The Mentorist

Don’t Go Changing (You Probably Can’t Anyway)

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‘Hi. My name is Jane, and I’m a self-helpoholic. It’s been 51 days since I’ve cruised the psychology section of my local book store.’

Apparently, I’m not alone in hoping that a book, an app or a self-proclaimed guru can help me to fundamentally change. Just search the phrase ‘how to change your life’ under the books section of amazon.com. As of 2:00 p.m. today, you’ll have 5,726 titles to choose from. (And counting….)

Self-help is a $12 billion industry, yet evidence is piling up that very few people are capable of categorical change. There’s even a name for the belief that, yes, this time, you’ve got the stuff it takes to transform: false-hope syndrome. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12237978]

Want to shed your introverted skin and become the life of the party? Morph from a self-centered jerk into Mother Teresa v.2? Good luck with that.

In fact, when we do manage to change, the most we usually accomplish is to amplify our existing characteristics –- as if we’ve put our old ‘selves’ on steroids. (Anyone watching elderly parents age knows exactly what I’m talking about….)

So, why –- despite our sincere desire to change — do we stay fundamentally the same (and, ultimately, become exaggerated versions of ourselves)? According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London and NYU [http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/12/if-you-want-to-change-dont-read-this/], three different influences are at work here:

  • The cues you choose: As we make our way through the world, we interpret the events around us according to our own personal biases –- which serves only to reinforce those biases. For all you pessimists out there: Remember when you fixated on the negatives during what was actually a fairly balanced feedback session? Your tendency to see the world through woes-colored glasses will, over time, send you even deeper down the pessimist rathole.
  • The company you keep: We’re drawn to environments that fit with our own attitudes and values. Face it: Not many monks are going to show up for the orgy. As a result, the hedonists out there seek pleasure in the company of their fellow sybarites and, in turn, become even more hedonistic. The same goes for people who crave conflict. They gravitate to combative situations, which, when found, further fuel their aggressions.
  • The rap on your rep: The old phrase ‘your reputation precedes you’ ain’t kidding. Anyone who has even an inkling of your reputation is going to use that information to make inferences about your character. It’s how the other person can explain your behavior to himself and predict what you’re going to do next. Even if those intuitive evaluations are wrong, they tend to be self-fulfilling. Other people’s fantasies and prejudices about us get ingrained in our identity, until — voilà! — we morph into who others think we are. Chamorro-Premuzic sums it up well: ‘Reputation really is fate.’

Depressed yet? I thought so.

Once Chamorro-Premuzic finishes snowing on the parade, he tries to answer the question: How, in fact, can a person change?

Acknowledging that some people are more capable of transforming than others –- and that, although the recipe for self-change is fairly straightforward, it’s hard to implement — here’s what he recommends:

  • Step One: Build self-awareness. This is best done by asking others for honest and critical feedback –- and then believing what they have to say.
  • Step Two: Get real; stay small. Come up with a realistic strategy that focuses on attainable goals. Rather than aiming for a personality overhaul (e.g., show more empathy, be more sociable), try changing just a few specific behaviors (e.g., shout less, smile more).
  • Step Three: Persist. Chamorro-Premuzic warns that attaining — and maintaining –- your desired changes will take huge amounts of effort and dedication. Says he: ‘It means going against [your] nature and demands extraordinary levels of willpower.’ Not to be irreverent here, but, to that, I can only say, ‘Doh!’

Got all this down? Good, because I have to run. The UPS guy is here with my amazon.com order: Have a New You by Friday.

This time, I know I can do it.

How to change your life

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to: www.mentorist.co

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