The recent season premiere of the Showtime series Billions begins with two hedge fund guys doing ayahuasca with a shaman in the middle of nowhere. We see them run out of the tent to purge, then look at the sky and take in the majesty of Planet Earth and the Universe it spins through. These guys who normally behave like the human offspring of a Hammerhead Shark and a Bloomberg Terminal have grown scraggly beards. They’re openly weeping and talking about the “meaning” of things like life.
Five minutes of screen time later, they’re clean shaven and back in New York, doing insider trading and plotting to destroy people simply for being more popular than they are.
For a glimmer, it looked like these two aggressive, egomaniacal characters were on the brink of personal growth. Whatever experience they had in the mountains with the shaman had altered their perspective on things. It looked like they were ready to turn over a new leaf.
And then they didn’t.
They went home, right back to who they had been before.
Billions is fictional. But its writers are known to do their homework—and do it well by television standards. What happened to those hedge fund guys isn’t only a common occurrence when it comes to ayahuasca. It’s also a dramatized version of what happens to most human beings in a small way all the time.
Research is clear that humans have the capacity to grow and change, no matter how old we are. Studies on post-traumatic growth show us that most of the time, we have the capacity to grow stronger and wiser as a result of even the worst experiences.
But we often DON’T grow and change much after we become adults. Or at least not deliberately.
Why is that?
Why We Don’t Change Even After “Transformative” Experiences
In a fascinating new self-help book by Dr. Benjamin Hardy, an organizational psychologist, we learn that one reason we don’t grow when we have the chance to is because of the LABELS we place on ourselves.
“Labeling is problematic because we think the label we give ourselves is predictive of the future,” Hardy told me in an interview. “But we usually underpredict how different we’ll be in the future.”
This is why Dr. Hary says to beware of personality tests. Understanding yourself is great, but fixing a personality label on yourself can prevent you from growing. To use one of the most common examples of personality traits we talk about: if a test labels you an “introvert,” you’re going to be likely to make decisions that reinforce that. You’ll be less likely to do activities that grow your ability to perform in front of a group of people—say, to practice public speaking. You’ll actually be more likely to avoid extroversion experiences because you come to believe introversion as part of your unchangeable core.
But research is clear that people’s personalities do evolve. Even levels of introversion change over the years. Perhaps more importantly, they vary from situation to situation. Many an outgoing public speaker is shy in personal conversations with strangers.
Even though humans can and do change, we often change slowly, or we don’t take charge of our growth because we mistakenly believe our traits are fixed.
The Billions hedge fund guy doesn’t change as a result of his “transformative” experience not because he can’t, but because he sees himself as fixed. He’s a shark. That’s just who he is. So, oh well.
Same with us. When we have experiences that change our perspectives, instead of changing things in our lives, our subconscious brains often mistakenly say, “tigers don’t change their stripes.” And so we go back to our old behaviors—no matter how bad they are.
The problem with this is right in the title of Dr. Hardy’s excellent new book: Personality Isn’t Permanent.
Integration, A Surprisingly Helpful Habit for How Little Work It Is:
Had the fictional billionaires in Billions done one thing, however, things might have actually changed in that story.
The difference between people who go on, say, an ayahuasca journey and then change their life and those who don’t comes down to what’s called “integration.”
This is the time you take after the experience to reflect on your life and to incorporate any new perspectives into it. It’s figuring out practical daily applications to profound life experiences. Plant medicine workers often say that this step is just as important as the experience itself.
For those of us that aren’t regularly using psychedelic substances, we’re still having regular experiences that we can be learning from.
The difference between personal growth in either case—whether we’re talking about the aftermath of ayahuasca or a documentary, or even a conversation with someone—is whether you integrate what you’ve learned into your life, and are able to apply it.
The kinds of people who consistently have personal growth are the ones who take the time to continually re-assess things in their lives based on the experiences they’re having all the time.
