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What does success mean to you? What’s going on with the world of work? Will my job exist in five years’ time? What’s disruption all about, and what does it mean for me?
These are just a handful of the questions that Somi Arian answers in her book, Career Fear (and how to beat it): Get the Perspective, Mindset and Skills You Need to Futureproof your Work Life.
As she says in Career Fear, jobs don’t look like they used to. In this age of innovation, staying in control of your work life can feel overwhelmingly challenging. So what does it take to have — and be in control of — a successful and fulfilling career? These are more of the valid questions that Career Fear will help you figure out.
What follows is a modified version of chapter 5 of Career Fear, “Knowing Yourself,” which dives into motivation factors — which determine how much we enjoy affiliating with other people, how much we try to have power and influence over them, and how motivated we are to achieve. “If there’s a mismatch between our motivation and personality traits, we may feel frustrated and struggle to find the right environment to fit in,” Somi writes. “This is especially true if we are not aware of our motivations and personality traits.”
As humans, we are changing in ways for which we have no previous paradigm. We can’t go back in history and find a time when similar technologies comparably impacted society, and a few decades is a relatively short period in the study of a species. When Socrates said ‘know thyself’ 2,500 years ago, he had no idea how crucial his recommendation was going to become 25 centuries later. So let’s start with an overview of what we know about human behaviour so far.
In this chapter, we will focus on five main personality traits that shape most of our behaviours and how we feel in various situations. We will also take a brief look at three factors that motivate many of our actions and interactions with others. Let’s start by addressing two different approaches to studying human personalities.
You may have heard about personality tests that describe people in terms of personality types. One of the most popular personality tests is Myers–Briggs, which breaks down human personalities into 16 types. At the end of the half-hour test, you will get a four-letter code that claims to define your personality type. There are many others that work in similar ways, and it is very appealing to be told that there is a clear-cut answer to why you work the way you do — but the truth is that human personalities are so much more complicated than that! I’m simply not convinced that we can box people into a four-letter code based on a half-hour multiple-choice test.
Instead of personality types, psychologists now prefer to talk about personality traits: much of what we’ll talk about in this chapter, for example, is inspired by a course by Professor Mark Leary at Duke University, containing the most digestible and concise explanation of personality traits I’ve come across in one place.1 What’s good about thinking of personality traits as opposed to personality types is that it leaves more room for change and improvement. Attempting to define your personality as a set ‘type’ feels much more rigid and less flexible; but when we think about personality traits as a spectrum, we realize that we have a lot more control over them.
Let’s start by establishing what we mean by a personality trait. ‘As psychologists use the term, personality involves those psychological characteristics that give people a distinct and somewhat stable and predictable style of responding to the world.’2 Of course, we all behave differently in various situations. Someone who may generally be calm could lose their temper very quickly in a specific situation. But personality traits give us a reasonably reliable understanding of ourselves and other people.
I use an analogy in describing personality traits: as a filmmaker, one of the things that we do in editing is a process called colour grading. This is where you use colour wheels to alter the exposure, saturation and colour tones in an image. When you mix these elements, you can create presets. You may know them as “filters,” like the ones you see on Instagram and your smartphone’s photo-editing application. I like to think about personality traits as colour wheels.
As defined by the Five-Factor Model (or FFM) developed by Robert R McCrae and Jüri Allik,3 all individuals have five main personality traits.4 These are:
You can think of the acronym OCEAN to help you remember them. The way I see it, these are like the colour wheels in our photo-editing application: we can change their intensity and mix and match them to create endless possible shades of experience. In editing an image, we have five primary elements: saturation, luminosity, and the three primary colours of red, blue and green. I like to match these up with the five personality traits, in order to help me think about ‘colour grading’ my personality.
Now, would you prefer to create your own filter from scratch? Or will you accept presets installed in your brain by society, your family, circumstances, and your genes?
Nature vs. nurture
The question of nature vs nurture has persisted throughout the ages, and scientists, philosophers and psychologists haven’t always agreed. If you’re not sure where you stand on the question, consider the following:
How you answer these questions will significantly impact your decision making, actions and behaviours. If you don’t feel that you have a high degree of control, you won’t be motivated to take steps to improve them. At the same time, if you are not realistic about your genetic and environmental challenges, you may set yourself unrealistic goals that could leave you disillusioned.
Most of us have an existing theory of nature vs. nurture even if we don’t think about it. Most people are inclined towards one of the two following opposing worldviews, that people are generally:
According to Professor Malcolm Watson of Brandeis University, if you chose A, you are in line with an organismic worldview, and if you chose B, you are in line with a more mechanistic worldview.5
The organismic worldview is generally more empowering; the passive nature of the mechanistic worldview leaves little room for improvement. If you think that your genes and environment determine your destiny, there is not much you can do to improve it. Conversely, if you believe that you can impact and shape your experiences, you are more empowered to do so.
