Why you can’t change who you are — only how you behave.

Jason Hreha

I recently went under the knife for my sleep apnea. It’s a problem that’s silently plagued me my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a darn hard time waking up.

All through middle and high school, my parents would have to come into my room and pull the covers off me — leaving me shivering on the bare mattress. Only after two or three rounds of this did I become frustrated enough to get out of bed.

When college came, things only got worse. I was introduced to alcohol, which doesn’t help sleep much. In fact, for someone who (unknowingly) had trouble breathing while slumbering, it was about as healthy as poison. Alcohol relaxes the muscles around the throat, which causes it to collapse during the night.

I also gained the “Freshman 15”, reaching my all-time heaviest weight. This is another known apnea risk factor.

Because of all this, I worked hard to not take any classes before 10:00AM. I couldn’t bear to get out of bed before 9:00 or 9:30.

I was baffled by so-called “morning people” and wondered how these magical creatures could jump out of bed, full of energy, at 5:00 or 6:00AM.

Since I was a behavior guy, I assumed that I was doing something wrong. Maybe I should start doing an evening ritual, start exercising more each day, stop drinking coffee before 1:00PM… and so on.

I tried all these things. They didn’t really work. I still didn’t sleep well. Except, now, I saw myself as a failure. I saw all of my pain and lethargy as my fault.

Can you relate?

All through my 20s, this pattern continued. Sure, I was really good at forming habits in my own life and using behavioral science to drive big business wins, but my health was really starting to suffer and it all seemed to revolve around my sleep. I just couldn’t figure out how to “behavioral science” my way out of this problem.

Finally, I saw a new dentist who just so happened to change my life (and my mind).

I was complaining to her about some jaw pain I had been having. She peered into my mouth. After looking around for a few seconds, she asked me a question that would forever alter the course of my life: “have you ever had a sleep test?”


“I think you have sleep apnea. You should get it checked.”

She went on to explain that the jaw and upper back pain I was complaining about was related to the way my jaw was situated, and this was causing my airway to be smaller than it should be — which was causing my to have trouble breathing while sleeping.

She told me to make an appointment with the Stanford Sleep Center and then see her again after.

That short dental visit sent me down a 3 year journey that culminated in the surgery I just underwent.

And, I have to say, that I’ve never felt better. I can wake up at 5:30 or 6:00AM with no problems now.

Maybe this is just a honeymoon phase. Maybe I’ll revert to my old tired ways at some point. After all, my body just went through a huge change.

I sure hope not… but I’ll let you know if that does, indeed, occur.

What I do know is that, for over a decade, I was angry at myself. I was disappointed in my ability to solve what I considered a fairly straightforward “behavioral” problem — poor sleep.

The problem was that I wasn’t dealing with a behavioral or psychological problem. I was dealing with a fundamental biological problem. My jaw was messed up (from a sports injury I got when younger, actually), and it was preventing me from getting the oxygen I needed while sleeping.

All of my self-flagellation was for nothing. I wasn’t to blame. This was a problem that couldn’t be solved by behavioral tweaks and willpower. I needed a physical, biological intervention.

And the dirty secret in the self help world is that this isn’t just relegated to thinks like jaw position and airway size. It turns out that a lot of our psychological traits can’t reliably be changed through willpower and minor behavioral tweaks.

Decades of research clearly shows that people’s fundamental natures, their personalities, don’t really change very much. They’re more or less immutable.

If you’re not a social person, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to turn yourself into a suave, gregarious networker.

If you’re a very anxious person, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to become a cool, calm, collected person like James Bond.

Think of personality traits as behavioral thresholds. Someone who’s very neurotic is going to have a lower threshold for worrying. They’re going to see more things in the environment as threatening. Someone who’s very extraverted is going to have a much lower threshold for talking to new people. They’re going to see more opportunities for social engagement as they go through their day.

The solution for the extraverted person who wants to be more social isn’t forcing themselves to go to party after party. It’s not forcing themselves to talk to strangers.

No matter how much they strain and push themselves, they’re not going to suddenly change who they are. Instead of trying to change their fundamental nature, the solution for them is to find the right *context*, the right *environment*, in which they naturally open up and meet new people. So an introverted freelancer who wants to be more social might want to join a larger company where they can make new friends. They might want to join a local sports team or take an evening class on something that interests them.

The idea is for them to follow their interests and preferences in a way that gives them more opportunity to engage socially, instead of forcing them to do stereotypically “social” things that are obviously not a good fit for their personality.

That’s the law of life. Those who follow it gain more success and have more fun. Those who go against it end up needlessly stressing, while also experiencing less success.

Don’t try to change who you are. Instead, tweak your context to better match who you are. I promise that you’ll find this much more fulfilling.

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Jason Hreha

Written by

Head of Product, Behavioral Sciences @ Walmart. World leader in applied behavioral science. Entrepreneur (1 exit). My site: www.thebehavioralscientist.com

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