Marketing gurus recommend that if you want to get noticed, pick a fight. This seems to be the strategy adopted by Benjamin Hardy in his new book “Personality isn't Permanent”, subtitled “break free from self limiting beliefs and rewrite your story”.
The fight he picks is with personality tests (Myers Briggs / MBTI, DISC, and the hundreds more now available), which he aggressively attacks as being limiting, inhumane and borderline dangerous - locking us into a fixed view of who we are creating tunnel vision and making us think in very black and white terms.
Hardy doesn't pull punches. At one point in the book, he talks about a prisoner, André, who vowed to kill all the white people in his prison, treating them as an amorphous group. Hardy likens this black-and-white thinking to be reflective of traditional views of personality! That’s an inflammatory example with very little relevance to the question of psychological profiling.
Now, as somebody who has geeked out on various personality tests and assessments. I was expecting to have strong reactions to this book. However, I actually walked away liking the book and with the feeling that he had picked a fight that simply was not required.
Personality Isn’t Permanent is actually a well laid-out blueprint for growing as a person and moving past self limiting beliefs.
I closed the book agreeing with the positive steps he lays out regarding becoming a better leader and shifting our behaviours, but feeling he’d picked an unnecessary battle and brought unconvincing arguments to bear in the early chapters.
Personality Isn’t Permanent: A review of each chapter
Let’s get into the review. The book is structured into six main chapters.
The first chapter, covers the “myths of personality”. Interestingly, personality is never defined and is often used interchangeably with concepts such as identity, behaviour patterns, and habits.
There's no serious engagement with the nuances of most psychological assessments. There's no acknowledgement that personality tests often very explicitly explain that they are reporting current tendencies/preferences. And there's no real engagement with the idea that fit assessments are a key tool used by counsellors and coaches around the world, people whose entire role is based on the conviction that people can and do change.
The five myths that Hardy covers are:
In chapter two, Hardy describes how he sees the truth of personality: namely that personality comes from purpose - and our goals will shape our identity.
This link isn’t fully made clear. I might get super-clear on my purpose, but my tendencies to be a chatterbox (or not), or highly analytical (or not), don’t necessarily shift - or need to shift - as a result.
Clearly our goals will drive our observable behaviours, but we probably have various options as to how we can attain our goals. For example, if I want to spread a message, do I jump to get on stage, or seek to influence by writing, or do I recruit a charismatic speaker to the cause instead of doing it myself? Our preferences (personality?) will probably lead us to embrace certain options and reject others.
In any case, the discussion starts to moves very strongly away from the world of psychological assessments, and squarely on to the ground of goal setting.
His recommendations are surprisingly conventional and all things in fact that many advocates of psychological assessments would agree with: going to bed early, getting up earlier, journaling about your goals, and applying positive thinking and visualisation.
Chapter three is about transforming trauma. In this chapter, we are invited to revisit, and reframe difficult events in the past, which may well require the help of have an empathetic witness to help us understand the meaning of what happened in the past.
This is an interesting chapter. If we don't go back to events in the past based on our current self and current perspectives, we may well retain the original meanings that we gave to events in the past and be unable to move beyond the limiting beliefs they created in us.
As a simple example: if was never picked for the football teams in the playground when I was seven years old, I may well have a self image that I'm no good at sport and that people don't like me. With maturity I can revisit that same set of events and reframe it: I’d never shown any interest in sport and had not practised as much as my classmates, so I wasn’t as good at them at that particular time and I was naturally less likely to be chosen for a team. This reframing would then open up the possibility that if I was to train, I could indeed be a chosen and valuable player on the sports field.
Chapter four is about shifting your story. Hardy explains that if we shift our identity based from our past (what we have done and who we were) to our future (who we are becoming and desire to be) then we can make significant personality shifts.
This idea of the “future self” is extremely important and a key pillar in my own coaching work. By focusing on a future self our behaviours and attitudes can evolve significantly - personality isn’t permanent … but it still doesn’t mean that personality tests and psychometric assessments aren’t helpful.
This leads on to Chapter five: enhancing your subconscious, where he recommends adopting practices that reinforce the future self that we want to become. In particular, fasting and giving money away.
