One of my favorite quotes from the recovery literature I read says “We don’t have to settle for the limitations of the past.” This is a powerful reminder for me. My past does not determine my future. “Not yet” does not mean “Not ever.”
I don’t know about you, but it can be easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that things around me will never change, or that I will never change. This thinking often ends up looking like “I have always done this thing, therefore I will always do this thing” or “I have never done this thing, therefore I will never do this thing.” When I think about anything other than myself, I know that’s crazy—things change all the time—but my mind seems to want to think that I’m an exception to the rule.
I’m not. I’m also changing all the time, and I can choose to direct those changes. If I’m focused in what I do and how I do it, I can influence those changes in myself in ways that are useful and productive (and fun!). And, this means that I’m not bound by the limitations of my past. If I’ve never previously been able to do something, I can still learn how to do it. If I’ve always made the same mistake, I can learn how to make new ones (or learn how to do something different that isn’t a mistake).
This also applies to characteristics of ourselves that might seem more permanent, like personality type or attachment style or even intelligence. Many people have the idea that knowing our personality type can help us better understand ourselves. Similarly, it’s a popular idea that knowing the personality type of the people around us can help us better deal with them. In the 80s and 90s, the Meyers-Briggs assessment was really popular; lately, the Enneagram seems to be in vogue.
This isn’t necessarily crazy. But, this idea ignores two things:
- The science behind many of these tests is dubious at best (the various “Big Five” tests seem to have the best scientific basis, but those are less personality types and more attribute scales — i.e., not “I am an extrovert” but more “My extroversion is strong”);
- Even to the extent that the tests are testing some real quality (as opposed to just our feelings on the day we took the test), there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that that quality is malleable, not permanent and unchanging.1
This is fundamentally the idea behind a growth mindset. By continuing to work on something, whatever it is, not only can I get better at that thing, but I can fundamentally change my capabilities. And, it doesn’t matter if that thing is cognitive, social, or emotional; by continuing to practice, I can get better at it. To take just one famous example:
A series of experiments with London taxi drivers proved this with respect to cognition. Quick background: in order to get a taxi license in London, candidates basically have to memorize the map of London. They must demonstrate that they can efficiently navigate between any two random points in the city, from memory, and that they know what landmarks they’ll pass along the way. Studying for this test takes years.
And, what has been shown is that the process of studying for this test causes physical changes in the brain. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for spatial memory and navigation, actually gets bigger as people study for this test.
Now, we sort of instinctively understand that physical exercise causes physical changes in your body; as you lift weights over and over, your muscles get bigger and stronger, and your body changes shape and size. What this shows is that the exact same thing is true about mental exercise; it can cause physical changes in your brain. Just as physical exercise can make you stronger, mental exercise can make you smarter.
And, what is exercise? It’s basically just repeated practice that pushes the limits of your capability. Since exercise can make us better, this means that continuing to practice doing things doesn’t only help us learn do to those things. It can also help us become more capable of doing other things, even if they’re things that we were never able to do in the past.
When I get stuck in ideas like “Since I have never before been able to do this, that means I will never be able to do it,” it’s useful for me to remember all of that. I’m constantly growing and changing, and I can choose to grow and change in ways that are valuable to me. All I need to do is practice.
- Some really good research that includes an overview of other research can be found here: Damian, R. I., Spengler, M., Sutu, A., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(3), 674–695. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000210 ↩