Most of us have some aspect of our personalities that we’re not crazy about, and maybe even see as a hindrance. Perhaps you’re aware of being overly anal about a certain area of your life, or maybe your friends are frustrated with your habit of suddenly cancelling plans because you just need some alone time. While personal growth and working on our flaws are definitely beneficial, there are ways in which we shouldn’t try to stamp out our quirks too much—rather, we should learn to peaceably coexist with them.
Research is increasingly showing what many of us know intuitively: That there’s often a lot value in our weirdnesses. Even traits that are mostly thought of as negative can provide benefit, either because they’re correlated with other, more positive traits or because there’s inherent benefit in the “negative” trait itself. Introversion and neuroticism are great examples of this, but even having ADHD or going through painful life circumstances can ultimately push us in good ways. Here are a few of the traits that can actually help us out, if we allow them to.
In school and in business, introverts are often overlooked or underappreciated, especially in relation to the more obvious presence of the extrovert. But in reality, some of the greatest minds of all time have been introverts—Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dr. Seuss and Bill Gates, to name just a few. In her book Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that the quiet, creative power of introverts is largely undervalued in our society, which today is very much built for extroverts. It wasn’t always this way, she says—throughout much of history, solitary work was much more the norm than group work—but these days, the ways in which offices and schools are constructed cater strongly to extroverts.
It’s important to point out that introversion isn’t a matter of being “quiet” or “shy”: Rather, the “version” continuum is more about the type of situations from which you draw energy. Extroverts feel energized by being in stimulating social situations, whereas introverts tend to get overstimulated by these setups, and need some alone time to reenergize.
But given the creative and intellectual prowess of introverts, everyone might benefit if we reevaluated our attitudes, and school and office setups. As Cain says, we should allow introverts the freedom and the environment to do what they do best: Think deeply on their own, and come together with others in the office or classroom spontaneously, rather than mandatorily. (Here’s her TEDx talk, in which she expands on this.)
A big portion of the population can personally attest to the fact that introversion is by no means a disadvantage—it can be a great advantage, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur, an artist, a tech genius, or in any other business where thinking or creating off on your own is a given. And if you’re an introvert who has to work as part of a team, make sure you get the alone time you need to do your best work. If you embrace your introversion unapologetically, it can be a big benefit to yourself and those around you.
Neuroticism isn’t generally thought of as the most attractive trait, and neurotic people tend to get a lot of grief for it. But, in addition to its intrinsic comedic potential, neuroticism isn’t actually such a bad one to have. (Full disclosure, I’m a tad neurotic, so this entry may be biased.) Provided you have some degree of self-awareness around it, and have taken some steps to get ahold of it, it can provide some very real benefits in life and work.
Neuroticism makes you more conscientious for one, since you’re less likely to let things slip your mind or miss a deadline. Additionally, a study a couple of years ago suggested that neuroticism is actually linked to creativity, since turning an idea around and around in your head might make you more likely to have a creative breakthrough. And this suggestion seems to be borne out by brain science. Another study, just last month, found that neurotic people may live longer, having a lower risk of death from all causes, including cancer. This may be because they’re less likely to let routine care fall by the wayside, and more likely to seek medical care when something does go wrong.
Neuroticism has been linked to intelligence, but because there may be other mediating factors in the connection, it’s harder to make that claim. Certainly, lots of brilliant and highly creative people throughout history have been famous neurotics, and while this isn’t proof that neuroticism leads to success, it certainly doesn’t hurt the argument. And based on the studies, there seem to be some very real psychological and physical benefits of neuroticism.
Thinking outside the box
Researchers who study thought often refer to a couple of different varieties, which are complements of one another: Convergent thinking is being able to channel the information you have at your disposal to arrive a single correct answer, and it’s the type that’s championed in many education systems, and rewarded in standardized testing. Its doppelgänger, divergent thinking, is the ability to generate novel ideas and conjure up multiple solutions to a problem. It’s more aligned with creativity, or thinking outside the box.
Creativity is definitely celebrated more than it was. Though certain disciplines have always relied on outside-of-the-box thinkers – art, literature, science, film-making, and advertising – it hasn’t always been so cherished in the mainstream. But in part because of the way technology has changed the game, there’s much more opportunity and outlets for outside-the-box thinking, from the tech industry itself, to the creative entrepreneurial opportunities that exist because of it.
Sadly, even today, outside-the-box thinking has been discouraged and even penalized in the very place it should be fostered—in schools, where the “right” answer tends to be rewarded over the interesting one. And while there are of course benefits of knowing how to arrive at a right answer, stressing it too strongly may not serve kids well in the long-run. Researcher Karen Arnold, who tracked high school valedictorians over the years, and wrote about their outcomes in her book Lives of Promise, found that valedictorians did do well for themselves, but they tended not to be the real innovators or disruptors in their fields. “They obey rules, work hard and like learning, but they’re not the mold breakers,” said in a Boston College interview. “They work best within the system and aren’t likely to change it.”
