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Can We Really Change?

Mar 26, 2008

by Tim


Yes and no …

That it’s possible to change oneself is the core premise—and the key promise—of the self-help movement. It’s something I’ve always believed. But is it really true? Well, as with most things, yes … and no.

change_dictionary_definition1.jpgCertainly it’s possible for us to change many things about ourselves. We can acquire wealth-building habits. We can lose weight. We can boost our energy level by exercising regularly. And we can upgrade our professional and technical skills through training, practice, and study.

I’m a firm believer, too, in the magic of sheer willpower. I believe we can think ourselves into different ways of behaving, though it’s usually easier to behave ourselves into different ways of thinking (I love the way Mark describes his routine for getting dressed in the morning, even though he could easily work in his pajamas all day). So in this sense, yes, we can change ourselves.

But one popular author has built a best-selling book and seminar business based on exactly the opposite assertion: We cannot change whomarcus_buckingham.jpg we are.

Marcus Buckingham says that our basic personalities and predilections are unchangeable, and that rather than trying to fix or compensate for our weaknesses, we should instead focus on our strengths.

No less an authority than my mother has told me exactly the same thing for years, to my unending annoyance. It’s time to admit she’s right. After years of believing otherwise, I’m forced to agree with Buckingham (and Mom) that at a very fundamental level, we simply cannot change who we are.

So where does that leave those of us who still feel like so much unfinished work, like promise unfulfilled?

Well, first we’ve got to accept that we’re okay as-is, and that in terms of our basic personalities, we will never change. A tough call, but we’ve got to make it.

Next, while admitting we’re stuck with what we’ve got, we can still seek to better ourselves. Toward this end Buckingham offers a sound basic premise: Focus on your strengths (not your weaknesses).

go_put_your_strengths_cover.jpgI read through his latest book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, and it’s good. The basic message is this: Identify your strengths, then steer your career toward a place where you can exploit them fully. Don’t waste time in a job where you’re forced to spend most of your time exercising weaker skills.

That’s good advice.

But the key challenge, in my view, is not accepting Buckingham’s premise, but rather the specifics of how to go about defining one’s own strengths. Reading through Go Put Your Strengths to Work, I felt continuous uncomfortable pressure to go to an online “strengths-finders” tool or to buy one of Buckingham’s previous books, which I haven’t read and which may be more helpful (I learned about Buckingham through an excellent article about leadership in Fast Company magazine, not through his Strengths books).

So here’s my action takeaway from Buckingham’s work: To prepare for my upcoming job interview, I’m going to sitchange_meter1.jpg down with a couple of colleagues who know me well, and ask them to describe my strengths. Their feedback may not enable me to change myself, but I’m confident it’ll be invaluable in helping me change my scene.

And in the meantime, I’ll strive to be happy with who I am—and who I’ll continue to be.

3 Comments to Can We Really Change?

On Mar 26, 2008, CharlesP commented:

We had to do the Now Discover Your Strengths book and test at my job and it was pretty interesting. Admittedly unless you’re an unusually cryptic (or self ignoring) person you can figure a lot of the concepts out without the test. The test told me that I should do something where I sit in a dark room and think a lot about problems, which works out well as my job is a programmer doing support and development of applications.

I think part of the take away needs to be A) enhance the strengths, but B) don’t ignore the weaknesses, just don’t try and make them strengths for the sake of trying.

On Mar 27, 2008, by Tim commented:

I’m taking my own advice and vacationing from computing until March 28. Cheers! ~Tim

On Mar 28, 2008, by Tim commented:

Back now :) Thanks, Charles, for the front row peek into Buckingham’s exercise. You’re fortunate to have an employer enthusiastic about this kind of personal work.

As per my post, I did a “strengths feedback” session with a colleague last week and found it extremely helpful. Looking forward to another one next week with a coworker who has a different take on my skills.

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