As a young child, I was chatty and outgoing. I’d stand on the pew at church and strike up a conversation with the people behind us. Always a fan of school, I ran around the playground with my gaggles of friends, and got in my share of trouble for talking in class. But when I was twelve, as my mom tells the story, I got a lot quieter. I did a lot of reading, my friend groups shrank to two or three best friends, and I sought out solitude. “You had a lot to think about,” my mom likes to say. Later, in college, I found myself tending in an even more introverted direction, much to my surprise. Many of my friends didn’t even realize I was an extrovert. But nowadays, well out of college, a lot of my childhood bubbly self is coming back again. Perhaps I’ve thought through everything my twelve-year-old self had on her list?
We tend to subscribe to the idea that our childhood selves can shed a great deal of light on who we are at our core and how we’ll be when we’re older, because we believe personality is fairly fixed over time. But as I experience the “growing pains” of my twenties, and this new decade throws curveball after curveball, I’ve found myself wondering how much of my personality is fixed and how much changes as life goes on.
The comfort we find in personality tests
Personality tests (from the MBTI to the Hogwarts Sorting Hat) can definitely be helpful and fun in the journey of self-discovery—I’ve done my share of eager reading about my personality type’s tendencies in work, relationships, or life challenges. It’s fun to feel known and understood, and to see yourself as part of a group of ENFJs, Gryffindors, or phlegmatics.
But personality tests can also be a pitfall. Our desire to understand who we are through personality tests can lead to oversimplifying our own experiences or even attempting to predict the future. As Maggie Brady puts it in “A Short History of Personality Tests,”
If a quiz can tell you who you are, perhaps it can also tell you who you will be. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared that “character is destiny,” a phrase which often is interpreted to refer to ethics, but can also include personality traits. Maybe Harry’s fate as a champion was sealed the moment the hat labeled him with a heroic personality? One of the main tenets of psychometrics—the science of measuring and quantifying psychology—is that your personality doesn’t change, no matter how much you otherwise change as a person. Perhaps I quietly suspect that there’s a hidden power humming at my center, and with the right self-knowledge, I could finally pull the sword from the stone in my heart and reign as the “once and future queen” in my life story.
Input from friends, family, and even therapists can sometimes function in a similar way to the personality tests in Brady’s reflection. I think all of us secretly hope or suspect at some point that there is a way to “pull the sword from the stone” in our hearts, to discover understanding and resolution of our emotional issues without hard emotional work. We want good relationships, happy careers, stable marriages, healthy children—and self-knowledge can be indispensable in arriving at those things.
But there’s a danger to our development when we cling too tightly to this personality category or that one. Categories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sometimes it’s tempting to fit ourselves into simplistic stories about our lives because we already understand them—when really a personality type can never encompass our full identity.
Especially in our twenties, years in which we're growing (with all the accompanying growing pains) into adults, it’s easy to fall prey to a fixed mindset about personality growth. We’re adults now, so we’ve arrived, right? Far from it. As it turns out, the twenties can be a time of huge personality change, and knowing that can help us navigate them with grace.
Making the most of new experiences
Beside the fact that, scientifically, our brains are still growing in our twenties, it’s also anecdotally true that relationship and lifestyle changes during this period can lead to the discovery of totally new identities. Extended travel, for example, can change some significant personality traits; breakups can change how we think about ourselves and others; and, of course, if they happen in our twenties, marriage and motherhood have a major influence on our personalities as well. Needless to say, traumatic experiences can also lead to personality change; ideally, they will lead to periods of post-traumatic growth.
Our careers can also unfold new identities before us. I went from working at a coffee shop to working as an administrative assistant to studying for a Ph.D. within one year, and learned different things about myself from each experience. American folk artist Grandma Moses had ten children before she started painting at 78. George Eliot published her first novel at 40. Vera Wang entered the fashion industry at 40. Julia Child was hopeless at cooking until she started trying to learn after getting married, and she published her first cookbook at 50. However we think about ourselves now, it’s important to remember that a bend in the road could lie ahead. It’s okay if you don’t make a lifelong career out of your first job—or your second, or your third. Your personality will grow and change as you find yourself in different contexts.
