Can you choose your personality?

CS140, 03/18/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

For today’s thought for the weekend, I thought I’d come full circle and talk about the idea that made me think of doing these thoughts for the weekend in the first place. The idea I want to close with is, can you choose your own personality? I propose that both as a question and a challenge to you as students. Do we actually have any control over our personalities?

There’s a pretty good argument that we don’t. For example, a lot of personalities are undoubtedly genetic in nature and so depend on however the genes mixed up when you were born. But then for the first part of your life, you’re just not able to control your personality. You’re being programmed continuously the whole time you’re growing up, by your parents, your friends and the people that are around you. Everybody subconsciously imitates what they see, so your personality is being programmed and you have no control over that. I learned that up through high school and maybe even early in college, most people are not well-enough developed to really think about what kind of personality they would like to have. You’re too busy just trying to become a basic human being, to learn how to understand and manipulate the world around you, that the idea of manipulating your own fundamental essence, who you are and how you feel–you’re just not mature enough to do that. You just can’t reason it out yourself or step out of yourself and reason it out from the outside. Many people never acquire that ability their whole lives. On the other hand, by the time you get to your mid or late twenties, it’s too late. Most people’s personalities are pretty fixed by then. For some of you, I’m afraid, it’s already too late–you might already be frozen. There are probably a few of you who are really lucky: your personalities will remain flexible for thirty or forty more years, until late in your life. You’re the enviable ones and you’ll be able to do really great things with your personality. But for most of you, you don’t have much time. If you’re going to control your personality, it has to happen pretty much right away: you’ve only got a few years to do it.

I have no scientific basis for what I’m going to say next, but personally, I like to believe that most people have some control. […] If I go to Amazon, can I just buy the extravert personality workout video? Cynicism in twelve easy steps? Of course, no. (Actually, there’s probably someone out there who has written such a book […]) The best I can say is, borrow and steal. Look around you in the people you interact with and when you see someone who has a really interesting, enviable personality characteristic, just take it. People are really good at emulating, so just find the things around you that you like. Be constantly thinking, do I like that characteristic and do I want that for myself? I’ve done that several times in my life–I don’t know if it’s because I grew up without a father figure around to tell me stuff, but there are perhaps half a dozen times in my life when I saw something I really liked and I decided, I’m going to try and be like that. I probably never did any of those things as good as any of the people I was trying to emulate, but I can say that I did skew myself a little bit.

I want to tell you one probably funny story about a situation like this. When I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, I was TA’ing one of the intro programming classes and I had a disagreement with the professor about something. I don’t even remember what it was anymore, but somewhere, I thought he wasn’t being fair to the students in the class. I was kind of passionate and hot-headed in those days and so I went to tell the professor about it and suggested that we make a change to fix the problem. He listened very carefully and said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” That kind of bugged me, so I explained again why this was really important. He said again, “No, I don’t think I’m going to do that.” Then, I decided I would resort to some stronger arguments. I began to insult him and talked about how he wasn’t a very good professor if he didn’t do this–it wasn’t fair to the students. He was completely unflappable. He didn’t get mad at me for insulting him, so then I decided I would find out how far I could go with this. Plus, the harder it was to get him angry, the angrier I was myself. I became more and more insulting to the professor and yet, it all completely washed off of him.

Now, you’re probably thinking, what a mature move: thank you for sharing with us the reasonable person principle in action here. I think I actually knew the reasonable person principle back then, but I hadn’t quite fully assimilated it. I just got so mad that I ended up storming out of his office. I stayed mad–I kept thinking about it and got madder and madder until it suddenly hit me and realized that I needed to be that way. This is actually an incredibly powerful personality trait, that you don’t take insults: people can’t make you mad. And so I decided to try and become that way. Over time, I realized that there’s actually a pretty deep thought behind all of this, which is, an insult isn’t something that happens to you: it’s not like getting hit by lightning or catching the flu or something that you have no control over. An insult is something you have to agree to. If you don’t agree to be insulted, nobody can insult you. And that, to me, was just a really powerful idea. You think about the world today, where there are so many people who are just desperate to be insulted. They’re so eager to find something they can take insult with so they can take out some horrible vengeance back on it. And this idea is that you just don’t have to be insulted. These days, it’s pretty hard to say things to get me mad. You just realize, I don’t have to feel insulted–call me whatever you want. That’s an example from my life. There are probably other examples that are less juvenile in origin than that one was.

I’d say, think about that: find traits that you like and emulate them. Just to summarize, I have put up all the thoughts for the weekend and I’d like to remind you what they are again:

  • A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of Y-intercept
  • Fear is more dangerous than evil
  • Simplicity
  • Scar tissue makes relationships wear out
  • The most important component of evolution is death
  • The reasonable person principle
  • Do your disasters make you weaker or stronger?
  • Mental agility
  • For major (non-technical) decisions, trust your gut

Can you choose your personality?

To close out the class, I’d just like to say, I know you all worked really really hard in this class–sorry how hard you had to work. If I had it my way, it wouldn’t be quite as much work. But hopefully, at the end of the day, you will have learned enough to at least mostly compensate you for all the time you put in. In fact, I’ll stop, wish you a good weekend and see you at the exam on Monday morning.


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