While on vacation, I had a pivotal moment with my 7-year-old nephew and 11-year-old cousin. In a rare moment of conversation (instead of riding ocean waves or playing football), I asked them what they think are the ideal qualities for being successful in life. Without taking a breath, my nephew blurted, "Running fast; I can run faster than my mom". You could see the pride in his facial expression, a little Tigger ready to race anyone, anytime. Now running fast probably lands no higher than 180 on the chart of successful traits but then again, this wasn't a game of Family Feud and he took this in stride. Being precocious little creatures, they asked me what I meant by this thing called personality that I kept referring to. Little did they know that scientists continue to ask the same question...
If you're anything like me, you listened to psychologists when they talked about a rigid, unchanging thing called personality. From early childhood to the grave, people remain essentially the same. How did they know? Historically, researchers gave people a slew of questionnaires asking them to rate how much they agree with statements such as "I'm an even-tempered person" and "I try to be courteous to everyone I meet." A few months or even years later, people were given the same questions and guess what? Their answers were similar to what they said the last time. This oversimplified approach perpetuated the myth that our personality crystallizes into stone by the time we reach our twenties. This might be very satisfying if people describe you as being cheerful, playful, and charismatic. But if people describe you as neurotic, disagreeable, and closed-minded, this could be disheartening ― forget self-help books and the gobbledygook of therapists because your personality is bred in the bone. Thankfully, recent research has overturned this oversimplified thinking.
Of course there is some continuity in how we think, feel and behave. Problems arise when we form an idea about who we are, say pessimistic, and then fixate on this idea, ignoring and discarding moments that fail to fit in. The problem is just as bad when we label our lovers, friends, and acquaintances. Nobody wants to be boxed in because you happened to witness them do something silly, annoying, or immoral. Do you want to label children as unintelligent because they fail a test or a single class? Do you want to label an adult as shy because they said little at a party where they barely knew anybody? Researchers have found that we define a stranger's personality after a mere 10 seconds. With this thin slice of information, we start to think and act differently toward them. If we label them as open-minded and curious, we prefer to spend more time with them; if we label them as disagreeable and neurotic, we prefer to keep our distance. An entire pattern starts to form after a mere 10 seconds!
When we think of ourselves and other people in rigid, immutable terms ("I am not funny," "She is cold and emotionless") this paves the way for a self-fulfilling prophecy. But more importantly, it's simply wrong. Rigid terms can't do justice to describe a person. I like to think of personality as a series of buckets. Every time you think something, feel something, or do something, there is a moment to be placed in a bucket. Think of moments as something tangible, perhaps a golf ball. When we say someone is sociable, what we are saying is that they have a large number of golf balls in the bucket for being sociable (when they are talkative and comfortable around other people). But everyone (I mean everyone) has moments when they prefer to be by themselves or worry about being rejected or judged harshly by other people. When this happens, a golf ball goes into the solitude or socially anxious bucket. Sure, the majority of golf balls land in the sociable bucket, but don't forget that in a given month or year, a sizable number of golf balls are going to fill the solitude bucket and the socially anxious bucket.
What this means is that at any given moment, you "may be" or "could be" sociable, but you also might want to be alone or you might feel uncomfortable around other people. This idea of personality is far closer to the truth about who we are and what other people are about. It also opens up the possibility for all of us to be free, alive, and creative. When we recognize that everyone has a little bit of every personality trait, we become open to change and we become tolerant and accepting.
Try to avoid the trap of using rigid terms for yourself and others. We can laugh and tease friends at "happy hour," and we can be solemn and assertive when trying to get an errant late fee waived by a stubborn credit card representative. When we recognize the breadth of our personality, we essentially gain access to a greater variety of strategies to get the possible outcome in a situation.
When we believe that traits such as intelligence, compassion, and perseverance are fixed, that there are only so many golf balls we can add to these buckets, we feel powerless to change. We start to view failures as personal flaws instead of stemming from difficult situations or a lack of effort. When we view our personality as a fluid quality that changes depending on what we do and the situation we find ourselves in, we become more energetic, productive, creative, and successful in life.
As a starting point to improving your quality of life: be aware that there is a bucket for every side of every single personality trait that you can conceive and there are at least a few golf balls in each. Each and every bucket is a part of your personality and with certain intentional strategies, we can begin adding more golf balls into buckets that reflect characteristics that you admire, strengths that work well for you, or behaviors that energize you.
It's fun to contemplate the master list of personality traits that enable people to be particularly happy and successful. This includes assessing how many of these traits are in our personal arsenal. However, this exercise is one step removed from reality. Our lives are full of possibility when we are aware of the multiple sides of our personality and that we are still evolving. This flexible mindset sets the stage for a life well-lived.
Interested in specific strategies for how to add golf balls to particular buckets? Do you want to build strengths and become more psychologically flexible? Stay tuned for more posts....
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his books and research, go to www.toddkashdan.com
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