You Can’t Do Anything You Put Your Mind To

What the research on the science of personality says is a better motto than "you can do anything you put your mind to."

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I’ve always believed that platitudes like, “You can do anything you put your mind to,” or, “If you believe, you can achieve” are bunk.

Anyone who buys that stuff is destined to fail, complain about it, and side with conspiracy theories explaining why the world’s out to get them.  

But, then again, believing the opposite—you are who you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it—is probably worse, right? And what about having a “growth mindset“?

This got me wondering:

In what ways are we limited by who we are? And in what ways can we change?

So I flung myself into a wormhole. 

I ended up reading multiple papers and three books (plus others’ summaries of them!) about the science of personality

And I emerged with way more than just the answers I was looking for. 

You Can’t Change the Way You’re Wired

Let’s start with what behavioral scientist Daniel Nettle claims to be “probably the most important discovery in psychology in recent decades”

Fifty percent of your personality is determined by genes. The other fifty percent is from your environment. And that environmental half seems to be beyond anyone’s control. 

This means: 

  • The way your parents raised you plays no part in your personality. If you were adopted, your personality would be just as similar to your parents and siblings as if you were raised together with them.
  • You can’t do much to change your personality in the long run. You can act out of your personality, but it won’t budge your core personality traits. 

If you’re not open or agreeable enough to believe this, well, that’s your personality. Nothing can be done about it. 

But if you’re willing to trust the research, here’s the upshot:

Rather than naively believe you can do anything you put your mind to, understand how your mind is wired and work with it rather than against it. 

Same goes for your kids, employees, wife, and, maybe, dog (I didn’t dive into dog psychology, sorry). 

Update: It’s Mostly Innate, Innit?

Neurogenticist Kevin Mitchell makes a compelling case in his book, Innate, that most of this “environmental” influence comes from stochastic way our brains follow our genetic code in development.

See my book summary, and its implications on my clone army, here:

Nuture Your Nature

The most tried and true personality framework is the Five Factors, aka Big Five:

  • Conscientiousness. Your frontal lobe’s level of reactivity to being given goals or rules.
  • Agreeableness. Your brain’s ability/propensity to factor other people’s mental states into your behavior.
  • Neuroticism. Your brain’s responsiveness to negative emotions.
  • Openness to Experience. Your brain’s ability to think broadly and loosely. 
  • Extraversion. Your brain’s sensitivity to positive emotions

These are all traits, i.e., measures along a scale. 

You probably already have a pretty good idea about where you sit on each. Even so, I recommend reading up on each trait in more detail to understand them better and how they affect your behavior.   

Then, once you understand your personality profile, consider redirecting your efforts toward niches that suit it rather than resist it. 

↳ Learn more: The CANOE Personality Traits, And What You Can Do About Them

My Challenge to You

Ask yourself:

  1. What’s something you’re struggling to accomplish. (Lose weight, make money, get laid, whatever.)
  2. How might a clash with your personality be causing some of this struggle?
  3. How might you be able to redirect your efforts to work with your wiring rather than against it? 

Then try more #3 and less #2 to accomplish #1.

Or think of helping someone else with the same. 

Thought Starters

  • 🛑 Time to stop? “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.” – W.C. Fields
  • 🏡 Where’s your fit? Just as important as personality fit may be place fit: “The crucial first step to survival in all organisms is habitat selection. If you get to the right place, everything else is likely to be easier.” Edward O. Wilson
  • 🧩 What are you made of? Brian Little, author of the second book above, finds that we are defined by our “personal projects” more than our personality. Each person typically has fifteen projects going at a time. What are yours, and how could changing them change you? (See this article for more.)
About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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The Zag shares my adventures off of the boring beaten paths of life and ideas for finding your own unfollowable path.