Monday, October 03, 2011

Change the Way You Define Yourself

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

A: 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.

Life is good.


Every two years there is a global survey to determine the world’s top 50 business thinkers. In 2009 Marshall's friend the late CK Prahalad was ranked #1 and Marshall was ranked #14. To participate in the 2011 Thinkers 50, visit

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.


Marshall's Upcoming Schedule

1 comment:

Ashlee said...

You raise a very interesting point here. I wholeheartedly agree that we don't understand our ability to change. However, I also believe that often we are simply unwilling to change our behaviour because we know it will be hard.
How easy it is to say "I wish my husband was neater" or "I wish my daughter didn't spend so much time on the computer". But how often do we wish ourselves to change? I rarely look at myself in the mirror and say "I wish I was a winner", simply because it rarely occurs to me that I could change, if I really wanted to.
I have a friend who is always very hard on herself. She goes into interviews already believing she won't get the job. She goes on dates believing the other person isn't interested. She stereotypes herself as a "loser", and no matter how much her friends tell her otherwise, she cannot shake this preconceived notion of herself. There is no genetic predisposition or environmental factor influencing her behaviour, it is purely psychological (imagine- a genetic predisposition to being a loser!). I am going to direct my friend to your blog and show her that she can change her behaviour, if she could just change her state of mind.