Can you CHANGE people?

Oof, this is a Topic (capital T, to signify how important it is to me). Even thinking about this topic, even starting to peel back the curtain around it, gives me a bit of the chills. Chills..Why? Well, I am both excited to unravel this prompt more formally, but also NERVOUS to do so…Nervous, not in the I AM AFRAID SENSE but rather nervous in the “um this is about to be an adventure of sorts” (I recognize adventures can only be SOOO adventurous when you are sitting in front of a computer in a small apartment room in San Francisco BUT let’s set sail, on a prompt that evokes a host of memories for me and perhaps? the same for you).

Can you change people? If we break down the sentence, there are a few big ideas…I will be a bit literal through the beginning of this exercise as I piece things together.

Okay, breaking things down, let’s just go word by word: The first is CAN, the second is you, the third is change, and the fourth is people.

Can: I think helpful to remind yourself that just because you COULD do things (the past tense of can) does not mean you SHOULD. But again, this prompt is not questioning whether or not it makes sense to “change people”, it is only to suppose whether or not you actually could, even if you want to.

You: You refers to you. It somewhat refers to you on your own.

Change: Change is a tough one to be specific about. What does change mean to you? Does it have to be a big change or small change? Is there a ranking of change? Does it have to be permanent? What qualifies as a significant enough change to matter? Over what time horizon?

People: People refers to people other than you. But I imagine there is a gradient of people out there…in thinking about if you could change people, and imagining you think you answer yes, does that apply to all people or certain people or certain types of people or how do you think about that?

So those are the variables…now how do you interpret the prompt?

I will start with my personal experience LIVING this prompt. Forget the intellectual exercise for a moment, WHAT has been your experience, in the real world not in the hypothetical essay world, in CHANGING PEOPLE?


My experience has been that in no one conversation have I EVER been able to, on my own, change people’s core pieces of their lives.

Sure, I can sell them something. That does not change their values. That is merely aligning their values with what I am selling. Sure, I can convince them to do a thing. A thing I want them to do, that they view via cost benefit analysis is worth them doing.

But change them?

Change other human beings? On my own? Without them WANTING TO CHANGE AND EXPLICITLY DRIVING FORWARD THE CHANGE.

No way. Never. Not a single time.

It sounds silly…like could someone else CHANGE ME? Change my core identity? I would say no way…I am a sentient human with at least imagined free will. How could I let someone INFLUENCE MY CORE in one conversation?

Again, they can persuade me…they can convince me to do particular things or believe them on certain things. But my biases and instincts, those are about as fixed as can be at times. They can make me feel more comfortable and more open and share more with them. But changing my identity is not a thing that would be possible to change in one conversation let alone fifty of them. Without my opt-in and desire to change, the answer would be they could never. MAYBE and likely in fact if I wanted to change and explicitly told them that, then, well, they could assist in the identity evolution.

So here is the reminder to myself—you cannot change people.

Why did I ever think I could do this? What am I…god????

Forget doing this in general—there are times where I go into a conversation thinking…hey…in just this one conversation, I will be able to change this person?


Okay, so like maybe over years of living with someone you could change them. As adults? Maybe this is not possible still??!

Your identity comes from THINGS WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND. It comes from a complex equation which involves time and past experience and parenthood and love and bonding and mistakes and failures and trauma.

Things that are so far out of control and so far out of left field that you do not even know why they are relevant until they totally are and massive influencers in your life. Those are the things going on inside that other person’s head that you have no idea about in just talking to them. There is the subconscious driving a lot of their decisions (a la elephant in the brain) that you cannot be aware of from the outside.

You can be curious and ask them questions. I am trying to get addicted to that game – in wanting to learn more about other people. As an aside, even a task like this, like being curious, a thing I have been wanting to do for years, curious without judgement, has been so hard for me to change on my own where I am the only blocker. Now imagine trying to get in someone else’s head, when they have a wall up, and try to change a core piece of the way their brain works.

Ridiculous. I say ridiculous and use ~strong language because I am candidly trying to reinforce to myself that changing people is so hard.

I say this with emphasis BECAUSE I have made so many hiring mistakes in my life that all—or nearly all—stem from one thing: my belief that I could shape people into having the values and style I want/need them to have to work with me in a very productive way. I thought that I could influence them enough to think like me and work like me so that we would be productivity machines together (1+1=3). That never happens.

What always happens instead is that people default to their core, because, well, they are people too. And I try to change them, and I fail, and I get frustrated, and they get frustrated, and things do not work out.

This happens extremely often. And it is totally preventable. Just hire people for slope but ACCEPT that their core values will not change. No matter what you do. No matter how much you pay them. No matter any essays you write or things you force them to read. There is nothing you can do to get their core values to change. So you—the reader—if you find some super “highly credentialed person” and you love their credentials in theory but do not love their values, ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO CHANGE THEIR VALUES. DO YOU STILL WANT TO WORK WITH THEM?

The answer may be yes. But it may be no. Do not lie to yourself about the candidate. A lot of the decisions I have made have been out of fear and insecurity. Being afraid to get the wrong answer. Being afraid to not being able to find the right candidate. Settling. Being short term patient and long term greedy would have been the right solution.

So remind yourself—you cannot fundamentally change people, especially without their desire and opt-in. With the latter, I actually think people are more flexible than they can imagine. Flexible in terms of their actions, not in terms of their values. Most people are relatively unaware of their values though (or at least have not spent all that much time thinking about them). So if you find someone who has not thought about this much, be careful. You may be able to say things that they latch onto but they are just convenient hooks because they have no current identities (or intentionally described identities at least).

But the summary of the above is the answer to the title: you cannot change people.

(And even if you could, should you?)






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