way. What characteristics do you and I lack, at present? Not really outgoing? Not – by nature – generous? What are the ways in which we tell ourselves, and others, “that’s just way I am”? What we know full well from research around brain plasticity, and what Dr. Hardy emphasizes in this book, is that those traits and characteristics we identify as “personality” may well be as trainable and learnable as calligraphy, origami, or playing a piano. If you are willing to work as hard as we did on our walking and our bike riding, the truly remarkable possibility here is that any of us could develop those characteristics.

And once we’ve identified a “personality” characteristic we desire for ourselves, and once we have firmly laid claim to the promises of neuroplasticity, and once we have given ourselves over entirely to the “growth mindset” we may take these areas of growth seriously, and manage them as goals.

Dr. Hardy suggests that at that point every other choice can be viewed in light of the question “Will this add or take away from my future self?” The author recalls the success of the British rowing team in the 2000 Olympics (Hunt-Davis & Beveridge, 2020), completely dedicated to success in the specific domain of rowing, and approaching each choice point over the day with this question in mind: “will it make the boat go faster?”

A takeaway for me, then, is the author’s recommendation to spend some time journaling about our future self.

  • What does your future self look like?
  • What clothing does my future self wear, and
  • With whom is my future self spending time?

 

I was challenged after reading Dr. Hardy’s book to consider my own goals – vivid and loud and colorful – and to take them seriously. As I consider how to spend my free time, what foods to eat, what choices to make around exercise and sleep and social interaction, at each of these choice points to ask myself “will it make the boat go faster” towards the future self that I am in the process of creating?

 

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