Can you really change yourself for the better?


I shouldn’t be up this late.

It’s well after midnight, I’m drinking coffee and eating crap food.

I’ve always been a night owl and that’s only one of the bad habits I’m prone to. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never change.

A mentor of mine, Howard Suber, made a distinction between destiny and fate. Fate is what controls you, that thing you cannot avoid. Like genetics. Destiny is what you seek and make. Nurture, not nature.

Great stories come from when a character fights fate and makes the choice to seek their destiny.

Can you change who you are? Is it really even possible?



It’s naive to think your genetics don’t play a large role in who and what you become:

Personality? Genetics affect how confident you are, leadership ability, alcoholism, happiness and even whether you get married.

Politics? Your DNA influences which party you support, how partisan you are, whether you vote, and the intensity of your beliefs.

Money? Your genes affect whether you’re a cheapskate, how you invest, and if you’d be a good Wall Street trader.

What’s the best predictor of smarts? Your mother’s IQ.

Via The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement:

The single strongest predictor of a person’s IQ is the IQ of his or her mother.

Genetics affect whether you end up a criminal. Are you a psychopath? Might want to blame dad:

For males, having a criminal biological father increased the odds of scoring in the extreme of the psychopathic personality trait scale by a factor ranging between 4.3 and 8.5.

And living past 100 is very much due to hereditary factors:

People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits, according to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University… “This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Only 20% of those who set out to change themselves can really sustain it:

Via Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential And How You Can Achieve Yours:

The odds that significant improvements in either performance or happiness are sustained are only 1 in 5… Research on happiness confirms that people generally fall back to what social scientists call their “baseline happiness” levels shortly after events or accomplishments that significantly raise their happiness. This includes winners of large lotteries.

You know how much the average teacher improves with experience? They don’t.

No matter what you may have gleaned from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers, there is such a thing as natural talent. Looking at chess champions:

A factor analysis found evidence for an underlying natural talent factor that constrains ultimate performance level.

Most people may do something for 10,000 hours (driving a car over the course of a lifetime) but never get anywhere near expert level (Formula One). Most people plateau and some even get worse.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.



Ready to give up? Feel like change is impossible? It’s all fate and no destiny? Hold on a second.

How much does natural talent control what you can achieve in life? In ~95% of cases, it doesn’t.

Via Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else.

Experience can make a difference. You do get wiser as you age. You can learn from mistakes:

Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radical breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality. But Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions... Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

It takes time, but merely deciding that you’re committed for the long-term vs the short-term makes an enormous difference in improvement.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:


The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent.

Changing habits takes an average of 66 days. Establishing competency at new skills takes approximately 8 weeks as well. Change is possible, but it takes time.

As Malcolm Gladwell explained in Outliers, to become an expert it requires 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years) of deliberate practice. Not just showing up, but actively trying to improve. It’s hard work.

But hard work pays off. In fact, it pays off more than anything else:

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.

A good chunk of happiness is controlled by your genes but there’s a lot you can do that is proven to make you happier. Many happiness-increasing techniques have been repeatedly tested and even worked with the clinically depressed.

What’s really fascinating is that new research shows you can even change how your genetics affect you. Your life and how you live it can alter how your children and even grandchildren are influenced by their genes.

Via Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook:

Using the meticulous Swedish records, Bygren drew a random sample of ninety-nine people who lived in the small town of Overkalix in 1905. When he examined boys who had gone from starvation during one winter to gluttony the next, he found that they produced children, and even grandchildren, whose lifespan was much shorter than the norm. When all other factors known to affect longevity were taken into account, the difference was an incredible thirty-two years. This data revealed an astonishing fact. Living through two successive winters of bust and boom as a child set off a chain of biological events that reverberated down the generations so that one’s grandchildren would die years earlier than their peers.


Is real change possible?

A lot of people write to me thinking that because I’ve read all this stuff I’m a paragon of virtue, a Zen master, and I don’t struggle with all the problems they do. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t write here because I have the answers. I write here because I’m looking for them.

(Bukowski said it best.)

This blog is an ongoing effort to understand how we can improve our lives, to get better.

One more day of fighting fate. One more day of chasing destiny.

Time to go to bed.

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Want to become an expert? Go here. (The best books on expertise are here.)

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Want to be happier? Go here.

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