Author’s Note Author’s Note
Can people ever truly change? In the more than twenty years I’ve been writing about psychology and brain science, I’ve come to realize that for many people, this is the burning question. Put differently: Can bad people turn good? Can the idle become ambitious? Can a leopard ever change its spots?
It’s true that a degree of self-acceptance is psychologically healthy (so long as it doesn’t slip into resignation and hopelessness). But I wanted to write a book for those of you who are less interested in feeling good about yourself as you are now and more interested in becoming the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.
Through tales of criminals who transformed their personalities, of shy celebrities who found their voice, of drug addicts who reformed and excelled in new endeavors, combined with the latest compelling research evidence from psychological science, you’ll learn that people do change, and that, yes, if you want to change yourself, you can. It won’t be quick or easy, but it’s possible.
Your personality will continue to evolve through your life, partly as a natural response to your changing situations and also because of gradual changes in your physiology. Most exciting, there are ways you can take control of this malleability to mold yourself more in line with the person you aspire to be.
This book is filled with tests and interactive exercises to help you better understand the various aspects of your personality, your life story, and your passions. The more you engage with the interactive elements in an honest fashion, the greater the likelihood that you will find out more about yourself and benefit from the insights in the book. Building new habits is a key part of successful personality change, and each chapter concludes with suggestions for new activities to adopt and psychological strategies to try out to help shape your different traits.
There are many notes of caution ahead too. I will tell you about good people turned bad and delve into the sometimes devastating effects of injury and illness on a person’s character. In short, your personality is a work in progress. Pursuing the best version of yourself is a philosophy to live by rather than a job to complete.
I hope this book will especially appeal to anyone who has ever felt imprisoned or constrained by the way they’ve been characterized—or caricatured—by others. It is a human weakness that we are prone to drawing premature conclusions about one another, often ignoring the influence of circumstances (known in psychology as the fundamental attribution error). If you’ve ever felt boxed in by other people’s judgments on your personality—labeled introvert, slacker, softie, snowflake, or whatever else in an overly simplistic way—you will enjoy learning about the profound effects of circumstances on how personality manifests itself at any given time, how we all tend to change throughout life, and how you can smash out of that box by transforming yourself through new habits and pursuing your true passions in life.
People change. I’ve changed. The other day I was clearing out old papers when I came across my teachers’ reports from when I was a teenager at boarding school. “I am not sure how, if at all, Christian can change his naturally placid manner,” wrote my personal tutor when I was sixteen years old. “I do agree with his tutor,” wrote my housemaster in the same end-of-term report: “Christian’s nature and personality do tend to draw comments such as ‘too quiet.’?” My class teachers were unanimous: “Too reserved and quiet” (geography); “I would encourage him to contribute more to class discussion” (history); “He needs to speak more!” (English). My favorite came from my housemaster a year earlier: “It is not always easy to tell whether Christian’s good-natured taciturnity is a sign of diffidence or merely intelligent verbal economy.”
But in my freshman year at college, I burst out of my shell, built large groups of friends, and partied all night most nights of the week. I remember my graduation-year dissertation adviser admitting, after I graduated with highest honors, that he had long ago given up on me, having pigeonholed me as a hedonist more interested in sports than learning (based on what he knew of my social life and all my time at the university gym where I worked part-time as a trainer).
Change never ceases. Fast-forward five years or so after graduation, and life was quiet again. With a job working remotely as an editor and writer and living with my then wife-to-be in a rural part of Yorkshire, England, I was back to being an extreme introvert. I had no car, and my wife-to-be was out most days, twenty miles away in the city of Leeds, studying to be a clinical psychologist. It was a textbook example of how circumstances can shape us profoundly. It’s tricky to be an extravert when you’re working by yourself in a home office in a quiet village. Yet I felt my conscientiousness grow as I became absorbed in the challenge of my first editorial role, and writing about psychology came to feel like my calling. Meeting my deadlines and having the self-discipline to write daily was a pleasure and became part of the rhythm of my life.
In more recent years, I’ve felt myself changing again. I’m blessed with two beautiful young children—Rose and Charlie—who have boosted my conscientiousness still further (What greater calling in life can there be than parenthood?), but I think they may have also increased my neuroticism a point or two!
In addition, my career has evolved to include more public speaking, such as for live events, radio, and TV. I remember standing onstage at a large bar in London a few years ago, experiencing the euphoric buzz of making a three hundred–strong audience laugh (deliberately, I should add—I was giving a lighthearted talk on the psychology of persuasion). I wonder what my schoolteachers would have thought of me then. Compare the school reports they gave me with the kind of reviews I’ve received recently for talks I’ve given in London bars: “Christian is a great speaker,” “very relaxed and engaging,” “informative and funny,” “enriching, engaging, enjoyable.” Sure, I was to an extent putting on a performance, but beneath the public mask, I believe there has been a meaningful shift in my disposition and a greater willingness to speak up and take risks in pursuit of my goals.
I also feel changed by the experience of writing this book. I’m now far more receptive to how people and circumstances bring out different features of our characters. I’m less accepting of aspects of my personality that I previously considered immutable. I’ve learned how the lifestyles we lead, the ambitions we pursue, and the values we live by, all affect our traits.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that writing this book (and heeding its lessons) gave me the motivation and self-belief to leave my job of sixteen years earlier this year to take up a challenging role at a global digital magazine. I’m out of my comfort zone but confident I can adapt. True to the science of change, it has helped that the ethos of the magazine chimes with my own values: supporting others by sharing practical insights on psychological well-being. I believe it’s also in your power to change and adapt in positive ways, to be who you want, especially in pursuit of what matters to you in life, and I’ve written this book to help show you how.