Did you know that your brain is plastic? Perhaps given how plastic is currently plaguing our planet it may be better to say ‘Your Brain is Plasticine’. However, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
So, what does this mean if you don’t like who you’ve become as a result of your experiences? You can’t go back and alter the past and you certainly can’t change the genes you’ve inherited. Nevertheless, although your early years have a significant impact on who you are, it doesn’t mean that you can’t change.
Until quite recently, it was believed that who we are, whether genetic or environmentally influenced, became “hardwired” once we passed a certain age. However, scientists have now discovered that our brain is far more plastic than we previously believed, plastic meaning malleable. As eminent psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroplasticity challenges a host of long-held beliefs about how much we are able to change and adapt. For example, he explains that children who don’t do so well at school are not necessarily “stuck” with the mental abilities they are born with. He also outlines how someone can rewire their brain to overcome seemingly incurable obsessions and traumas, and that it’s even possible for a person in their 80s to sharpen their memory to function as they did when they were in their 50s.
It’s still fundamentally true that you can’t change your core personality, but you can change the habits of a lifetime, alter your outlook, change your behaviour and attitudes, even, to an extent, modify your intellectual capability, because you can rewire your brain. Given the estimate that 33–65% of your personality is genetically determined, that leaves a lot open to influence by your environment, and consequently to the decisions you make about your development.
This is particularly important to know if you’ve ever been told you’re “not good enough.” Being told you’re not clever or bad at something as a child will damage your self-esteem, and you will most likely carry it as an underlying belief for the rest of your life, influencing a range of behaviors. Yet as an adult it’s up to you whether you incorporate the less positive aspects of your past into your personal narrative. Your brain really is plastic.
You Can Change the Course of Your Life
A number of years ago I was asked to assess someone for a director role in a global company. The candidate, we’ll call her Ava, emailed before the session asking to talk over the phone. I’m open to people contacting me with questions, but it’s unusual when the profile understand why she didn’t want to do the tests. She had had a difficult and complicated upbringing, growing up with a single parent in an immigrant family, and attending a big state school. Because of dyslexia which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, her teachers told her she was “stupid.” She left school and home at 16 and life went from bad to worse, but one thing she retained was her spirited determination. She took herself off to London, got a job in retail, and was quickly identified as having capability and promoted to manage a small team. From that point on her opportunities began to open up. She found a mentor who took the time to understand and guide her, enabling her to go from strength to strength, completing a college diploma and accomplishing a whole string of other significant achievements. I recommended her for the role and can happily report that she not only excelled in the job, but has continued to flourish, succeeding in her subsequent career.
Although when I met Ava she still had the ghost of being told she was “stupid,” she had managed to overcome that as well as all of the other obstacles in her life. What she demonstrates is that you can change the course of your life, it is within your control, you just need to adopt the right attitude, find the right people and tools to support you, and work hard. It’s not easy and elements of those ghosts will probably always remain. But it’s also not impossible.
This is a slightly adapted extract from my book ‘Defining You’ which is out in paperback on 19thof September in the UK and 24thSeptember in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
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