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Is it Possible to Reinvent Yourself?

Lucy Kellaway was certain that she had become nicer and more humble. She had switched careers from journalism that involved “handing my subjects a noose and waiting for them to put their heads into it,” to teaching math to disadvantaged students in east London. After becoming a teacher Lucy felt “reinvented,” yet when she polled a dozen friends and family, she was disappointed to discover the only change anyone noticed was that she had become more priggish, the British word for goody-goody. Is it possible to reinvent yourself? According to the science of personality change explored in the lively, insightful, and practical new book by Christian Jarrett entitled, Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality, the answer is an emphatic YES. Jarrett asserts that it is possible to change your personality, even profoundly. You can change from the outside-in through the situations you place yourself in such as your job, hobbies, and the people you spend time with. You can also change your personality from the inside-out through mental and physical exercises that alter your habits of thought. Before we go any further, let’s clarify what we mean by personality. Although over 4,500 words in the English language are used to describe personality, this number has been scientifically distilled to five characteristics that fit in a CANOE.

Just as you can spot train to strengthen your body in a particular area, you can intentionally focus on one of the five traits to change your personality in a way that improves your wellbeing. Conscientiousness has the strongest association with success, longevity, and lasting relationships, so if you score low on this trait (you can take a CANOE test here), you might want to begin your personality transformation with one of 19 tips from this conscientious list. Becoming less sensitive to the bad things in life can also be transformative. In a study involving over 10,000 people, reducing neuroticism and increasing extroversion increased happiness by over two times the effect of a major life event. Be Who You Want includes countless tips and tactics tailored to each of the five personality traits, but research says the most powerful way to change your personality is to change your job. If you switch jobs to fulfill a larger purpose or sense of identity and to be more in sync with what matters to you in life, your personality will likely change along with your new responsibilities. For example, introverts can become more extroverted if they feel passionate about a purpose that requires a lot of public speaking. “I’m basically like an introverted engineer, so, it took a lot of practice and effort to be able to go up on stage and not just stammer…As the CEO, you kind of have to,” says Tesla/SpaceX/Etc. CEO Elon Musk who has become so extroverted that he performed live from New York on the stage of Saturday Night Live. According to a recent Microsoft survey, 40 percent of employees are currently considering new jobs. Along with this “Great Resignation” there may be a “Great Reinvention” on the horizon as people explore new ways of working that are more in tune with who they are and who they aspire to be. Lucy Kellaway insists that although nobody else has noticed, teaching has changed her. If you read her “Can You Change Yourself?” article (you can jump the Financial Times' paywall via her Twitter feed) through a CANOE lens, you can see how becoming a teacher seems to have increased her agreeableness and reduced her neuroticism. Lucy is also happier, as are many of her teacher colleagues who made a similar career move, evidence that happiness is the by-product of working on your character.

Over the remainder of this summer, I will be happily recharging and working on increasing my extroversion by learning Greek. (Believe it or not, learning a language is a strategy for personality change.) This newsletter will be on hiatus until the fall, although I may land in your inbox from time to time with a 5-Minute Recharge if there is something I discover that I can’t keep to myself. Reading material to increase your openness:

  • You Really Need to Quit Twitter Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic

  • 11 Coping Skills Therapists Use to Deal With Their (Really Hard) Jobs Elle

  • The damaging effects of 'boreout' at work BBC WorkLife

  • Do We Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health? The New York Times

  • How to Transform Your Health Through Your Breath with James Nestor Feel Better Live More Podcast

Wishing you a healthy, happy, and positively transformative summer, Lynne

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