What propels some young adults to successful careers and life satisfaction while others seem destined to perpetual struggle? Social science has long recognized the role socioeconomic status and cognitive abilities play in success, and we’ve developed necessary interventions to improve young people’s odds. Social programs help struggling families climb a rung or two up the economic ladder, and compulsory education aims to sharpen children’s cognitive faculties early and enshrine life-long learning habits.
But what about personality? While personality certainly plays a role in life and career success, its development has long been underplayed or ignored. Folk knowledge views it as immutable, something etched onto us during childhood and inescapable thereafter. More high-brow theories have dismissed the idea of personality entirely, viewing it as a heuristic for understanding behavior or a responsive by-product to situational stimuli.
A growing body of research, however, has shown that not only are personality traits real, but they can be changed over a lifetime. And that growth is an important factor in predicting life and career success.
That’s the conclusion of a recent longitudinal study published in Psychological Science. The study followed two samples of Icelandic youths from roughly ages 17 to 29. Its researchers used data across three and five time points to measure the young adults on the Big Five personality traits (openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability). It also surveyed them for five indicators of early career success. These were income, degree attainment, occupational prestige, and job and career satisfaction.
The study’s findings showed that personality growth predicted career outcomes better than “adolescent trait levels and crystallized ability.” Across both samples, the researchers found extroversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability to have the strongest effects. Specifically, conscientiousness was tied to career satisfaction, emotional stability to income and career satisfaction, and extroversion to job and career satisfaction.
“Overall, the findings highlight the importance of personality development throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood for promoting different aspects of career success,” Kevin Hoff, lead author and assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Houston, said in a release.
Hoff believes these results support policies designed to help young people develop personality-based skills. “The study showed you’re not just stuck with your personality traits, and if you change over time in positive ways, that can have a big impact on your career,” he said.
According to the release, the study is the first to assess the predictive link between personality growth and career outcomes across a decade of young adulthood. While preliminary, it does fit in with other studies looking into the relationship between personality traits and career success.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Career Assessment surveyed more than 5,000 individuals. Its results found that conscientiousness, extroversion, and openness correlated with career satisfaction. Similarly, a 2006 study published in Personnel Psychology drew on data from the Intergenerational Studies. It found that conscientiousness positively predicted extrinsic career success (i.e., income and status) as well as intrinsic success (i.e., job satisfaction).
William James famously penned that personality becomes “set in plaster” by the age of 30, never to soften again. There’s some truth to this. Personality traits do remain relatively stable throughout our lifetimes. Your inherently disorganized friend won’t transform into Marie Kondo because they watched a YouTube tutorial on shirt folding.
But many studies show that our personalities aren’t immutable, either. We can remold ourselves well beyond 30, shifting our traits on their continuum in ways that can be either beneficial or deleterious. One such study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, assessed participants’ personality traits for 50 years. If found that as people mature over time, they also accumulate personality changes.
“The rankings (of personality traits) remain fairly consistent. People who are more conscientious than others their age at 16 are likely to be more conscientious than others at 66. On average, everyone becomes more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable,” Rodica Damian, the study’s lead author and the director of the Personality Development and Success Lab at the University of Houston, said in a statement.
Cultivating such growth can be difficult as these traits often require the very talents we feel we lack. To become more extroverted, for example, one needs to be less introverted. It seems both obvious and self-defeating—if one was more outgoing, one would be more outgoing. Because of this, interventions typically focus on actions that alter how we typically think or behave (hence the name cognitive-behavioral therapy). These actions can be small at first, but they have to be deliberate and specific, the so-called SMART goals.
To become more extroverted, introverts don’t have to throw lavish, hedonistic house parties to rival those of rock-‘n’-roll legends. Instead, the introvert starts by attending a small book club on a specific day and tasking themselves to talk at the meeting This is the first step that makes subsequent steps easier, and after an accumulation of such steps, self-perspective begins to shift.
“Once you start to change those behaviors, you’ll start to change the way you see yourself,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Brain Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes. “That change in identity may provide the key to personality trait change. You change the narrative from ‘I’ve always been an introvert’ to ‘I’ve usually engaged in introverted behavior.’ Seeing yourself as in charge of your personality rather than being run by it may be the key to having your personality suit instead of define you.”
The same goes for conscientiousness. Taking on tasks and responsibilities that require one to utilize conscientiousness brings about that change over time. As Damian noted, people typically become more conscientious as they get older. One reason is simply that adulthood requires more diligence, discipline, and self-control than high school and punishes a lack of those traits more harshly. Adult environments also tend to reward and support such characteristics. By realizing that with intention, we can self-furnish our environments to support and foster that change.
We can also hack our metacognition—the way we think about our thinking—to great effect. Such techniques are often used in emotional regulation therapy to intervene in heightened or easily triggered outbursts. Mindfulness, for example, teaches people to identify their emotions, and the practice helps people from becoming overwhelmed through the act of labeling an emotion as something distinct from themselves. Recognizing the difference between being angry and feeling angry assists in self-modulation.
Some techniques and interventions may improve certain personality traits better than others, but they all demonstrate a key takeaway. Practice won’t make perfect, but it can shift personality to be more in line with our goals. While personality may not be the only factor in career and life success, self-improvement will pay dividends to both.