There may come a time in your life when you feel like you need to change yourself completely. Whether due to your career, for personal reasons, or for your own continuing self-improvement, the question of how to change yourself completely and deliberately is a complicated, emotional topic.
How can you adapt your personality and still hold onto your values in the face of massive change?
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
Have you ever witnessed someone—maybe it was yourself—rise to a position that that person was totally unsuited for?
When long-time Coca-Cola insider Doug Ivester took over as CEO in the 90’s, the move seemed like a no-brainer:
Ivester had long envisioned occupying the role of Coca-Cola’s CEO. But the promotion also represented a crossroads in his life as a leader, one that demanded that he exercise different skills and, critically, take on new priorities. To succeed he would have had to move out of his comfort zone and learn new skills.
Instead of embracing these challenges, Ivester became more of a “super-COO” than a CEO. He refused to name a replacement for his old position, even under strong pressure from Coke’s board of directors. His extraordinary attention to detail, which had been a virtue in his finance and operations roles, now proved to be a hindrance. He maintained daily contact with the sixteen people who reported to him and remained intimately involved in operational details. Mired in day-to-day business, Ivester appeared to neglect the strategic and visionary responsibilities demanded of an effective CEO of Coca-Cola.
Authors Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins tell this story in Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them. The story of Ivester’s tenure as CEO definitely counts as a predictable surprise AND a disaster.
Ivester fell prey to a classic prioritization failure: He expected to be successful in his new job by continuing to do what he did in his previous job, only more of it.
Anyone who’s spent a day in corporate America has seen a version of this story play out: Hyper-competent superstar gets promoted to a new role—for their own career advancement/status/prestige as the story goes. Superstar is a disaster in new role—turns out the skills he or she is hyper-competent at don’t necessarily translate. In the end, superstar flames out or leaves. The cycle repeats.
Ivester’s mistake wasn’t taking the CEO job in the first place—that’s fixed mindset thinking that says you are what you are and you have to live with it.
In a 2012 study, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, on average, you will hold 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 46. In other words, you should expect to change companies (or whole careers) every two-and-a-half years.
No, Ivester’s error was not adapting himself to the new situation he found himself in. That’s growth mindset.
How do we stop this cycle from repeating? Or worse, how do we stop ourselves from getting caught up in it?
In a turbulent environment, how do you respond to change without compromising your principles?
It takes a completely new set of skills. Namely, you have to learn how to change yourself completely without losing sight of who you are fundamentally.
Adaptation Is the New Black
There are a million reasons why you might want to change yourself.
One reason is to adapt to a new role, as in the Doug Ivester example.
Another might be that you’re simply tired of yourself.
In Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content, author Mark Levy advocates freewriting (like Morning Pages) as a form of creativity enhancement. But freewriting also works as a method of self-reflection:
A lot of the poetic discipline boils down to getting tired of yourself, and I really believe that. When you get tired of yourself, then you change. See, even if you’re stuck in life, if you can describe just exactly the way you’re stuck, then you will immediately recognize that you can’t go on that way anymore.
So, just saying precisely, writing precisely how you’re stuck, or how you’re alienated, opens up a door of freedom for you.
Levy points to an important and serious reason why someone might seek change in themselves.
It’s hard to be stuck in a rut all the time. The experience isn’t pleasant. But lasting change and personal growth rarely gets triggered externally—it has to happen within.
And it starts by recognizing that you need to make a change.
Be Willing to Change Your Mind …
In a strategy session with the team at 37signals (now Basecamp), Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos shared the following observation:
He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.
He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.
The point isn’t to be flighty or wishy-washy, but to always be on the lookout for new evidence that might change your views. Rigid thinking makes it harder to respond to change.
But the best and the brightest of us also don’t jump onto every bandwagon or fad that comes by.
Instead, they are committed to the truth.
Not in absolute truths, but in the living, changing truths that inform our everyday lives.
