If You Really Want to Change, Better Do It Before You're 30

The times they are a’ changin’, but, make no mistake: You aren’t. Especially if you’re over 30, because at that point you’re too old and set in your ways to do anything transformative about your personality. Sorry.

That’s because, according to University of Cambridge psychology lecturer Brian Little (and author of the new book, Me, Myself, And Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being), your personality is “half-plastered” by the time you turn 30. Half-plastered, he told Melissa Dahl over at Science of Us, is British slang for totally drunk, which is fitting because that’s probably what you were up to in your twenties when you should have been trying to become more conscientious. Zing! Psychology zing! Drinking zing! Twenties zing!

OK but really: Little was actually talking about an idea from psychologist William James, who is credited in 1890 with introducing this whole notion that our personality more or less stabilizes in adulthood: In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

Don’t worry, it’s still true! Dahl also quotes Paul T. Costa Jr. at the National Institutes of Health, who is alive now and said: What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.

Yikes. That’s a loooong life with your particular outlook and disposition, friend. I guess the real question then is: How fucked is that? How fucked are you if that’s true? And what the fuck is to be done?

Well, the good news is that much like your stubbornness, it’s not entirely set in stone. Dahl writes:

In the century since James wrote these words, a bulk of empirical evidence has proven him right — to a point. … Yes, much of the way we behave is influenced by our core personality traits, which, research has shown, have a rather strong genetic component and therefore are pretty stable throughout our lives. And most research, not to mention common sense, suggests that though we change a lot in adolescence and our early twenties, these changes slow down once we enter adulthood. But, Little argues, we can also choose to act against our natures. Our basic personality traits don’t really change. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change and behave in ways that are opposite to our true selves, when the situation calls for it.

Dahl explains that personality, by the way, is usually about five prominent traits:






These traits tend to be ever-present regardless of mood, and may even be from our genes. “Research on identical twins,” Dahl writes, “shows that these five traits are largely heritable, with about 40 to 50 percent of our personality coming from our genes.”

While personality traits show up within days of birth, according to Little, they do evolve throughout childhood and adolescence rather quickly. It’s just that by the time you actually stop being such a self-obsessed twit who is ready to move past the nonsense drama you call a life and live in a more honest, authentic, conscientious, compassionate way that even begins to consider literally ANYTHING outside of what’s in your own dumb solipsistic head, it’s pretty much too late because you’re old now. Um, if I had to take a wild guess or whatever?

But remember: It can be done! It’s just really really really really really really really really really really super hard, not totally possible, and only really possible to a degree. Cool.

“It’ll take some relatively powerful change in the environment,” said Costa.

Take me, for instance! I was a snarky 32-year-old alt-weekly writer who spent four nights a week at a bar not giving a shit about anything that wasn’t cool (to me). I smoked a lot, I drank a lot, and I despised a lot. This is a partial caricature because I did care about social justice and abstract ideas outside myself but boy was it hard to be interpersonally concerned and boy did I try not to be as much as possible. My heart was two sizes too small.

Then I had a baby. And though that is not the entire reason I became a bit more of a grownup, I have to say that my openness and conscientiousness went through the roof, and neither has returned to its previously low levels in the years since that happened. I actually feel much less neurotic than I once was, too (though Dahl notes neuroticism increases with age, as does agreeableness). My ability to relate to a child, speak her language, be empathic, and step outside myself to address her needs has been a monumental leap from where I was before, which was pretty self-absorbed.

But perhaps that is not “changing” so much as “rising to the occasion.” Dahl writes about the idea of acting out of character still being possible — the idea that an introvert could become an extrovert for a period of time, and then return to the real self after playing a part. Over time, and with practice, that becomes less difficult to do. Maybe it never becomes the “real” you, but it becomes an enhanced version of you, which is probably the best we can hope for. I feel completely at ease parenting my daughter, but I’d still never be inspired to go work with kids as some kind of professional calling, for instance.

But there is no question that many milestones that occur on the way from 30 to 85 or 90 are opportunities for these powerful environmental changes to act as a catalyst for change-ish. Marriages, divorces, children, illness, the death of our grandparents and parents. Success and failure. We may retain our core personalities, but these things stretch our idea of ourselves, force us to see ourselves more clearly, and give us nothing but opportunities to upgrade.

But again, that’s only if we take the bait. Probably the most difficult thing about understanding ourselves is knowing when genetics stop and choices start — what is malleable and what is not. There is probably no real clear line, which is great news for anyone who’d rather not bother doing a lot of work. You can’t rise to an occasion that you don’t see. So if nothing else, take the bait. May it descend upon you by year 29.

Image via Getty.

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