Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change
“‘Achieving lasting personality change means shaking things up, unlearning some of your many habits and routines that contribute to the kind of person you are, and overwriting them with new ones.’”
Who among us hasn’t wanted to make a change in our personality at some point in our lives? Be Who You Want gives us hope that we can upgrade ourselves and lays out a step-by-step plan to get us from here to there. In my more than 30 years as a psychotherapist, I have not found a more plain-spoken and instructive book on transformation.
Jarrett has written this 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.” Toward that end, Be Who You Want is loaded with practical, hands-on advice. There are pre- and post-personality tests that flesh out to what degree we hold five major personality traits, take-away practices, bonus tips, and reflective exercises, with each chapter ending in a prescription of five “actionable steps to change your personality.”
The author defines personality as “a relatively stable inclination to act, think, and relate to others in a characteristic way.” This “me-ness” determines everything we do, the decisions we make, and the paths we choose to follow—or not follow—throughout our lives. He notes that our personality is about 50 percent genetically inherited and that personality traits are sometimes physiologically based, such as the distinctive differences in the brains of some introverts and extraverts.
The book’s premise is that we are not stuck with being who we are. Jarrett points out that, without any intent on our part to alter them, personalities generally change over the course of a lifetime due to particular circumstances that demand different responses than we are used to giving. He tells readers to think of their “current personality traits as the behavioral and emotional strategy that you’ve settled on to best survive and thrive in the circumstances you find yourself in.”
Case studies and anecdotes of celebrities and everyday folks make it easy for readers to identify with how people can change and have changed their personalities. In fact, throughout the book, the author often refers to himself as an example of an introvert who is practicing being more outgoing. He reminds us to set aside judgment about traits we don’t care for in ourselves and, instead, be compassionate while trying to change them. He also underscores that change happens slowly over time with great effort and comes only from thinking about things differently and, most importantly, acting in new ways.
The book teaches us how temperament, our origin story and history, friends, and life circumstances shape our personalities, and it explores how trauma can affect us, as well as how we can achieve post-traumatic growth. Examining the impact that illness, marriage, divorce, parenting, ageing, bereavement, and substance abuse have on personality formation for better or worse, Jarrett reminds us that our traits shape our experience, which, in turn, shapes our personalities.
He focuses on five main personality traits: extroversion as receptivity to sociability and positive emotion, neuroticism as mood instability and sensitivity toward negative emotion, conscientiousness as self-discipline and the ability to initiate and follow through, agreeability as warmth and friendliness, and openness as curiosity about new ideas and interest in things you haven’t done before.
Insisting that “personality matters massively,” he presents research showing which traits are most likely to generate happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, success, and longevity. He says, “Of all the personality types, highly agreeable people seem to be the most skilled at shaping their own experience . . . extroverts tend to be happier than introverts, but they are also more prone to alcohol and drug problems . . . and highly neurotic people are at greater risk than average of developing mental health problems and physical illness.”
The author describes negative ways that pathological change can impact us through disease or injury (especially to the brain), dementia, Alzheimer’s, trauma, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, stress, neurodegenerative illness, or substance abuse. Even sleep deprivation, caffeine, a hangover, undereating or overeating can significantly alter our mood.
According to Jarrett, the three basic principles of successful personality change are a willingness and intention to change your behavior, a belief in the malleability of personality, and persistence with your behavioral changes until they become habitual. There are also evidence-based ways of modifying specific personality traits such as lowering neuroticism and boosting extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. He advises that shifting our values can change our personalities for the better, as can breaking up with old habits and taking up with new ones.
The author explains how “bad” people turn “good” and “good” people turn “bad” as he examines the so-called Dark Triad of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. He even includes short tests for readers to assess if they possess these traits, then offers strategies for such deeply ingrained and seemingly intractable personalities to move in a more humane, empathic direction.
The book’s final section lays out the “Ten Rules for Personal Reinvention” such as changing on behalf of a larger purpose, setting goals realistically, getting support from others, being self-compassionate, and employing tactics to stay on track. He urges us to give the process time, saying it takes about 66 days for “a new behavior to become a fully fledged new habit.” In sum, Jarrett writes that “Achieving lasting personality change means shaking things up, unlearning some of your many habits and routines that contribute to the kind of person you are, and overwriting them with new ones.”