Here is an analogy that may help you when considering your abilities and limitations and how they balance with the environment. Think of a tennis ball hitting hard ground; what does it do? It bounces right back up into the air. The harder you hit the tennis ball, the higher it flies upwards. When the ball is flexible and bouncy, and the ground is hard, you can expect an upward trajectory.
Now, the question is: what kind of ball are you, and what type of ground are you hitting? Are you bouncy and flexible like the tennis ball? And are you in the right environment to facilitate your upward trajectory?
What if you were a glass ball, fragile and breakable? What if you were a ball of steel, so rigid and heavy that you couldn’t bounce? You could be a soft and squishy ball that chills and doesn’t react much to the environment. None of those balls bounces high, because they are too fragile, too heavy or too soft.
Now think about the “ground” that you hit. Are you hitting hard ground or soft ground? What if you hit the surface of a swamp or a glass window?
The bouncy ball and hard ground are often the perfect combination. But we don’t always live in an ideal world. The fields will keep changing, and you won’t always be the same kind of ball. Chances are, though, that by gaining knowledge of yourself and your environment, you can learn to bounce, and you will eventually find the right ground for you to thrive.
Let’s look at the different personality traits in the OCEAN model. We’ll cover them out of order — in order to look at the most important first.
Psychologists believe extroversion to be the most important of all the personality traits, since it affects the variability in human behaviour more than any other characteristic.6 Going back to the analogy of the colour wheels, I like to think of extroversion as the degree of saturation. Like a highly saturated image, extroverted individuals (in the popular/common definition of the word) are louder and more visible. They stand out in most environments, although they may thrive more in some settings than others. People high in extroversion also tend to be more assertive, more sociable and enjoy being around people more. They enjoy talking and expressing themselves and may not much enjoy being on their own.
People often talk about extroversion as the polar opposite of introversion. But psychologists don’t think of these personality traits in binary terms: instead, we can think about extroversion in terms of a continuum from low to high. Or, like on our colour wheel – a spectrum. This also applies to the other personality traits that we discuss here. Rather than trying to oppose them to their antonyms, think of them as a continuum. If you imagine the bell shape of the typical distribution of these traits in society, most people fall somewhere in the middle. As we get to both ends of the bell curve, you will see fewer people who are extremely high or extremely low in each personality trait.
Now let’s look at the next most important personality trait, which is very different from extroversion.
Neuroticism as a term has very negative connotations; although I’ve left the word in for the sake of the acronym, we can also think of this personality trait as emotional stability. If extroversion was like the saturation of an image, emotional stability would be the image’s luminosity — how bright or dark an image is. This personality trait has to do with how often and how intensely someone experiences negative emotions, like anxiety, sadness, frustration, fear and anger. Because of the negative features of this personality trait, some researchers even call it negative emotionality. Just like an underexposed image, neuroticism can cast a darker shadow on our overall experiences.
People who are high in neuroticism tend to feel more insecure and vulnerable. They may be highly sensitive, and seem to overreact to typical day-to-day hassles and frustrations. They can lose their temper and get angry very quickly, and experience less satisfaction no matter how much their conditions improve. It’s no surprise that people with high levels of neuroticism tend to have more difficulty with interpersonal relationships. Since a high level of stress can cause many health problems, they may also be less healthy.
Neuroticism has a strong genetic component, although environmental factors also play a significant role in forming this personality trait, especially during childhood. Does this mean that people who have a higher predisposition to neuroticism can’t be happy and successful? Absolutely not! Remember, we have five main personality traits. We can mix them like we would on our colour wheel, pushing the bar higher on some characteristics to make up for where we may feel we are lacking.
Agreeableness determines how positively you feel towards other people, and if you generally get along with people easily. This is different from extroversion; someone may be extroverted but not necessarily agreeable. Or they may be agreeable but not enjoy too much interaction. People who are low in agreeableness tend to come across as grumpy and not very nice to be around. On the other hand, highly agreeable people tend to be considerate, kind and helpful.
Fortunately, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. You don’t want to be too agreeable; otherwise, just like a squishy ball, you could be easily influenced by others. People who are too agreeable find it harder to form their own opinions and may be too eager to please everyone. They also often feel more optimistic and have a more positive view of other people, which may sound good. But it could sometimes work to their disadvantage if they go too far. Highly agreeable people also try to avoid conflict. It is important to them that everyone gets along. They don’t like to overpower others, or use force. They tend to be more interested in collaboration and don’t enjoy having to compete. Having positive relationships is quite crucial to agreeable people, which is why they tend to accept people as they are. They also have more empathy with others and tend to be kind and understanding. They don’t like to see others suffering and do what they can to help.
