In my job as an executive coach, I help my successful clients achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. I am now realizing that often I should be helping them change their identity, the way they define themselves.
If we change our behavior but don't change our identity, we may feel phony or inauthentic, no matter how much we achieve. If we change our behavior and change the way we define ourselves, we can be both different and authentic at the same time. The people whom I have met who have been the most genuinely successful have created identities to become the human beings that they chose to be—without being slaves to the past or to other people's opinions of them.
I don't believe that anyone can become anything just because they choose to do it—for instance, I will never be a professional basketball player. I cannot wish away physical reality with positive thinking. However, I am amazed at what we can change if we do not artificially limit ourselves. I have seen leaders make massive positive changes, both in the way that they treat others (which is about behavior) and in the way that they see themselves (which is about their "created" identity).
Our created identity allows us to change, to become different people, to achieve higher goals. Our identity is not fixed; it is not immutable. It can be altered—and significantly so. One of the greatest obstacles to true happiness and meaning is the paralysis we create with the self-limiting definitions of who we are.
No one is safe from this defect. The client who hangs on to the self-image that he's bad at follow-up, long after it's true or meaningful, is literally living with a false identity. So is the boor who thinks his cultural heritage excuses his rough manner. Others know this isn't valid, but because he clings to that identity, he doesn't allow himself the possibility of changing it. These limiting identities prevent us from changing—and becoming someone better than we are.
When we define ourselves by saying we are deficient at some activity, we tend to create the reality that proves our definition. I once heard a client claim that he made a bad first impression. As someone who was favorably impressed by his manner the first time I met him, I asked, "What do you do the second time that reverses the bad first impression?"
"I'm much looser with people the second time," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I know them a little better, so I talk more freely, I joke around. I'm confident that I can charm them."
"Why can't you do that the first time?"
"I'm shy. Being outgoing with strangers just wouldn't be me," he answered.
"And yet, that is who you are the second time," I said. "Don't you find that odd?"
"I've always been like that," he said, as if that ended the matter, as if he was beyond forming a new version of himself and how he is with strangers.
This is a great example of self-limiting behavior. This client stopped trying to make a good first impression because he defined himself as being bad at it. The rest of us are no different. If we tell ourselves we can't sell or are bad at public speaking or don't listen well, we will usually find a way to fulfill our prophecy. We doom ourselves to failure.
Review the various components of your current identity. Where did they originate? If your present identity is fine with you, just work on becoming an even better version of who you are. If you want to make a change in your identity, be open to the fact that you may be able to change more than you originally believed that you could. Assuming that you do not have "incurable" or "unchangeable" limitations, you can create a new identity for your future, without sacrificing your past.
Life is good.
My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.
See my other posts at BusinessWeek.com