It takes intellectual humility to realize that we could be behaving differently and living better as a result of what we’ve learned. But that’s why intellectual humility is so powerful.
“All progress starts by telling the truth,” Hardy says, quoting Dan Sullivan, “And that’s a big aspect of psychological flexbility, or being able to look at something from a different angle—a willingness to actually handle emotion and to face hard truths.”
The reason we don’t do proper integration in our lives often boils down to the labels thing. We don’t take time for integration because we don’t think we can change. But knowing that even traits we view as fundamental can and do change gives us a reason to do what Bobby Axelrod didn’t.
And it turns out that there’s a very easy way to incorporate regular integration into our everyday lives: Write in a journal.
The Simplest Way To Practice Integration and Take Charge Of Your Personal Growth:
“Journaling is the ultimate integration tool,” Hardy explains. “There’s something magical about giving yourself the time to think about your past in light of what you now know, and to write it down.”
Now, we human beings are good at deception. And we’re good at lying to ourselves. But we’re much more likely to be honest with ourselves when we put our thoughts into words in a journal meant for only ourselves than we are with our friends, or sometimes even with a therapist.
And for journaling to be effective, you don’t even have to do it every day. Just whenever you have a potentially meaningful experience.
“Journaling is a form of clarifying thoughts and emotions,” Hardy told me. “It’s a place where you can have healthy conversations with yourself where you can be vulnerable and honest about what you’re actually going through. It’s a place for self-analysis about what’s generally going on in your life.”
(I can attest personally to the power of journaling for my own personal growth. If you want to read about the time I started keeping a “lie journal” about my white lies and how that changed my relationships, as an example of a specific outcome from journaling, I wrote about that in my personal newsletter a bit ago here.)
When you force yourself to think about your life, and put into words how your recent experiences might help you to change, the concept of “personality” starts to become less interesting than the concept of “strengths.” Taking self-inventory in terms of strengths and weaknesses is a lot more useful and actionable than taking inventory of yourself like a tiger taking inventory of its stripes.
Journaling and self-analysis can help us to reframe fixed labels as current strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stopping at “I’m an introvert or extrovert” we can ask, “How good am I at going deep into introspection? How good am I at conversations with strangers? At public performance? At asserting myself? At being alone?” This way, we start to see “introversion” and “extroversion” as categories of strengths we can work on, not either/or labels that don’t change.
The Most Important Personality Tool Is Story
The takeaway from Dr. Hardy’s research on self-development is not to replace the study of human behavior with journaling, or to throw out decades of research on personality with the bathwater of labels and bad tests.
Anyone who’s had more than one kid will tell you how useful it is to know how what gets one kid to clean their room is different for the other.
Indeed, understanding personality diversity is incredibly important to communicating effectively with people, to resolving problems, to persuasion, to building coalitions. As Dr. Hardy told me, “My book is not really tailored to the question of how to deal with other people based on their personalities.”
But, as Hardy rightly points out, even the most scientifically sound personality tests can’t really tell us what will motivate someone in a given situation, what triggers a person will have due to past experiences, or how someone will tend to react to bad news. All of those will depend on much more than what we can measure with a test. (I dare you to find a parent who has used a one-time personality test to actually figure out the nuances of their kids.)
So while understanding the dimensions of human personality is useful for understanding human behavior, and can make us better equipped to notice people and show empathy, the best way to understand an individual’s personality is not a multiple-choice quiz. It’s to get to know their individual story.
And in a way, this brings us back to journaling. Because what better way to understand your own story than to take time to honestly think about it and put it into words?
“The more you get to know someone, the more nuance there is, the less they’ll be consistent with tight and tidy personality profiles,” Hardy told me. “I prefer the simplicity of looking at the individual level. And that’s why I think empathy is so important—not judging people based on who they were in the past.”
The key, in other words, is to not conflate our observations of how people tend to behave with who they are—and to remember that people change all the time.
In fact, if we treat people as if they can change for the better, people will often do so. Ourselves included.