Can you really change who you are?

3rd June, 2021

Femi was 21 years old when he was pulled over for speeding in Colindale, London; the police charged him with a cannabis offence. It was one of several brushes with the law. But Femi changed. As Christian Jarrett writes in Be Who You Want, “Femi, or to use his full name, Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua OBE, became an Olympic gold medallist and the two-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, heralded as an impeccable role model of clean living and good manners.”

Katy Milkman begins her book, How To Change, with another sporting icon: tennis player Andre Agassi. Agassi’s crimes were to wear an earring and tie-dyed shirts to tournaments, swear on court and — a Wimbledon crown notwithstanding — seem to be more interested in sponsorship than living up to his prodigious potential. Like Joshua, Agassi sorted it out: he found a new coach, Brad Gilbert, and sharpened his game enough to win seven further grand slam titles and — like Joshua — an Olympic gold.

I have never aspired to win an Olympic medal, but I can certainly imagine being stronger, fitter, more successful or just different, so I was intrigued to see two new books about personal change, both boasting that they bring “the science”. Jarrett’s book presents a more radical view of change: can a neurotic person become resilient and confident? Can a cautious, conservative soul become curious and keen to explore new experiences? Can an introvert become an extrovert — and should they want to? Milkman, in contrast, is interested not in changing who you are, but “where you want to be”. She wants to help you get more exercise or spend less time arguing on Facebook and more time reading, say, the Financial Times.

Milkman’s aim seems easier: surely, people have a fixed personality, but anyone can learn to skip sugar in their coffee. Perhaps not. Jarrett makes a persuasive case that personality types are more malleable than we might think. He cites a 2016 study based on the 1947 Scottish Mental Survey, which found almost no correlation between the personality of participants at the age of 14 with their personalities when re-surveyed at the age of 77.

From the outside, that doesn’t seem surprising — of course pensioners and teenagers are different, even when the pensioner and the teenager are the same person. But from the inside, it’s hard to grasp the possibility that we might change over the years as we leave school, move house, acquire hobbies and friends, get jobs, become parents, and experience love and loss. Yet we do and we will.

Meanwhile, the sugar-in-the-coffee problem is harder than it first seems. While an introvert like me finds it hard to imagine becoming an extrovert, I find it very easy to imagine eating less chocolate, doing more exercise, losing a bit of fat and gaining a bit of muscle tone. But while that is indeed easy to imagine, it is not so easy to actually do it.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. And here are three tips I discerned from Jarrett’s and Milkman’s research.

First: pick your moment. Milkman notes that one of the most successful behaviour-change campaigns was “Back to Sleep”, which started in the US in 1994 and tried to persuade new parents to place their children to sleep on their backs, rather than on their stomachs, to reduce the risk of sudden infant death. The campaign was a huge success because new parents are a blank slate: they didn’t have any preconceptions and did whatever they were told. The pandemic has put most of us at that new-parent stage when it comes to our diets, our spending habits and our socialising. It is a good time to change. If you miss the fresh-start window, try New Year’s Day, the first day of spring or your birthday; they all help too.

Second: change the situation. We instinctively attribute differences between people to differences in their personality, when much of what governs our behaviour is the situation in which we find ourselves. We’re social beings: if you want to adopt a vegetarian diet, hang out with vegetarians and copy them; if you want to exercise, find an exercise buddy. (This can work against us, too: if you want to spend less money on take-out coffees, your biggest obstacle is the friend who likes seeing you at Starbucks.) Jarrett argues that this works for personality types, too. If you want to be less of an introvert, you’ll need to force yourself to take up an activity that requires social contact. Change your actions and your personality may change too.

Third: bundle temptations with virtuous activity. Milkman suggests listening to your favourite audiobook only while running, or allowing yourself to binge on Netflix only on an exercise bike.

But while both books offer a variety of sensible tips, it is interesting to observe what they don’t say. Jarrett says little about how bad-boy Femi became golden-boy Joshua. Milkman doesn’t mention that Agassi’s grand slams were punctuated by a fall out of the top 100, nor that he took crystal meth in 1997, failed a drug test and, according to his own 2009 autobiography, lied about it.

Stories of change are inspiring and straightforward, especially when the narrator knows that they end with an Olympic gold. Rewriting these stories from the inside is never so simple. But it can be done.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 14 May 2021.

The paperback of “How To Make The World Add Up” is now out. US title: “The Data Detective”.

“Nobody makes the statistics of everyday life more fascinating and enjoyable than Tim Harford.”- Bill Bryson

“This entertaining, engrossing book about the power of numbers, logic and genuine curiosity”- Maria Konnikova

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