Acclaimed business strategist and organizational thinker Peter M. Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization:
Commitment to the truth does not mean seeking the “Truth,” the absolute final word or ultimate cause. Rather, it means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness, just as the great athlete with extraordinary peripheral vision keeps trying to “see more of the playing field.” It also means continually deepening our understanding of the structures underlying current events. Specifically, people with high levels of personal mastery see more of the structural conflicts underlying their own behavior.
The reality of our imperfectly evolved minds is that we deceive ourselves all the time—about our circumstances, our abilities, our happiness.
Changing yourself completely requires a radical commitment to honesty.
Honesty about what you really want out of life. Honesty about what you need to do and who you need to be to get there.
It’s not the easy road but it’s potentially the much more fulfilling one.
… But Change Deliberately
Jim Collins in Great by Choice argues that the best leaders in fast-moving industries changed less than their less successful counterparts.
Less successful leaders often acted too quickly before making a solid assessment of the situation. They often changed in ways that violated their core principles and made their offerings less unique and compelling.
The great companies, what Collins calls 10x Companies, took a more disciplined approach to change. They deliberated more and considered whether change made sense in light of their values.
When they decided to move in a new direction, 10x Companies acted decisively and swiftly to implement the changes that were needed. They didn’t hesitate to take action when it was needed.
You Won’t Be the Person You Think You’ll Be in 5 Years
Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us.
—Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard psychologist
As reported in the New York Times, a group of psychologists, including Daniel T. Gilbert, researched the question of personality changes over time. They looked at a group of more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68.
What they found was that people were perceptive when it came to their past selves. They recognized that they had changed personality traits and preferences, sometimes profoundly, in the previous decade. This result was apparent in every age group.
But they were not as perceptive when it came to projecting their own selves forward 10 years. Rather, they downplayed the potential for change in their personalities.
From this study, we can draw 3 lessons:
- You will change.
- You won’t think you’re changing.
- But you’ll recognize that you’ve changed once you’re already different.
When you stop to think about this process, it’s kind of scary. You’re essentially blind to the changes that are happening to you until it’s too late. How do we moderate this process, knowing that it will happen, with values that will stand the test of time?
There’s a way.
How to Change Yourself Completely Without Compromising Your Values: 5 Steps to Prepare
#1: Get Comfortable With Uncertainty
Uncertainty is here to stay. You might as well get comfortable with it.
In Great by Choice, Jim Collins starts by studying companies that had to operate in chaotic times: the airlines after deregulation, the computer companies during the PC boom, and so on. These periods were marked by turbulence, rapid change, and immense uncertainty.
Slowly but surely, Collins makes the point that nowadays everyone operates in these kinds of conditions. There’s nowhere to hide from disruptive change, even for industries that seem staid and well-explored, like retail (Amazon) or taxi service (Uber). This affects us at the individual level, too.
Agile is a set of values and principles that equip you with the mindset to embrace change. To change yourself without compromising your values, you have to start with a resilient set of values. Agile values are represented by documents like the Agile Manifesto and applying them to an agile lifestyle.
#2: Anticipate Your Future Personality Development
At 15, I was confident, cocky, and borderline arrogant. I succeeded in school so I felt like I could do anything and beat any challenge.
At 20, after failing at my first job, I was depressed and lacking in confidence. I realized I didn’t know anything about the real world after graduating college.
At 25, my eyes were opened by the lifestyle design movement. I could see that there was another way to live life that maximized fulfillment and meaning while minimizing everything else.
In another 5 years, I’m sure I will be yet a different version of me.
Jeff Bezos’s quote reminds us that personality development is an iterative process that gradually turns us into a different person. Even if that process seems hidden from us, as the research study confirms.
You will change. Recognizing that this will happen is the first step to defining what really matters to you and making sure that part of you is preserved even as your personality changes over time.
#3: Recognize That All Help Is “Self-Help”
Seth Godin asks whether better is possible:
The easiest and safest thing to do is accept what you’ve been ‘given’, to assume that you are unchangeable, and the cards you’ve been dealt are all that are available. When you assume this, all the responsibility for outcomes disappears, and you can relax.
