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The Malleability Myth

By Marty Nemko

One of modern society’s core principles is that with effort, we can accomplish almost anything. Shy? Take a workshop. Poor communication skills: read a book. No leadership ability: hire a coach.

This coach, at least, hasn’t found it so easy. For example, I have a client named John who is long-winded. He listens to tapes of our sessions and agrees he sounds like a blowhard. He also agrees that to avoid continuing to fail in job interviews and in life, he must edit his monologues. To help, I gave him this rule of thumb: When you’re speaking for up to 30 seconds, your “traffic light” is green, 30-60 seconds it’s yellow, and over 60 seconds, it’s red: you’re at risk of boring your listener. Also, we’ve explored why he feels the need to be so “thorough.” When he holds forth with a particularly long and boring diatribe, I play the tape of it back for him. He’s always embarrassed, swearing he won’t do it again. Yet ten minutes later, he’s back to being as long-winded as ever.

If I can’t help him change--a guy with a narrow, specific weakness--how can I help a client with a more global problem such as lack of intelligence, obnoxious personality, or chronic procrastination? To be honest, I often can’t. And privately, even nationally esteemed colleagues tell me they rarely can either. One of the world’s leading experts on procrastination privately admitted to me that he rarely cures anyone.

Often the problem is that the person isn’t willing to work hard to improve their weaknesses. This may, in part, be because our major mind molders—schools, colleges, and churches-- have for the last few decades been so busy building everyone’s self-esteem: “Stop the negative self-talk,” urge the gurus. Self-criticism used to be a positive attribute. Now it is viewed as Woody Allen-like neuroticism. The self-esteem movement has numbed many people into complacency: “I’m okay. It’s the other person (or organization, or society) that’s screwed up.” Indeed, a recent study found that incompetent people have no idea they’re incompetent.

Another part of the problem is that we, especially counselors and self-help writers, ignore what geneticists are finding: much of who we are is hard-wired. Once we accept that, we can move from the enticing but often formidable task of changing people, to the more realistic goal of helping people, warts and all, find their place in the world.

Indeed, that is where I’ve been most successful: helping clients find careers and jobs in which their strengths are valued and their weaknesses are of minimal consequence. For example, if a client doesn’t have the personality to be the team player so often required by corporate America, I usually don’t try to change him. I help him find a career in which his individualist personality is a plus—as a consultant, for example.

The idea of working with what you have rather than trying to change it is applicable beyond career. A study was conducted in which 46 couples, each on the brink of divorce, were assigned to one of two treatments. 23 of the couples received traditional marriage counseling: focusing on what each partner should change to make the marriage work. The other 23 couples were given “relationship acceptance therapy.” Its basic message: Don’t waste time and stress trying to change your partner. Focus on what you like about your partner and ignore the rest, or decide to divorce. After six months, most of the couples in the relationship-acceptance therapy group decided to stay together. Most of the couples that had received traditional marriage counseling decided to divorce.

So, I invite you to do two difficult but ultimately rewarding things:

· Inventory your true strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard to do that by yourself, so ask respected colleagues or friends for input. Beg them to be honest--otherwise they may not be.

· Instead of trying to fix deeply ingrained deficiencies, accept yourself and ask yourself whether, in your worklife and outside, you are in environments that maximize use of your strengths and minimize the impacts of your weaknesses.

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