Personal change

As we grow older, we change. This is commonly attributed to changes in ourselves – aging changing the way our brains work, accumulating experience making us wiser or more set in our ways, and so on. But:

Why cannot you truly stay as a child forever? Because as time passes, people will change their attitude towards you: they will expect you to give up childish behaviors and adopt mature ones. You cannot rely on your caretakers forever, for eventually they will die. Even if you never wanted to change, the world will change its expectations and requirements of you.

Why are you constantly forced to learn new skills and knowledge, even as an adult? Because people are constantly coming up with innovations that require new skills to master, and those innovations keep getting adopted. Your knowledge keeps going out of date, because the world keeps changing. You have to keep running, just to stay still.

Why do your values and ways of thought undergo changes as you meet new people and spend time in new environments? Because all of them nudge your thoughts in different directions; as Brian Tomasik writes:

I’ve been amazed to observe how much small, seemingly trivial cues build up to have an enormous impact on the direction of one’s concerns. The types of conversations I overhear, blog entries and papers and emails I read, people I interact with, and visual cues I see in my environment tend basically to determine what I think about during the day and, over the long run, what I spend my time and efforts doing. One can maintain a stated claim that “X is what I find overridingly important,” but as a practical matter, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the subtle influences of minor day-to-day cues that can distract from such ideals.

And more generally, because environments are niches: as Kevin Simler writes:

Every class has its clown, because “class clown” is a strong, viable niche (even if it’s not particularly wide) — a stable attractor in the social behavior-space of a classroom. If a class doesn’t yet have its clown, someone will inevitably find that making a wisecrack is rewarded (with social approval in the form of laughter), and before you know it, he or she will be cracking wise at every opportunity.

But like I said, there are far more niches, which are far more nuanced, than just the ones we’ve learned to identify by name. “Alpha,” for example, doesn’t refer to a single niche, but rather a whole class of niches that happen to share a particular feature (being on top). There are many different types of “alpha” niches — leading by intimidation, leading by example, leading by wits and with humor, servant leadership, having an inherited titled (kingdoms etc.), leading with the support of the people, etc.

When it comes to personality, what’s important is the fit between the niche and who you ‘naturally’ (albeit tentatively) are. A lot of personality development involves growing into a niche, but some niches fit better than others, so it’s also important to find the right niche. This is where the body and basic cognitive tendencies come into play. There’s a lot of variation among children (even before adolescence forces them to specialize even further), so it’s important to find a niche that plays to one’s unique strengths.

One might think that people change because of themselves: because the choices that we make end up changing us in some direction, and because there are biological and physical changes. And this is true. But to a possibly much greater extent, people change because the world changes: people are not separate from the world but deeply interwoven with it. We inhabit the world, and any changes in the world may become reflected in us.

One comment

  1. Good stuff. I find that observations like this can almost always be turned around into useful self-help advice. Don’t like who you are? Find people who will expect more out of you, who will nudge you subtly in positive directions, etc. It isn’t quite true that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, but it isn’t that far off either.

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