By the same token, researchers who have tracked creativity over the years have found that the trait in childhood is linked to some very positive outcomes in adult life. In fact, childhood creativity was three times more strongly linked to adult success across many diverse fields (academia, entrepreneurship, politics, literature) than was childhood IQ. So if you, or your kids, don’t feel quite at home in the systems that value the “right” answer over interesting and creative ones, don’t despair—your rewards may come later on. If you can embrace your outside-the-box thinking, and figure out how to direct it into a discipline that values it, it may ultimately be a much more valuable trait than thinking inside the box.
This one is a fine line: Questioning yourself too much can lead to self-doubt and ineffectiveness. But being open to the idea that what you think you know could be wrong can position you well, both in your career and your relationships. While it may seem like sticking to your guns is the more powerful thing to do, and commands respect, this isn’t always the case. Earlier this year, a study found that the trait known as intellectual humility—being humble about your own intellect and beliefs, and willing to acknowledge they may be imperfect—was linked to a number of desirable traits. For instance, people with more intellectually humility were more likely to evaluate weak scientific information as such, less likely to make judgment calls about the character of the article’s author with which they didn’t agree, and less likely to be sure that their religious beliefs were correct.
And this willingness to evaluate and reevaluate yourself can take you far in life. “If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions,” said study author Mark Leary in a statement. “Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.” So don’t feel that you need to have strong and unwavering beliefs and force them upon others to get ahead. As it turns out, being open and receptive to new ideas, and amending your old ones, may be a much more effective way.
Having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Whether you’re a kid or adult, having ADHD can be supremely frustrating. But many of the most successful people in science, music, and sports and other arenas have the disorder, and there are certainly some upsides to it.
For kids, their attention “deficits” may actually be an adaptation to help them take in more information. A recent study found that in a test where the participant had to attend to certain prompts and ignore others, adults were generally better at answering questions about the prompts they were told to attend to—but kids were better at answering questions about the prompts they were told to ignore. This suggests that kids’ sponge-like minds may be set up to focus less and take in more. Of course, this may be of little comfort when grades are at risk, but with more research coming out about children’s attention and development, the hope is that schools will adapt more quickly, and be a little more progressive in their treatment of kids with the disorder and without.
And for both kids and adults, one of the greatest benefits of ADHD can be the paradoxical “symptom” known as hyperfocus. Many people with the disorder find that they are able to focus so intently on a task that they’re interested in that hours fly by, and it’s actually difficult to break attention from the task. It’s like being in the zone, or in a state of flow, and it seems to be a welcomed benefit of the disorder. So if you have ADHD, take the steps you need with regard to treatment (behavioral or pharmaceutical), but also realize that there are some very real benefits to ADHD, which might even propel you further than the average Joe.
Having trauma or other painful circumstances in your past (or present)
Many of us have been through events in life that we tend to think detract from our worth, making us less complete or less capable. But in reality, the opposite is often true: When we process our painful circumstances—past traumas or current mental health issues—it can make us all the stronger, more empathic, and more driven. There’s a definite link between adverse life events and being driven to succeed, provided that the events are processed adequately.
Constance Scharff, PhD, addiction researcher with Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, says that it’s a connection that she and her colleagues see disproportionately in high-achiever clientele. “What makes someone achieve at that level – the top executives – is often a stress or trauma that happened early on,” she says. “There’s something, usually an early experience, that fuels that kind of drive, and oftentimes it’s the same thing that drives addiction. The vast majority didn’t have some sort of basic needs met as children, so they’re driven very, very hard to succeed.”
Scharff adds that trauma can obviously lead to depression and PTSD, but more often than you’d expect, it can also serve to drive a person forward. “We call this experience, ‘post-traumatic growth,’” she says. “When an individual faces a life-threatening experience and comes out the other side, in some cases, it can give that person a boost, a feeling that if they can get through that horrific experience, they can get through anything. It opens the person up to possibilities that they did not see before and it can make them more sensitive and helpful to those who are suffering. In almost all cases, those who experience post-traumatic growth develop a greater appreciation for life in general and that radiates into everything they do.”
This is idea is explored in detail in the book Supersurvivors, which tells the stories of people who not only recover from trauma but who morph it into intense drive and accomplishment in life.
So don’t think of your “negative” personality traits as wholly negative—there are likely upsides to them. Again, while personal growth is great and necessary, don’t therapize all your quirks away. They may actually come in handy.
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