Is Your “Personality” an Explanation or an Excuse?

Temperance is about moderation and harmony.

Life is full of dichotomies. Contrasts. Divisions. Opposites.

There are extroverts and there are introverts. In popular culture, these are “party animals” and “homebodies”; in reality, it all comes down to energy. From io9:

“Extroverted people are energized by social interactions, whereas those same engagements are energetically taxing for introverts. So after attending a party or other social gathering, introverts need time alone to ‘recharge.’”

There’s the more complicated “fox” and “hedgehog,” an Ancient Greek dichotomy deftly explained by Hal Finney on the Overcoming Bias blog:

“The hedgehog is said to know one thing and know it well. He sees events and trends in terms of his big idea, and aggressively extends it into new realms. Hedgehogs tend to be confident in the applicability of their fundamental concepts and impatient with those who “do not get it”.

Foxes in contrast know many small things which they bring to bear in their analyses in a dynamical and flexible way. They tend to be uncertain and flexible, “on the other hand” types who are skeptical about their own predictive ability and in fact about the whole enterprise of making predictions in such an intractable realm.”

This past week, I discovered a new dichotomy in Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis—monochronic and polychronic creators:

“The monochronic succeed only if they work on one endeavor at a time. They cannot read while listening to music; they cannot interrupt a novel to begin another without losing the thread; at their worst, they are unable to have a conversation while they shave or put on their makeup. The polychronic are the exact opposite. They succeed only if they cultivate many interests simultaneously; if they dedicate themselves to only one venture, they fall prey to boredom. The monochronic are more methodical but often have little imagination. The polychronic seem more creative, but they are often messy and fickle.”

As humans, we seem to understand everyone but ourselves. They all seem reducible to a few specific character traits while we are pulsing masses of contradictions. So we go into the world begging to be put into the same boxes as everyone else. We crave simple dichotomies. We want to be sorted into one of sixteen personality buckets. Who ever took a personality quiz they didn’t like?

Call me a fox, but the world is not so simple. Dichotomies, like monochronics and polychronics, and personality quizzes, like Myers-Briggs or the Big 5, make us feel like we understand ourselves. But do we really? Are these sorting mechanisms an explanation of our behavior or an excuse for it? If you think you’re an introvert, you can give yourself permission to skip a networking event rather than forcing yourself to meet new people. If you think you’re polychronic, suddenly it’s OK to abandon your half-finished manuscript because you’re fickle. Your perceived personality justifies your behavior rather than the other way around.

But no one is a complete extrovert, or total hedgehog, or perfect ENTJ. No individual can be perfectly sorted. We are all masses of contradictions. And that’s a good thing. Each side of any dichotomy has its own strengths that each of us should try to muster when the situations calls for it. While we all have tendencies and inclinations, while you might be more introverted most of the time, that’s not an excuse, but a challenge. A challenge to push yourself outside of the normal bounds of what you think you’re capable of and grow by doing what feels “uncomfortable.” A challenge to force yourself to think and act outside your box.

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