Change the Way You Define Yourself

Harvard Business Review

June 2, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

This week’s question for Ask the Coach:

Sometimes I think that my biggest enemy is me. Why do we say and do things that limit our own success?

We all have a list of characteristics and behaviors that we use to define who we are. For successful people, most of these characteristics can be described by very positive words, such as: “intelligent,” “dedicated,” “results oriented,” or “winner.” Almost all of us have a few negative terms that are part of our self-definition. Common negative self-descriptions that I hear from executives are: “stubborn,” “opinionated,” or “I always have to be right.”

One of the greatest challenges that we face, when we try to improve ourselves – as leaders, partners, friends or family members – is the challenge of changing the way we define ourselves. I must have heard this phrase a thousand times, “That’s just the way I am.” As long as we keep saying “That’s just the way I am” to ourselves we increase the probabilities that “That’s just the way I am always going to be.”

I believe that (with very rare exceptions) we can all change our behavior. By definition, the only behaviors that we cannot changes are either shaped by genetic preconditions (we are born that way) or environmental factors (external forces that prohibit us from changing).

When I hear someone make a remark like, “I can’t listen. I have never been able to listen. That’s just the way I am.” I ask, “Do you any incurable genetic defects that are prohibiting you from being a good listener,” or “Is the rest of the world conspiring to keep you from being a good listener.” If the answers to these two questions are “no” and “no,” I then go on to say “Then I guess you can change and become a good listener.”

Here is a quick exercise that may help you determine how your own self-definitions are propelling you to success – or inhibiting you from positive change. Make two lists of the adjectives that you would use to define yourself: positive and negative. Review the words on each list. How have the positive words helped you to become successful? How have the negative words held you back? Ask yourself, “Is there any genetic or environmental reason that I have to demonstrate the behaviors on the negative side of the page?” If the answer is “no” – you can get better.

In our society we talk about the harmful impact that we can have when we stereotype others in a negative way. What we often fail to consider is the harmful impact that we can have when we stereotype ourselves in a negative way.

I always love to hear from readers. Please send any examples of cases where you have stereotyped yourself – or seen others stereotype themselves – in ways that inhibited change.
In future posts, I will discuss ways to overcome our own negative self-definitions.