Again, fixed mindset thinking in action. Godin is telling us the lesson we should take away from the Doug Ivester-Coca-Cola story. It’s easier to assume your traits are immutable, that your personality can’t change. It’s easier to do what Doug Ivester did—more of the same, just in a different context—instead of radically changing yourself.
And yes, personal growth and self-improvement requires “self-help.”
When I meet people who proudly tell me that they don’t read (their term) “self-help” books because they are fully set, I’m surprised. First, because all help is self help (except, perhaps, for open heart surgery and the person at the makeup counter at Bloomingdales). But even this sort of help requires that you show up for it.
Mostly, though, I’m surprised because there’s just so much evidence to the contrary. Fear, once again fear, is the driving force here. If you accept the results you’ve gotten before, if you hold on to them tightly, then you never have to face the fear of the void, of losing what you’ve got, of trading in your success for your failure.
So don’t be afraid of self-help. It’s better than medicating yourself with more consumer junk.
#4: Pick Values That Will Stand the Test of Time
Collins’ 10x Companies created a “recipe” that gave their organizations consistency even in turbulent conditions.
For instance, the Southwest Airlines recipe laid down in 1979, contained 10 points about the company’s culture that persevered for decades afterwards. Southwest Airlines’ commitment to passengers, quick gate turnarounds, and low fares contributed to its success even in the aftermath of 9/11, when the airline industry as a whole nearly cratered. Southwest was the only carrier to make a profit the year after 9/11.
So here’s your action step: See if you can come up just 3 values you believe will stand the test of time. These values shouldn’t be so general that they’re meaningless, but rather set out a set of operational details that can act as guideposts for your next decade.
Your recipe needs to be specific. Think Southwest’s commandment to use only one type of aircraft.
Here are 3 ingredients of my personal recipe, for guidance:
Embracing change is a value in and of itself. Many people embrace rigidity and hierarchy. And it works for them. Corporate managers (though corporate culture is changing) and military people come to mind. But I choose to embrace change, because changing the status quo is the only way things get better.
Simplify whenever possible.
Simplicity is the lowest level of complexity for the highest amount of reward. Life is hard enough without making it more difficult for yourself. Complexity creep is everywhere, and if you let it in, it gets that much harder to adapt and be agile.
Find moments of gratitude.
Even in the toughest times, there is so much in life to be grateful for. The simple act of being alive is a thermodynamic miracle. Remembering the principle of gratitude frees me to move forward even in the face of potential failure.
#5: Diversify Your Identity
There are real dangers to having our identities too wrapped up in our careers.
In 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, author Peter Bregman says we have to diversify:
I don’t mean diversifying your money, though that’s a good idea, too. I mean diversifying your self. So that when one identity fails, the other ones keep you vibrant. If you lose your job but you identify passionately as a mother or a father, you’ll be fine. If you have a strong religious identity or view yourself as an artist, you’ll be fine. If you see yourself as an athlete, or even simply as a good, loyal friend, you’ll be fine.
Everyone has that irrational crisis moment after they get their first “real” job and start making serious dough:
Jeez, what happens if I lose my job? Get fired or laid off … I’ll start drinking, get depressed, become unemployable. Then I’ll never get another job and end up living on the street!
One solution is to diversify your streams of income. Another is to simply define yourself by something other than your profession—a surprisingly hard idea for Americans to wrap their heads around.
Dr. Paul Rosenfield, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, tells Bregman, “People with mental illness often feel their identity is reduced to being mentally ill. Part of their recovery involves reclaiming other parts of their identity—being a friend, a volunteer, an artist, a dog lover, a student, a worker.”
From Dr. Rosenfield’s comments, it stands to reason that a component of keeping your mind healthy is nurturing the different facets of your identity. After all, isn’t job burnout a kind of mental illness?
An agile identity requires multiple layers to your self. When one identify “fails,” you have another identity to fall back on.
Personality development is the purposeful pursuit of changing yourself. Accepting that you will change and yet approaching it with intentfulness and purpose are the keys to changing yourself and still standing for something.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on February 4, 2013.
Top Image by Alex E. Proimos.