What We Can Change and What We Can't
From its beginning in the 1960s, cognitive psychology has developed science/evidence-based approaches that have proven more effective then drugs and other methods in treating people with depression, phobias, obsessions, addictions, eating disorders, and other life-disrupting problems. University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology, Martin Seligman, established a successful track record researching, developing, and documenting treatment techniques.

In the late 1980s, he and his colleagues began exploring how they could build a science-based wellness model to help people who are doing fine elevate their lives to a higher state of well-being. Seligman’s 1990 book, Learned Optimism (highly recommended), laid the foundation for the now fast-growing field of positive psychology.

A cornerstone of positive psychology leading to higher well-being is building on our strengths. As we get ever deeper into helping our Clients implement strengths-based leadership development I’ve been tracing back the foundations of these powerful approaches.

What You Can Change…And What You Can’t was published a few years before Seligman’s presidency at the American Psychology Association and his subsequent founding of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Part of the book’s subtlety is “learning to accept who you are.” This resonates very strongly with authentic leadership and playing to your strengths rather than fixing weaknesses. A key exception is a weakness that’s so large people can’t see past it to a leader’s strengths.

Seligman cites research that half of our personality is genetic. He goes on to conclude, “the other half of personality comes from what you do and from what happens to you — and this opens the door for therapy and self-improvement.” That’s what this book focuses on.

What You Can Change… covers a very wide swath of personal growth with focusing on changes to emotional life such as anger, depression, anxiety, and stress as well as changing habits like dieting (which he argues is largely useless) or alcohol, and shedding the skins of childhood. Seligman tells us that research shows “there are some things about ourselves that can be changed, others that cannot, and some that can be changed only with extreme difficulty.”

I found the book very useful in understanding the origins of the closely aligned new fields of positive psychology and strengths-based leadership development. It’s an insightful book for readers interested in the history of these areas or struggling with the topics covered. Otherwise I’d recommend you skip this book and read Seligman’s other books, Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, or Flourish.