Push the Boundaries of Your Personality

Maximize your contributions in fulfilling new ways

Photo: Eva Szombat

When I was 16 years old, doctors told me I had a rare and catastrophic genetic mutation, one that would lead to cancers in multiple organs.

Within a year, I had lost all sight in one eye to large tumors. The doctors said I would almost certainly face cancer in several other places, from my kidneys to my spine. For someone born in my generation with this mutation, life expectancy was about 40 years.

I am now 44. Just as the odds suggested, I have spent the past 25 years battling pancreatic cancer, adrenal tumors, kidney cancer, and several spinal tumors.

My condition gave me a sense of urgency to make the best use of my time. None of us truly knows how much more time we have. As a result, I have been trying to figure out how all of us can reorient our efforts toward making the most substantive contribution possible over a lifetime.

My extensive research and exploration have led me to the following conclusion: We need a whole new way to think about our life’s work. Think of it as moving from “You are what you do” to “You are how you help.”

Which brings me to another crucial learning: There is no good reason to believe you’re simply stuck in a role that you’ve come to realize doesn’t suit you. This means redesigning your job — and, to some extent, yourself.

Pushing your personality

A topic of never-ending debate is the degree to which talent and personality are fixed versus developed over time. Let me be clear on my take: People do change over a lifetime. Sometimes a lot.

Research has shown that we can deliberately push the boundaries of our personality and that doing so doesn’t take all that long. A review of 207 studies found that interventions designed to change specific personality traits yielded results within six months, on average. Which means there is no good reason to hold back from pushing yourself to move into a career you think you’d find more fulfilling but worry you may not have the right personality for.

All the personality tests I’ve taken over the years, for example, have labeled me an introvert. I don’t dispute them. It’s absolutely true that I am not as naturally outgoing or gregarious as most people I know. But I now realize that I’ve also used the label as a crutch. I’ve lost count of how many social events with friends, family, and colleagues I’ve opted out of, using my so-called introversion as an excuse for skipping what would likely have been an enjoyable time.

As someone who does a lot of writing, speaking, and teaching, I know that putting myself out there more would likely be better for my career. I could arguably help or reach more people if I push myself to be more outspoken instead of reserved and cautious. Almost everyone I know in the book and publishing world has encouraged me to share more, both online and offline.

So, I am going to try to shift my personality and become a bit more extroverted. I know that won’t happen overnight, but I’m confident that I can make progress. Trying to be someone you are not is a big mistake, but so is having a completely fixed mindset about who you are. And when you push your personality, you can extend your impact in current and future roles.

A path to contribution

People often believe they have to make a dramatic change in their work to be more fulfilled, whether this means finding a new job or transitioning to a whole new career. Those may be the best options on occasion, but in most cases it’s important to start by maximizing the contributions you’re making within your current work. The truth is most of us spend very little time thinking about how we can make the job we have into one that better suits what we have to give.

Researchers Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin Berg, and Jane Dutton have spent more than a decade studying people who have successfully made their current jobs into much more meaningful and enjoyable careers. The conclusion they’ve drawn from their extensive research: It is possible to turn the job you have into the job you want. They’ve also determined that effective job crafting starts with creating change in three key areas: tasks, relationships, and perceptions.

According to the researchers, you can shift the boundaries of your job by eliminating and taking on more tasks, changing the scope of these tasks, or finding a different way to perform tasks. You also have the power to alter the depth and nature of your relationships and interactions with other people at work. This is where pushing your personality can have particularly visible payoffs.

Changing your perceptions about work is the third and perhaps most fruitful area for change, in my experience. Everyone can alter the way they think about the purpose of their job, all the way from detailed tasks to longer-term goals and missions. Start with a very basic question: Who can, does, or will eventually benefit from my efforts?

Even when you can (literally) see the people who benefit from your work every day, it can still be difficult to acknowledge the value you are creating and to remind yourself of the meaning behind these efforts. I hear from teachers who were in a rut until they found a way to recognize the daily influence they were having on the growth and development of at least one child. In my work with hospice nurses, who spend most of their time dealing with the very ill and dying, I have heard countless stories from nurses who got so caught up in the routine and mechanics of their job that they failed to acknowledge the meaning created in the course of their work.

A commonality I have observed, across professions, is that your contributions come into clearest view as you get closer to the source. The more you can learn about a person who directly benefits from your time and effort, the more motivation you will have to improve that person’s life in the future. Learning as much as you can about the people you serve can also push you to leverage your talents — and stretch the parameters of your personality — in fulfilling new ways.

Reprinted from LIFE’S GREAT QUESTION: Discover How You Contribute to the World by Tom Rath. Published by Silicon Guild. Copyright © 2020 Tom Rath. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Author of Life’s Great Question, StrengthsFinder 2.0, Eat Move Sleep | tomrath.org | @TomCRath

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