Lately I’ve been doing more self-reflection and reconsidering long held beliefs and narratives that don’t serve me anymore. One that I’ve discovered lodged deep in my psyche, and that I’ve used to absolve myself of responsibility is: “I am how I am; I’ll always struggle with focus, productivity, and discipline. Get used to it.” But I’m tired of being used to it. I’ve decided that this attitude is no longer useful for me.
So when I listened to this episode of Invisibilia on the myth of personality something clicked.
The Personality Myth
We like to think of our own personalities, and those of our family and friends as predictable, constant over time. But…
I realized that I am not finished. I am an unfolding process. I am in flux; I am not static. As the saying goes: change is the only true constant, and I am constantly changing, even if certain patterns in my behavior or thoughts persist or reappear. Take note:
Consistency is not the same thing as constancy
Happenstance is not the same thing as destiny
Adopting a growth mindset
This attitude undergirds what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. For most of my adolescent and early adult life, I had a more fixed mindset, constantly judging myself and expecting (and more often than not failing at obtaining) perfection. Dweck writes:
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But since I left Google, I’ve shifted fundamental beliefs about myself, how I approach my relationships, and how I value the idiosyncrasies of my skillset. It is clear to me that I’m an odd-shaped person, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t also thrive among normal folk. What’s less clear is how to tackle those aspects of my personality that interfere with my intentions and goals.
Adopting a growth mindset has given me permission to take the first steps towards emancipation from self-doubts and self-inflicted limitations. Failure is no longer something to be feared, but a necessary byproduct of experimentation—which, by definition, requires the development and exploration of a thesis, without attachment to any particular outcome. Experimentation (“trying”) is the process through which you learn, and learning is the reaching movement that manifests as growth.
Let’s get real for a second
It’s fine to talk about this idea in the abstract, but what does it look like in practice? Let me tell you about a recent personal experience.
Even in grown-human form, I’ve had a tendency to retreat into myself when I do something that others disagree with morally, or that I know disappoints them. The people-pleaser in me constantly seeks validation and approval from others, and feels deep shame when he fails. If you want to get all up in my shit, this has to do with how I learned to earn love as a child, but that’s a tale for another time. Suffice it to say, recently I made a choice that was gravely disappointing to someone I care deeply about, and I knew it would be.
My typical response would be to turn inward, into a maelström of self-loathing and shame. In these moments, I isolate myself from others, and freeze out whomever I hurt or disappointed, in a cowardly act of defiance and self-preservation. But this time (unlike all the others) I opted out of my standard behavior and experimented with doing the harder thing. My fearful mind screamed that I was inviting punishment and rejection (a fate worse than death for my poor ego), but when I reached out to my friends to take ownership of what I had done, they responded simultaneously with concern and love. The pattern I’d developed so long ago to defend myself from the judgment of others had been a sham!
In adapting growth mindset, I overcame a lifelong habit that no longer served me or my interests
Now, to give credit where credit’s due, my friends have done a lot of personal work on themselves, and know how to separate my behavior from who I am. They understand that the choices I make and behaviors I engage in stem from a complex set of calculations and considerations and context that can’t always be known or fully understood from their perspective. While they held me accountable what I had done, they also expressed their enduring love for me, as a person.
And so from this tiny experiment in overcoming my fear of rejection, I conquered shame and leaned into vulnerability. It means that maybe next time when I’m on the verge of making a questionable decision, I can reach out for support to evaluate my options, with less anxiety. If I were stuck with in my fixed mindset, I never would have reached out, and would have withered inward, defensively holding on to justifications for my behavior which simply weren’t relevant or necessary.
Adopting a growth mindset and realizing that I am a complex process that is constantly unfolding in wonderful, challenging, and unpredictable ways means that I can, over time, and with effort, become a better and better version of myself. My work on myself will never be done. And the good news is: I don’t need to apologize for it anymore. I am an imperfect creature and therein lies a tremendous opportunity to continue doing meaningful work!
A note about my sponsor
This story was inspired and made possible by Flexon Eyewear. More than seeing clearly was the first story in this campaign. They invited me to share their latest product, Flexon Sun, with you. Once again, it took some time to connect sunglasses to a topic I’m passionate about, but then it occurred to me: one of Flexon Eyewear’s great strengths (pun intended!) is its flexibility:
You can literally bend these shades in half and they bounce back to their original shape thanks to its construction in advanced memory metal. Even when twisted and contorted by outside forces, they still “remember” the shape they belong in—a lesson I was ready to learn, and then, to share.