Give up saying always and never

Years ago, I listened to Daniel Gilbert, a psychology researcher at Harvard University, share his findings from a survey study of over 19,000 people which looked at the change in one’s personality and values over time. Some survey participants were asked to look back on how they had changed over the past 10 years. Others were asked to predict how they thought they would change in the next decade. 

Recently, I came across an NPR article that summarized the outcome of that same study. The key takeaway was that whether a person be in their teenage years or middle-aged, people consistently underestimate how much they will change in the future. This underestimation is true not only of personal preferences but also core values and personality traits. My interpretation is that the change could be something as seemingly trivial as, for example, liking apples today but disliking apples in the future, to something arguably more significant like not believing in God today but becoming a believer in the future. 

Given Gilbert’s findings, isn’t it interesting how intensely we defend our personality traits, core values and preferences as fixed? For instance, when was the last time you said, “I always do X” or “I would never do Y”? For many, I suspect it wasn’t too long ago. It’s fine. You’re human. I’m human. We all do it, though, I wonder if there are underlying impacts of using absolute statements like always and never?  This question was the motivation behind my interest in exploring this phenomenon. 

Does the always and never mentality threaten flexibility?

I believe absolute statements have a tendency to threaten our ability and willingness to be flexible. Living in a world of rapid change, there are few things more dangerous than inflexibility. Whether it be to preserve our ego or reputation, even if we may actually change our preferences or values, we are stubborn to admit a change of mind or heart so as not to appear indecisive or “wishy washy”.

Society tends to view changing one’s mind as weakness

Why is flexibility mistakenly viewed as weakness? When a flexible individual has made up their mind, they are doing so with the realization that given the facts and information made available to them at that particular point in time, merged with their opinion at that particular point in time, is what helped them make a decision. Their decision could evolve as new information or facts are made available or as their opinion changes. Why then do we have a tendency to view changing one’s mind as weakness when it’s simply the evolution of a decision? 

Could the always and never mentality breed intolerance?

If we fool ourselves with “it’s black or white” thinking, are we only harming ourselves or others too? If we become hyper-focused on the fact that “I always do X” or “I would never do Y”, do we have a tendency to dismiss or become intolerant of, either consciously or subconsciously, someone who sometimes does X or Y? 

The more life experience you have, the more you’ll change your mind

It’s hard to argue this point. Most people can accept the idea that a 7 year old will likely have drastically different personal preferences, personality traits and core values when they are 20 years old. If we can accept that idea, then why is it so difficult to accept that a 45 year old may have drastically different personal preferences, personality traits and core values when they are 58 years old? In both instances, that is a span of 13 years. Why then do we place an arbitrary rule on the age we believe change should slow down significantly or stop altogether? From my own observations, I’ve seen people radically transform in 1,3 and 5 year periods. Sometimes it can take shape in a matter of a few months if a person has had a formative or life-changing experience!

What if we truly accepted change as inevitable?

What would happen if we approach our lives with full acceptance that not only ourselves but everyone around us will change, in unpredictable and sometimes drastic ways?

What would happen if we stop fighting change or shifts in preferences, beliefs, and values out of fear of looking “wishy washy” or “morally weak” in some cases?

Would this acceptance give us and the people around us permission to live more authentically? More freely? 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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