As I shift, so does my son. I invite him to “special time,” a goofy name for a powerful connection, and he first rolls his eyes. “I’m not doing that.” The idea of playing just with me for 30 minutes is near the bottom of his list.
“You get to be in charge,” I explain. “It just has to be between here and the park.” Also, no screens, and no one’s hurting anyone else. Other than that, we can do anything he wants.
“Can I throw pillows at you?” His eyes have stopped rolling and now they’re fixed on me.
“Sure, as long as you’re not hurting me.”
“Can we go outside and play a tag game?”
I laugh “Of course.” Tag is the one thing that I almost always resist when he suggests it. Chase my son endlessly around the neighborhood? I’d rather stay in and clean hair out of the bathtub drain. As it turns out, it’s not tag or pillows. “Pirate ship!” he shouts, and runs into the living room to start moving furniture. We pull out the ladder for scaffolding, king-sized sheets for the mast. Bug creates turrets using plastic wine goblets. He also creates something called a “maker” which is a kind of on-deck factory that turns raw materials into weapons.
If someone asked me to describe my son with naked honesty, I might say obstinate, aggressive, bright and powerful. Curious but easily frustrated. Sometimes cold and snubs emotional connection. The boy hates to lose. He’s an Eeyore on steroids.
If that same someone were to walk into our house during our first shot at Special Time, they’d see an entirely different boy. Here is a child who is eager and spunky. He’s creating an elaborate game with unclear structure, and he’s persevering with enthusiasm. As he turns the form of Minecraft into a real-life activity, he’s engaging me in fizzy conversation. He’s cracking jokes.
The visitor in our house would meet a boy who is close to his mom, sharing and cooperating, confident enough to be fine with uncertainty. Here is a Piglet who is ready for anything.
So which boy is he?
We like to think of personality as fixed. That person in our life is a certain set of characteristics: maybe kind, a little introverted has good follow-through on commitments but fumbles in front of crowds. This is the person we know, and because we know she’s this way, we have a sense of predictability in our friendship, workplace, or marriage. If people are changeable, how could we function in our roles?
Indeed, we haven’t needed to ask this question much because most of the common (if mistaken) personality theory that dominates our lives reinforces the notion of consistency. It’s how we end up with ENFJs in workplace training with ISTPs, figuring out how to cooperate on a team. Nevertheless, as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) knows, the test has its flaws. A question comes up: “As a rule, you proceed only when you have a clear and detailed plan.” The test-taker then has to think, In a project meeting with my co-worker? When coaching my kid’s basketball team? Cleaning my closets? Working out at the gym?
Which rule for “as a rule”? The trainer is little help. She’ll say, “pick one area of your life and stick with that.” This test is supposed to map a person’s defining characteristics yet allows the random selection of context and perspective? A little skepticism is fitting.
The fact that organizational leadership and development professionals still rely heavily on the MBTI is not confirmation of its reliability. Indeed, there is no replicable research to back it up, and the science is flimsy at best. The lack of connection to any empirical evidence about “personality type” should gut its foundation and release its hold on us.
“What concerns me is the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to it without the examination of the evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
– Lillian Cunningham, “Myers-Briggs: Does it Pay to Know your Type?” in The Washington Post, December 14, 2012.
Corporate training is a $50 billion a year industry. Its influence is one reason we still believe so firmly in fixed personality traits. Another is based in the theory that we simply see what we want to see, that we seek out examples of certain traits and fix them to people. Personality, then, is an illusion.
Yet another curious idea is that personality, while unfixed and changeable overall, is consistent in a particular context.
Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, has another intriguing idea. . . He thinks we actually are seeing consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation,” he says. Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.”
– Alix Spiegel, “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” from Invisibilia on NPR.
Every so often, I look up exes to see where they’ve wandered. It’s a rare indulgence — rare enough that when I find them again, they have crossed oceans of life. One fellow was all braggadocio masking incompetence and sloth. He was stuck in debt and working a customer-service job he hated. Now runs his own business. His company lead tours in the mountains and edu-tains high school groups in the nation’s capital. The contrast is startling. It’s a marvel that he’s so completely not who I thought he was. . . or rather, that the man he was at that time and place was only one slice of a much larger, evolving person.
Traits may not be as inherent as we assume. Change the context, and the person himself can change.
If I want to become someone different (as indeed I do, with regard to how I approach my career and family), it’s not going to work for me to do so in the current stage-set of my life. If an environment rewards mediocrity, how can a person develop drive?
Shifting the situation invites a reworking of the self.
Taking on a project in a volunteer setting, or stepping into a leadership role in the kiddo’s school, or diving into HOA budget management, or committing to a regular childcare exchange with other parents in the community. . . these are just a few of the ways to “become” someone different. A new role in a new context allows for the cultivation of qualities not yet fully formed in the familiar self.
My son and I are not “who we are,” despite the inane it is what it is trope that comforts our dissonance and excuses our inertia. If we aim to invite a fuller version of ourselves, then we must change what we do, and where, and when, and how.
Image: Micah Bazant from the Trans Life & Liberation Art Series
6 thoughts on “Becoming Who”
Dear Smirkpretty, I am afraid that my comment to your post might read like a 1:1 copy of those spam comments every blog-writer receives all to frequently. But what you wrote here about the plasticity of personality types, Myers-Briggs test and so on reads very interesting to me and I actuallity would like to consider it useful for my daily work in different teams and networks of people. Thanks a lot for the great introduction to this subject and your valuable points of thought.
Best regards, Michael
PS: I guess that the spelling and grammar mistakes in my comment are the proof that I am not a spam robot !
Thank you! It’s fun stuff to think about, and it’s always changing with new research nudging old theories to adapt or die. I imagine you’re never bored in your work.
Food for thought – this makes so much sense to me, though I’ve never considered it quite this way. But I have thought a lot about being careful not to pigeonhole my son and who everyone says he is. In support of your perspective, he’s had a very positive experience away at camp these past 5 (!!) weeks. Taking initiative. Leading. Being creative. Building things. No conflicts. I like the way your thoughts flow from Bug to personalities to people you’ve know – to a deeper lesson.