Agreeableness is one of those traits that’s often shaped quite early on in childhood. By the time we reach adolescence, this personality trait will have taken shape in our behaviours. Overall, it’s more helpful to be on the slightly higher end of agreeableness — but be careful that you don’t get too easily influenced. If you are too agreeable you may find it hard to thrive in leadership positions, since you may not enjoy having to make tough decisions involving other people.
This trait is very interesting, because it can have different interpretations in different situations.
Generally, this trait has to do with how dependable and responsible people are. By definition, conscientious people tend to care about rules and regulations and do what they’re supposed to do. They also tend to be orderly and organized, they are known to be hardworking and they try to do everything well when they take on responsibility. They probably have a high level of self-discipline, meaning that they can make themselves do what needs to be done, even if it may be hard.
What’s interesting about this character trait is that someone could be highly conscientious in one area and yet show a lower level of conscientiousness in another environment. For example, someone may be highly responsible and dependable in their working environment, but at home, they may be rather untidy and disorganized. I’m one of those people: I’ve often struggled to keep my closets completely tidy, but when it comes to paying bills, looking after staff and film crew, and keeping promises to our clients, I fulfill my duties with a do-or-die attitude.
When it comes to self-discipline, you may find that you excel in some areas but flunk in others. For example, I’ve managed to develop some very good habits, such as meditating twice a day, exercising regularly and not drinking during the workweek — but there are some areas where I still struggle. For example, going to bed on time is never easy; and I often forget to eat during the day. And of course, we have already seen that I struggle with tidiness. If, like me, you are more conscientious in some areas than others, consider that some of your other personality traits or the motivations that we will talk about later in this chapter may be at play.
The kind of openness that we are talking about here is about intellectual and experiential openness — being open to new and different ideas and experiences. Being highly open makes you more imaginative. It also makes you more intellectually humble and less dogmatic. Openness makes you more flexible in adopting new ways of doing things, even if they go against your genetic dispositions or environmental boundaries and limitations.
People who are high in openness tend to be more innovative. At times they may even struggle to adapt to traditional environments, which could get them into trouble. Highly open people may also be rebellious and nonconformist at times. Open people are often the disruptors of their time, be it in business, science or technology.
Openness may seem like a clearly positive trait, but many people don’t find it so desirable after all, once they learn more about it. If you are not sure where you stand in your level of openness, ask yourself the following questions:
Although the above are only some simple examples of openness in day-to-day life, they are likely to be good indicators over your overall level of openness. If traditions are important to you, and if you feel very strongly about your scientific or spiritual worldview, you may score lower in openness.
Similar to the trait of conscientiousness, people may vary significantly in their degree of openness in some areas, over others. For example, someone may be highly assured of their spiritual beliefs, and care about conventions and traditions, but they may be very open in business.
However, overall, you will know whether you are generally a more open person or not.
Now, so far in this chapter, we have talked about the five main personality traits. There are, however, three other significant factors that impact our decisions and behaviours. These are not personality traits, per se. But they are three underlying motives in many of our actions, so let’s take a quick look at them.
WHAT’S YOUR PRESET?
Although I strongly believe it is unhelpful to categorize personalities by “types,” it can be helpful to look at these traits in a quantitative way, in order to better understand your starting point. Thinking back to the colour wheel analogy, this would be like your “preset,” or your custom filter.
Looking back at the descriptions of the five personality traits, where do you fall on the different scales? Mark yourself on the scales in Figure 5.1, where 10 is the most extreme version of that particular trait, and 0 is the most extreme absence of that particular trait.
FIGURE 5.1 OCEAN scale
What do you think? Where do you fall now? Has that changed over time? Do you have different scores in different traits for different areas of your life?
In addition to our personality traits, there are three fundamental factors which motivate how we behave and interact with others. These motivators are:
They determine how much we enjoy affiliating with other people, how much we try to have power and influence over them, and finally how motivated we are to achieve. If there is a mismatch between our motivation and our personality traits, we may feel frustrated and struggle to find the right environment to fit in. This is especially true if we are not aware of our motivations and personality traits.
For example, say someone is not high in extroversion but they are highly achievement-oriented. Now if this person’s career requires them to give a lot of public presentations, the achievement orientation may encourage them to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. This is likely to require a lot of deliberate effort and so the person has to be conscious of why they are choosing to go the extra mile.
Our personality traits and motivations aren’t always in line. You have to dig deep to decide which ones are more important to you and your career success — which brings us neatly to the final part of this chapter, where we will discuss what success means to you.
Most people mainly think about career success in terms of the following three dimensions:
Try to answer the following questions as honestly as you can
This one is relatively simple. Beyond providing a certain level of comfort, more money doesn’t always make people happier. But people often still pursue money even if they are “comfortable” because they believe that those with higher levels of income are happier still.7 So it’s essential to know how much is enough for you and, more importantly, why that amount is your goal.
