Oswald Letter

You can’t change who you are just by flipping a switch

Woman turning off light switchby Dan Oswald

You are who you are. I’m in my 50th year. I am who I am. If I were to take a personality test, it would tell me largely the same thing it would have told me 10 or even 20 years ago. Sure, things happen in our lives that can cause our personalities to change a bit, but largely I’m the same person I was a decade or two ago.

The birth of my first child, 25 years ago, had an impact on my personality. I can recall the overwhelming sense of responsibility that came with being a first-time parent. I was suddenly responsible for another human being. It was a big step, and it caused some changes in my behavior, I’m sure.

My father passed away 21 years ago. That also changed me in some ways. Suddenly, as the oldest son, I was the patriarch of the family. New responsibilities came with his death, and I’m certain it affected who I was and how I behaved.

Classic theories of personality maintain that most personality development occurs in childhood, personalities are relatively stable by the end of adolescence, and they don’t change after the age of 30. Other theories assert that personality traits are open systems that can be influenced by the environment at any age. But even those who believe in the open-system theories agree that personality grows increasingly consistent with age and plateaus sometime around age 50.

Either way, at my age, my personality is what it is. I am who I am. Have I had experiences as an adult that have influenced who I am? Certainly. But for the most part, my personality has been set for quite some time.

If you ask the people I work with, I think they’ll tell you that I’ve largely been the same person the entire time they’ve worked with me. I am who I am. I’ve worked with some of my current colleagues for more than a decade—my guess is that they’ll tell you I’ve changed little in the time they’ve known me.

I’m sure they know my personality traits pretty well. They’ve seen a decade’s worth of behavior that speaks to who I am. They know how I behave under a variety of circumstances. They know what to expect from me. They know who I am.

That’s why I’ve been amazed to hear the two individuals who are the presidential nominees for the two major political parties both trying to “reinvent” themselves. One candidate is 68, and the other is 70.

Who believes that suddenly—seven decades into their lives, way beyond their adolescence, and 20 years past the point where the personality is largely fixed—both of the candidates are going to become someone else, someone new?

How does that happen? One day the introvert wakes up and tells himself, “From now on, I’m an extrovert.” That’s it?

I don’t believe it. Both of them have spent the last 25 or 30 years in the public spotlight. Who they are and how they behave have been on display for years. Most of us believe we’ve seen a large enough sample size during this time to determine who they are. Yet suddenly they’re both going to change.

It has been said that your reputation is built over a lifetime. It’s the collective knowledge about your character and personality. Well, both candidates have had a long lifetime to build their reputations and demonstrate to the world who they are and how they behave, so how do they now expect to change overnight?

Here’s my advice to every one of you: Be true to who you are. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not because it won’t work. You can’t fake it. People will see who you are based on your actions over a long period of time. It does take a long time to build a reputation. Be very careful with yours, and don’t ever expect to become someone else overnight.

Can people change? Sure. But changes are usually gradual and take time. You can’t behave one way for years and then just declare you’re now someone else. You need to prove it, and proving it takes time. A long time.

So when you work on those personal traits that you like least about yourself, understand that they’re difficult to change, and it will take time for change to occur. And please understand that you must be honest with yourself about who you really are—both good and bad—because you can rest assured that those who spend time with you know.

2 thoughts on “You can’t change who you are just by flipping a switch”

  1. I disagree – thinking that people inherently stay the same does a disservice to the evolution of human behavior. As HR professionals, aren’t we supposed to nurture and encourage our employees to improve and to be better versions of themselves? Through the right training and growth mindset, people can accomplish anything.

  2. I agree with the idea that personality traits are a combination of genetics and life experiences and that as we age they become more and more defined. From my training and experience I also know that personality traits themselves have no morality – they are not inherently good or bad. How we choose to live out our trait strengths does have morality. I also agree that we must be honest about our traits and learn what we can about them and then examine the way we behave. We can manage our behavior. We can learn new skills. An introvert can learn to be a dynamic speaker. An extrovert can learn to be an attentive listener. I believe effective people are very aware of their personality strengths and they are aware of how they affect others. Effective people regardless of personality are able to manage their behavior to build strong relationships in almost any environment. It is true you cannot easily change your personality but you can learn new, more effective behavior.

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