Do we barter for who we’ll end up being like trading 3 Skittles for 1 Starburst? (Which is a universal conversion by the way)

Recently I was listening to a speaker who was talking about the development of middle and high school kids. The speaker was discussing how her group worked with these kids to instill in them desirable character traits: courage, honesty, responsibility and the like. She said these kids were growing and learning who they were and how they were going to act in the world. Then she said that of course as adults, we have already negotiated our personalities. And my mind went, “What did she just say? Negotiated?”

Now, admittedly I’m a bit of a word nerd so although it sounded weird I thought maybe there’s an ancillary meaning I don’t typically associate with the word negotiate. So, the next day, I looked it up. 1. To discuss something formally in order to make an agreement. 2. To agree on (something) by formally discussing it. 3. To get over, through or around (something) successfully. That’s it, no tangential meaning. It was about what I expected. Needless to say it didn’t help. With whom does one discuss their personality (and formally no less)? How does the agreement part go? “Well, Bob I’m glad we got together and hammered this out. Let’s see, we’ve agreed you will be a lecherous lout and a complete bore at parties; however you will be kind to small animals and children and a tremendous patron of the arts. Just sign here, here and initial there and I’ll have my assistant email you a copy for your records.” Obviously I’m being facetious, such a document would have to be notarized and a wet signature required on two sets of documents. Then again, maybe it’s number three.

How does someone get over or around or through their personality though? Is the presumption that we choose to be the way we are? What about those that don’t do it successfully or can’t seem to get through the process? Are they forever stuck in a sort of personality purgatory never knowing really how or what they want to be? And where does Popeye fit in all of this? “I am what I am and that’s all that I am” sticks in my head. Even for a guy like me that loves a good cost/benefit analysis this seems a bit cold. Call me naïve but I always thought our personality was innate, something that we were born with. Now I’m learning (?) I should have had a real heart-to-heart with myself long ago (I’m 52) and figured this out. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up so much less successful than I intended to be, I never decided on my personality. Here I’ve been winging it all these years, just being myself (or trying to be) without a clearly defined mission statement. No wonder!

Since this was such a foreign concept for me I turned again to the folks at Webster and found out that personality at its base is the quality or state of being a person. This seemed like a very low bar, one that even a schlub like me could accomplish successfully so I pressed on for more enlightenment. I found out that personality is what makes you unique, what makes you, you. It’s “the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual… especially: the totality of an individual’s behavioral and emotional characteristics.” This set of distinctive traits and characteristics includes personal and social traits too. This all seemed very fundamental to me. I didn’t see any mention that these were traits that a person has to successfully get through or around or over to arrive at some sort of agreement with themselves. It seemed like these came naturally and that’s where I realized what it was about the speaker’s choice of words that struck such a dissonant chord. It was the engineering of people’s personalities.

Granted, I’ve been likened to some sort of hippie-reincarnate (this was by an old boss who said it without malice) but it’s my belief that we are who we are, not necessarily that we can’t be more but that to design our state of being a person, goes a bit too far. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that good influence and the exhibition and promotion of high quality character traits is important as we’re forming our personalities. Everyone needs positive role models and instructors in how to live a good life and be a productive part of society. Where I balk is the idea that we can somehow design our personality to fit all the slots. Do I want to have exceptional character and a fantastic personality? Absolutely. Do I always exhibit said traits? Absolutely not and this is what makes me unique. The prevalence or absence of those traits and even our personal interpretation of them is as varied as the hairs on each of our heads. If you don’t believe me just try to agree on how much to tip in a restaurant or put in a graduation card. Is there some negotiation that goes on every day internally? Again, absolutely, but do we always move through it successfully? No. Our inconsistencies, foibles, idiosyncrasies and downright indecision make us forever a work in progress both from a personality and characteristic perspective. I know people who abhor inconsistency. I live with one who points out mine for me frequently. However I choose to embrace it. It is the quirks of our personalities that set us apart from being a kind of human flowchart that exists in science fiction movies. So I am proud to say that I have not successfully nor fully negotiated my personality in fact I’m glad I haven’t. The parts of it still undone and the parts that need much, much refinement make my life interesting (challenging too) and I don’t expect to ever be able to look a young person in the eye and declare:

“I’ve fully negotiated my personality. Have you?”