Not everyone is looking to make a positive impact. Some people see success in terms of impact, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative: fortunately, though, most people are pursuing a positive impact, in line with the goal of increasing human happiness and decreasing human suffering. The question is: what degree of impact do you need to make you happy? Another way to think about this question is: how many lives do you want to touch? Do you want to look after your family, impact your local community, improve the conditions of your city, or country? Or, do you want to make a global impact and touch millions of lives? Just as with the previous question, ask yourself why.
Sometimes people confuse impact with recognition. We must separate these two and clarify how important it is for us to be recognized for our contribution. For example, you may work as a junior member of a large organization, contributing to a significant global concern, such as climate change. But other than your close friends and family, no one else may know how important your work is. Is it enough, if only you and your family know about your work? Or do you want to be recognized by everyone in your company, your town, your country, and globally? Likewise, if you were an artist, entrepreneur or author, is the size of recognition important to you? Why?
VERSIONS OF SUCCESS
Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
Imagine you are a talented musician who has written great songs, but somehow you’ve never managed to break through. A few years later another band covers one of your songs, and all of a sudden it becomes a massive hit. Now, for generations, most people hearing the song may attribute it to the band that covered it. You may never get the recognition that you deserve, but your song has touched many lives.
In this example, you have made an impact, but you haven’t gained the recognition or the money. Would you still be happy, and consider yourself successful?
What if you receive a considerable amount of money in royalties? You will have made an impact and earned money, but you still haven’t got the fame and recognition. Would you be happy then?
Whatever your answer to the above questions, remember that there is no right or wrong way. Don’t judge yourself if you answer honestly and get different answers from those you think you should have. Don’t share your answers with anyone else: your definition of success is not theirs to judge.
We will look at this more in Part Three, where we will also talk about statistics and probability and why you may want to come back and review your answers. So far, we have gained much deeper knowledge about ourselves and defined success for ourselves. We are now ready to find our place in the world, which is what the next chapter is all about.
This excerpt of Career Fear (and how to beat it) by Somi Arian © 2020 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.
1 Leary, M (2019) Human Personality Traits, Tests, and Types, The Great Courses Plus, www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/show/why_you_are_who_you_ are_investigations_into_human_personality (archived at https://perma.cc/SPM7-HPVV)
2 Leary, M (2019) Human Personality Traits, Tests, and Types, The Great Courses Plus, Part 1-Track 2, www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/show/why_you_are_who_you_are_investigations_into_human_personality (archived at https://perma.cc/SPM7-HPVV)
3 McCrae, R R and Allik, J (2002) The Five-Factor Model of Personality Across Cultures, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York
4 The Big Five theory was developed as a result of work and research by a number of psychologists over a few decades starting in the 1930s. Initially, psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert came up with 4,500 terms that they could find in Webster’s New International Dictionary to describe personality traits. But, of course, most of those terms were variations of the same words. Robert McCrae and Paul Costa developed the Five-Factor Model which reduced all those variations to just five factors: extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness
5 Watson, M W (2018) Theories of Human Development, The Great Courses Plus, www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/theories-of-human-development.html (archived at https://perma.cc/ULB5-N2MH)
6 Leary, M (2019) Human Personality Traits, Tests and Types, The Great Courses Plus, www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/show/why_you_are_who_you_are_investigations_into_human_personality (archived at https://perma.cc/SPM7-HPVV)
7 See for example the study by Aknin, L B, Norton, M I and Dunn, E W (2009) From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 (6), pp 523–27, doi: 10.1080/17439760903271421
Somi Arian is a tech philosopher, award-winning filmmaker, author, entrepreneur, a LinkedIn-Top-Voice in the UK, and the founder and managing director of FemPeak. With a background in philosophy of science and technology, Somi describes her role in society as a “Transition Architect.” As humans merge with technology, and society enters a new phase of human evolution, Somi works on frameworks to address the challenges ahead.
Somi’s documentary, The Millennial Disruption, has won three international awards. Her book, Career Fear (and how to beat it), addresses the future of work and the skills we all need to gain to survive and thrive in the age of Artificial Intelligence.
As a speaker, Somi gives talks and workshops internationally on the impact of technology on society, the business landscape, the future of work, developing thought leadership, and digital transformation both in marketing and in HR.
Somi is the founder of Smart Cookie Media, a modern-day digital marketing firm for thought leaders.
She is also the co-founder of Career Drive, an online platform that uses entertainment to teach emotional intelligence, and an investor and advisory board member of NuroKor Bioelectronics, an exciting wearable technology startup.
Somi’s latest endeavour is the Think Tank for Women in Business & Technology and accompanying platform she is building to help materialize the mission of the Think Tank in empowering women.
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