Chapter six looks at the power of environment, and makes the point that if we have in a predictable environment, we’re likely to be predictable people. In fact, as Hardy admits, the reason that many people actually do have a fairly fixed personality over their lives is simply because our environment does not often change dramatically.
Hardy focuses on a few specific ideas here:
The missing discussion
As I read this book I realised that I agreed with most of it, and indeed have incorporated many - or even most - of these insights already into my own life and my own executive coaching practice.
I strongly believe that we all have a new version of ourselves coming through, and a next level that we can achieve. The person that we are becoming does not need to be limited by the person that we are now.
And I believe very much in the power of story, identity, environment, and goal setting to help get us there.
So I finished the book slightly bemused. Why pick such an aggressive battle with a “straw man” of personality tests? Is it really just a marketing strategy?
Hardy sets up a fight with an extreme, reductionist view of looking at personality: a view which assumes that people take a test, and immediately feel constrained by the profile.
Of course, people can use anything as an excuse for complacency and stagnation - including personality tests. But the truth is that many of the world's most dynamic individuals have found great value in various psychological assessments, and ways of understanding personality.
These people certainly haven't been locked in by such assessments, but have instead enabled them to appreciate diversity in others, and appreciate their own current preferences and tendencies.
Dan Sullivan, one of the author's heroes (and someone referred to multiple times in the book) is himself a big fan of the Kolbe personality system. Sullivan has recently mentioned that he’s used a wide variety of these assessments, not taking them as gospel truth, but using them as lenses to understand himself and others and to expand his vocabulary and mental models of all that goes into being a person.
It's true that personality tests do create arbitrary buckets for people. But in fact, this creates a language that allows us to think through relational dynamics and gives us a framework for understanding other people's thought processes.
Whilst it’s right that many personality tests can be a little dogmatic that they’ve got to your “unchanging essence”, almost all practitioners are aware that we can and do shape and mould our personality based on nurture, choices and environment.
Hardy himself acknowledges that most people's habits and behaviour patterns do not shift over time and remain relatively constant and this has been validated scientifically.
From a pragmatic perspective, if people generally don't change that much then it's highly helpful to understand the ways in which they operate and their natural patterns of thinking and behaving personality assessments are incredibly helpful here.
Used well, psychometric tools can actually promote personal growth. This discussion simply wasn’t addressed.
Personality baked in?
One interesting assumption baked into the book is that we all need to be future focused and goal-driven to succeed. To quote Hardy, “Your personality isn't permanent. The most successful people in the world base their identity and internal narrative on their future, not their past.”
This is an incredible assertion that actually makes Hardy’s own personality and preferences very clear! It’s also a statement laden with cultural assumptions: What is a successful person anyway? Why does a successful person need to feel the need to change and strive?
Again from the same paragraph, “This is how successful people live, they become who they want to be but orientating their life towards their goals, not as a repeat of the past by acting bravely as their future selves. Not perpetuating who they formerly were..“
For me this reflects actually a very specific personality disposition! I have many friends who feel that they are happy and successful as they are focusing on the here and now being present and grounded meeting their needs, need to define radical visions for future self. These people aren't necessarily stagnant. But they do take a very different mental perspective on the subjects from me and from Hardy.
Your personality isn't permanent. The most successful people in the world base their identity and internal narrative on their future, not their past.
Personality isn’t Permanent: final conclusions from this review
This is the strength and the weakness of this book:
The strength is that indeed Hardy does describe many factors that can help us to evolve and grow as a person, and he refuses anything that might cause us to give up in hopelessness.
The weakness is that in doing so he aggressively dismisses various tools that have been empirically shown to be helpful to help individuals, understand themselves better, identify where their tendencies are in fact holding them back, provide a language to identify and notice patterns of behaviour, and work more effectively with other people.
As an an apologetic against personality assessments and profiling tools, Personality Isn't Permanent is shallow, simplistic and attacks a straw man - rather than constructively engaging with the the pros and cons of psychometric tools and how they are actually used in promoting personal growth.
However, for anybody who wants to expand their possibilities of who they could become, Personality Isn't Permanent is a readable, enjoyable and helpful book.