For all of these reasons, it might be helpful to think of our twenties as a developmental stage, not a time when our personality becomes fixed for life. And with that, it’s important to understand that our mindset toward new experiences makes all the difference in how they shape us and our personalities.
Fixed and growth mindsets
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck outlines her research into how people approach lifestyle, career, and relationships. As Maria Popova, writer at Brain Pickings, summarizes,
One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.
For example, in my high school years, I had gotten used to a narrative of myself as the perfect student. This narrative had to be challenged in college, when my English professors pushed me with harsh grades and honest feedback. While it’s certainly tempting in those situations to think of your failures as a judgment on your character (what if I was never a good student after all!), a growth mindset helped me to see these failures as opportunities to learn, and learn I did.
Examples like this abound in your twenties. In relationships, especially, it’s very easy to over-identify with a role that you have in a relationship, and then develop a fixed mindset about character growth (I’m the anxious one, and he’s the stable one; I’m the messy one, and he’s the organized one . . .). Or in a job, you might find yourself identifying so strongly with your role in a company or your relationships with your coworkers that you lose an independent sense of self. Then, when that job or relationship ends, a fixed mindset can mean that you’re at a loss about your own identity. With a growth mindset, on the other hand, you think about your roles as jumping-off points for your future self. Sure, this was the role you had in a past relationship or job, but your role in a new relationship or job could build upon or even change your previous narrative.
One note: Don’t let the language of developing these mindsets “from a very early age” scare you; there’s no need to have a fixed mindset about fixed and growth mindsets! According to Dweck, the author of the original book, “Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.”
The crystal ball
Who are we, really? Wouldn’t we all like to know. While personality tests, recollections from our childhoods, and formative experiences all go into our self-understanding, it’s important not to become too caught up in those things as we try to move forward through life. Even in otherwise helpful situations like therapy, spiritual direction, or conversations with our parents or trusted friends, someone else’s narration of our stories can come to the forefront, and it can be tempting to see others’ views of our personality as a crystal ball. I, for one, sometimes hold myself back from an opportunity or stop a new idea in its tracks because of a sense that this idea “isn’t who I am.” But who we are can change over time, as is abundantly clear from both research and history.
It’s no wonder that we sometimes grasp for anything that will tell us the truth about ourselves. But, in the end, as much as we might wish otherwise, we probably know ourselves better than anyone else does. So you want to be a standup comedian but are painfully introverted, or want to date but have bad social skills, or want to pursue a graduate degree but have ADHD? Don’t let a fixed mindset about your personality hold you back. We don’t have to be caught in the fate our “crystal ball” predicts.
The alter ego effect
In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, Aunt Jamesina, the homey housekeeper of Anne Shirley’s college house, reflects in a conversation with Anne on the unusual personality of one of Anne’s friends.
“I can't understand her—she beats me. She isn’t like any of the girls I ever knew, or any of the girls I was myself.”
“How many girls were you, Aunt Jimsie?”
“About half a dozen, my dear.”
It’s a funny exchange, but it catches a truth about human nature. Sometimes our entrancement with personality tests and stories about our childhood selves can cause us to miss the fundamental reality that human beings are constantly changing, and that being a different person at different times (or in different contexts—Todd Herman’s The Alter Ego Effect is a great resource on this concept) is perfectly healthy and natural. Who we are can’t be captured on paper—and what we do doesn’t have to be determined by the past.
I once read that you should live as if you’re trying to impress your eight-year-old self and your eighty-year-old self—and no one else. If my eight-year-old self met me today, she’d be thrilled about my kitten and love walking around my new hometown. She’d talk my ear off about The Boxcar Children, but she would probably be a little bored when I went on about Heidegger. We’d have a lot in common, but we wouldn’t be the same. If my eighty-year-old self joined us, she’d be different too, in ways I can’t imagine yet. But I think all of us would be thankful for the years in between.