You are not fixed in stone. Your personality changes over time. Here’s how – Part 1

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You grow up, your personality gets fixed, and that’s you for life… or is it? It looks like nobody’s personality is set in stone. We change, and that’s great news for your career. Read more…

You’re Different! How Your Personality Changes Over Time – Part 1

Plenty of us have an aspect our personalities we’re not exactly thrilled with, something we’d like to change. What’s yours? You might feel you’re too reserved, too loud, speak too plainly, get exasperated too quickly or are far too patient and lenient with challenging people.

Not so long ago, the word on the streets was that people don’t change with age and experience. But it looks like we’re not fixed forever after all. Now it’s becoming clear we do change as we get older, and nobody’s personality is set in stone. The news has obvious and profound consequences for the world of work. Here’s part one of our two-part article about the way personalities change over time, with experience, and what that might mean to your everyday working life.

The ‘big 5’ personality traits
You’ve probably heard of them. The big 5 personality traits have long been pinned down as openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism, each representing a range between two extreme points. It’s the relative amount of each trait that makes up your personality. But a growing body of evidence proves that people can and do change over time, thanks to a wide range of very different influences.

Are we really set in stone?

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Until recently most of us considered our personalities to be set hard, representing the very essence of the ‘self’. It’s mostly down to the psychologist William James who, in 1887, theorised the human personality was ‘set like plaster’ by the age of 30. Like many other odd ideas that enter the public consciousness, settle there and somehow become the truth, it fast became received wisdom. And until recently, nobody bothered to check the facts.

Now it looks like the personality – in other words our thought patterns and behaviours – doesn’t persist through thick and thin. It flexes, bends, changes and morphs as we experience new things, gather fresh skills, meet different people, move to new places, face different setbacks and enjoy successes. Your personality is far more mutable than you thought. And while that might feel weird, if there’s an element of your working ‘self’ that you think could stand improvement, it’s great news.

The evidence – Studies into the way personalities change

Wendy Johnson, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, studies personality. In her experience personality is partially genetic, but it’s far from clear whether nature or nurture is the main driver. While babies are not born with a personality per se, they certainly have their own characteristic ways of behaving and reacting to the world, and that’s what people like her call our ‘temperament’. This is affected by our genes and environment pre-birth. Anxious women are, for example, more likely to give birth to stressed out children than chilled women.

Childhood experiences are also powerful stuff. Children tend to work harder and become more extroverted around a bunch of hard-working, extroverted peers, for example. Your parents play a part according to Harvard’s Jerome Kagan. His studies of reactivity reveal that when parents encourage reactive infants to be sociable and bold, they grow up less shy, less fearful of the world. Interestingly, this also helps pin down why temperament doesn’t always predict the ‘big five’ personality traits. Babies who smile a lot, for example, don’t necessarily grow up to become extroverts.

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By the time you’re officially a grown-up, around 40% of the variation in the big five traits is accounted for by your genes at a general population level. But that doesn’t mean genes and the environment act independently. They never do, according to Johnson. In fact no genes have been identified as clearly linked to any of the big 5. Not one. Life – and genetics – just isn’t that simple, isn’t that determinative.

So our genes and the environment interact in ways so complex we can’t untangle them…. yet. And the process of growth and change doesn’t stop at aged 30, as long-ago William James believed. According to research from 2003, which monitored adults over long periods of time, people tend to become more agreeable as they age, as well as more conscientious and emotionally stable.

Petar Milojev and his team at New Zealand’s Massey University have also analysed the way our personalities change over time. They examined data about 4000 people aged 20 – 80, finding personality is the least stable when we’re young adults, then again at aged 60+. This makes sense as regards environment-led personality changes, since youth and age both come with dramatic life changes.

Major life events affect our personalities too, and it can happen at any age. Romantic relationships can cut neuroticism right back, while one study showed divorce tends to make women more extroverted and men less conscientious. Being made redundant affects us too. Christopher Boyce at the University of Stirling says unemployment has a dramatic negative impact, making people less agreeable and less conscientious. It also makes sense that investing a lot in your career tends to increase levels of conscientiousness.

Something as simple as moving to a new town or country might change your personality. Maybe that’s why New Yorkers are so famously neurotic and loud, and Londoners score so low on the ‘agreeableness’ scale. But what does all this mean to you, in your role, right now?

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What does a morphing personality mean to your career?

If you were given a personality test when you first started work, or at any stage in your career, the results are not set in stone. As you learn, grow and experience life, you move on. The attributes you displayed back then are probably different from the attributes you have now.

Can you feel you’re different, feel you’ve changed over time? Can you pin down exactly how you’ve changed? If so, it could open up thrilling new vistas in your working world, give you access to places you never dreamed you could go, help you acquire skills you never thought you’d be able to master.

If an out-of-date self-image is hindering progress and holding you back, simply knowing you’ve changed can be all you need to move forwards. And knowing you’re capable of change can lighten your working life no end.

In part 2, we’ll look at more research into the ways our personalities change over time: through psychotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, learning a new language, and the latest remarkable research into the unexpected psychological benefits of psychedelic substances. And we’ll look more closely at the big five personality traits, which maybe aren’t the best or most helpful way to classify people after all.

If you want to explore how you might have changed over time and see what this means for your career right now, do get in touch.