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What's Your Theory of Evolution?

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Sam Sommers Headshot

What's Your Theory of Evolution?

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Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

What I think is most important about Cuddy's message -- fake it 'til you become it -- is the deceptively simple word "become." This word conveys an image of the self as fluid, as evolving. And too often in life, too many of us fail to grasp just how flexible and dynamic the self really is.

Instead, what we do is talk in terms like: I'm just not that type of person. Or I may be good at this, but I'll never be good at that. These immutable views of the self hold us back. The assumption that certain aptitudes or tendencies are fixed becomes a self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy when the going gets tough (and, eventually, the going always gets tough).

So are you looking to be a happier, more productive, more successful person? Are you, like many of us as we begin a new year, in the market for self-improvement? Then the best advice is to spend less effort trying to locate your "authentic" self, in the manner that so many TV pundits and supposed self-help experts prescribe. Instead, learn to embrace the notion of the self as flexible.

It's viewing the self as a static, stable entity that puts us on the defensive and leads to the need for self-deception in the face of setback. But when you accept that the answer to "Who am I?" should be written in pencil and not pen, threats become opportunities. - Dr. Sam Sommers

Consider a study psychologist Joshua Aronson and colleagues conducted with students at Stanford, who were asked to serve as pen pals with "at-risk" middle-schoolers. The college students were instructed to offer encouragement to the younger kids by explaining in their letters that they, too, had struggled at times in school, but eventually persevered and achieved academic success. They were told to emphasize the idea that natural ability is overrated -- that intelligence "is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity."

Did these letters help the middle-school pen pals bounce back from adversity? It's impossible to say -- the letters were never actually delivered. But the mere experience of writing them sure had a lasting impact on the college students themselves: months later, letter-writers still reported greater enjoyment of school than did other Stanford undergrads. Their grade point averages were higher, too, by a full third-of-a-point on a four-point scale.

You see, it's viewing the self as a static, stable entity that puts us on the defensive and leads to the need for self-deception in the face of setback. But when you accept that the answer to "Who am I?" should be written in pencil and not pen, threats become opportunities. Failures transform into life lessons. Even if this isn't how you usually see things, it's not too late to start now.

Because consider another study -- this one from Hong Kong -- that illustrates how easy it is to change how you think about the self. Researchers gave students one of two different, ostensibly scientific articles -- articles that either depicted intelligence in fixed or flexible terms. Those led to think of intelligence as a fixed quantity took the easy way out: they didn't persist on tasks in the wake of poor performance; they avoided taking on new challenges later. Only students who were told that intelligence was malleable showed the stick-to-it-iveness necessary to improve their performance down the line.

In short, too often we just don't think about our potential for self-improvement in the right ways. What should the self-help experts be telling us?

• That the aftermath of failure is precisely when you need to remember that the self is flexible.

• That you're better off focusing on effort and other controllable factors rather than fixed aptitude.

• To forget about "not being a ____ kind of person," whatever the presumed deficit in your supposedly authentic self may be.

Bad grade on your paper? Lousy earnings projections for the quarter? First one voted off the reality show? It's dangerous to chalk up such setbacks to a lack of ability or a permanent limitation of your authentic self. Instead, force yourself to make a list of the changeable factors -- internal and external -- that could lead to better outcomes the next time around.

The same goes for reacting to positive outcomes. As parents, it's easy (if not instinctual) to respond to our kids' successes with disposition-based praise: you're so smart; you're such a great artist. Learn to stifle that tendency. Because it feeds our children's belief that something fixed within them is responsible for their outcomes. And then what will they assume when they hit the inevitable bumps in the road? That they're lacking in a requisite skill; that their selves must be hopelessly deficient in particular domains. Instead, praise them on effort and perseverance in the face of setback. Remind them that skills aren't set in stone, but rather operate like muscles, strengthening with exercise and trial-and-error.

Because in the end, from California to Hong Kong and everywhere in between, good things happen when you learn to embrace the evolution of the self. This a message worth instilling in your kids. And it's one worth reminding yourself after the unfettered optimism of the New Year's resolution has transformed into the begrudging resignation that sometimes plagues our remaining 51 weeks of the year.

Sam Sommers is a professor of psychology at Tufts University. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, just came out in paperback this month (www.samsommers.com, @samsommers).

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