At some point most of us have been assigned a neat label for our personality, as if it were a brand of clothing. It could have occurred during a job interview, for an online dating profile, or in a social-media quiz that matches your traits with a character from Game of Thrones. Or perhaps you’ve endured a conversation with friends in which everyone is declared an “introvert” or “extrovert”, the two tribes into which the entire world’s population can seemingly be divided. ​The dogma of personality classifications, says psychologist and author Dr Benjamin Hardy, is that they reveal “your true core authentic self – and that [once you have] discovered it, you can finally live your true life.” They are supposed to be empowering and are presented as definitive. They work on the assumption that personality is a rigid thing, cast in plaster.

Speaking over Zoom from his home in Florida, Hardy says all this is “bogus”. In his recent book Personality Isn’t Permanent, he argues personality isn’t fixed at all. Some shifts occur naturally as we go about our lives – but we can also consciously alter our traits should we so desire. He speaks about personality – “your consistent attitudes and behaviours, your way of showing up in situations” – as a collection of learnable skills, like riding a bike.

There is something unromantic and clinical about viewing traits as learned skills, because we tend to see our personality as key to what makes us us. Hardy thinks that’s part of the problem. He says our “identity” – how we choose to define ourself as a person – is what’s important. Personality, which he views as “surface level”, is merely behaviour that stems from living out our identity. So you might see yourself as a powerful, charismatic man, and resulting traits might include confidence and a sharp sense of humour.

It’s a slightly hazy point, but the most important thing is the acknowledgment that we can change – both our identity and personality. This should be liberating. “Most people have overly defined their current self. If you say “I’m an introvert”, that’s a label. And because most people’s identity is a fixed mindset, their imagination and willingness to change is pretty stunted,” he says. “It’s not that we can’t change, it’s that we don’t believe we can.”

Personality Isn’t Permanent is the latest addition to a growing body of psychology research upending the long-held assumption that personality is static. The realisation that it is malleable represents an intriguing addition to the lexicon of self-optimisation. In the past decade, the wellness movement has amplified interest in personal betterment. This has tended to focus on physical wellbeing (eating, sleeping and exercise) and on improving our mental state through practices like meditation. Although many of these overlap with personality – if you’re well rested and exercising regularly, you are likely to be more upbeat – the explicit goal of improving personality traits has rarely surfaced.

Could it be that, in the future, we strive to become funnier or kinder with the same intensity that currently goes into toning our abs? Might personality be the next thing to be sculpted and commodified in our quest to be ever-more-impressive people?

The idea that personality becomes fixed at a certain age has endured for more than a century. The most accepted theory is that it solidifies by age 30 (as someone who’s just celebrated that milestone, I find this thought alarming). This can be traced to William James, the late-19th-century professor whom Hardy calls the “godfather of American psychology”, and is easily explained. Often “you’ve set up a trajectory for yourself by age 30 – you’ve settled into a career and family and stop doing so many ‘first’ things,” says Hardy. “Whereas if you’re trying new things, your personality is going to keep changing because you’re out of your comfort zone. I think people stop doing that as they age, not because they can’t but because they’ve put themselves on a track.”

Dr Wiebke Bleidorn, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, has another explanation for the “personality is fixed” doctrine. In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel suggested personality wasn’t real; it was merely a construct. Personality psychologists reacted by going out of their way to prove it did exist. “There was very little room for the idea that personality changes because we had to show that it’s stable and predicts all kinds of outcomes,” she says. “So then, as often, the pendulum swung a little too far.”

Now, psychologists are working to provide a more accurate, nuanced perspective. Their research shows that normative personality shifts will happen as we live our lives: attending school, moving out of home, and our first romantic relationships all have a significant impact (surprisingly, she says, having children does not). Growing older means traits such as self-control and conscientiousness heighten. Changing environments – workplaces; friendship groups – also have an effect.

But what if we want to give the personality a tune-up – add some humour, subtract some meanness? Being specific about your intentions is important. “You must ask yourself: What is my personality right now? What would be my ideal personality? And what do I have to do to minimise the distance?” says Bleidorn. She advises turning to psychotherapy. Even though we think of psychotherapy as addressing stress or relationship issues, she says “at the end of the day it’s often also a personality intervention. Because what people want is to change their patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour – and that’s our definition of personality.”

Hardy prefers to start with envisaging the person you would like to be – and says traits will follow. When I press him on altering specific traits, though, he says it comes down to “deliberate practice”, a psychology term referring to a repetitive, highly self-aware process. “You must always be pushing slightly above your current skill level, getting feedback and some level of coaching. You watch and analyse yourself, just like a football player.” If the target is to be outgoing, that might mean seeing a life coach, forcing yourself to go up to people at parties, or striking up conversation in cafés. I say it sounds like learning anything else. He says it is. “Personality is a learnable skill, just like learning how to walk.”

If becoming more confident and outgoing is the goal, Nick Hatter could be your man. The London-based life coach uses techniques from fields including positive psychology, hypnosis and psychodynamics (figuring out unconscious motivations). When working on personality changes, he asks questions to help clients determine what motivates and triggers them. “A lot of self-help books just dole out advice, but the problem with advice is it doesn’t really give you that deeper level of self-awareness that will help you make different decisions,” he says.

Is there a cap on how much we can change our personality? Some experts think certain elements – such as the forces that motivate you – are set. But while Hardy admits some transformations will be more difficult, such as becoming sociable if you’re cripplingly shy, he doesn’t see any limits if you’re willing to do the work.​

It sounds seductive on paper, but whether it’s realistic is another matter. When I wonder aloud if this could be the next frontier for self-optimisation most experts suggest that’s too big a claim, given the level of commitment and number of hours required to potentially alter traits. “I don’t know if people want to go that far; it’s not easy,” stresses Bleidorn.

Yet a certain spike in interest seems inevitable. “I think there definitely will be [an increase in personality improvement],” says Hatter, adding that working on emotional intelligence is already becoming more popular in corporate settings. “You get a personal trainer for the gym, why not get one for your personality?”

Awareness that it’s even an option will be the first step for many. “When it comes to optimising yourself, you watch people online getting buff, and realise, ‘OK, I can do that.’ You think you can get ripped, but don’t believe you can change your identity and your personality,” says Hardy. “People are going to realise, more and more, that they actually can – and then they’ll do it.”

Personality Isn’t Permanent by Benjamin Hardy is published by Portfolio at £15.99. Buy it for £13.91 at guardianbookshop.com



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