How do I balance my personality traits?

Dissecting what makes us who we are so we can continuously improve

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us who we are.

Why do we all react to certain situations the way we do? How do some of our skills and traits both hurt and help us? How do the ways in which we are wired impact the ways we all live our lives?

Everyone has personal characteristics they admire and loathe about themselves. I admire my ability to be optimistic and compassionate, but loathe my lack of self-control and patience.

In discussing this post with a friend, I was pointed in the direction of a Ben Casnocha article where he speaks with Reid Hoffman (a co-founder of LinkedIn and current investor) about his strengths and weaknesses. Here’s how Hoffman responded:

“Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.”

That’s the essence of today’s grid. How can we better understand which characteristics serve us, hurt us, or do a little (or a lot) of both? The idea is if we can better why we are the way we are, we can live a more informed—and happier—life.

On the x-axis, we have size of bug. In software development, a bug is understood to be an error, problem or unintended functionality of a system. Taken in terms of your personality, a bug is the unfortunate downside (in any aspect) that comes from a way you live your life. A bug is in the eye of the beholder. So, for example, say you are really athletic. It may cause you to be in the gym more often than the average person. A bug of this feature may be that you have less time at home with your family.

On the y-axis, we have size of feature. A feature is something beneficial. It’s the benefit the system is supposed to provide. When you have features, often, you have bugs associated with them. Running with our prior example, a feature would be your athleticism—that helps you stay fit, lead an active lifestyle, and be competitive while playing sports. All of those things probably help you live a life you enjoy living.

Understanding the Grid

To me, this grid allows me to be more well-rounded. If I can understand how my entire system—or set of strengths and weaknesses—works together, I can be more prepared to manage the flaws in my personality. I can notice how each trait I have influences another. Not doing this, it would be as if you went to medical school and only decided to learn about the lungs—there’s clearly much more anatomy to learn than that. It would be reckless to make medical decisions thinking only about one body part and not considering the entire system as a whole.

Double-Edged Sword

Traits in this category are both large features and large bugs. These traits are keystone pillars of your personality. They are some of the characteristics that make you uniquely you given they are part of your daily toolkit. What gets tricky here is that what makes them so powerful makes them equally as dangerous. Using a personal example, a Double-Edged Sword for me is my need to plan. On one hand, planning is a feature: It compels me to look toward the future and properly prepare for it. I feel in control, determined, and goal-oriented when I plan. It drives my entrepreneurial spirit. However, on the other hand, my knack for planning can be a bug. When I arrive at some types of unexpected situations—or situations where there is no plan—it creates anxiety. It causes me to feel scared. The uncertainty of a situation makes me feel like I’m treading water in the middle of the Atlantic—lost as to which way to swim to get to shore. However, as I’ve started to recognize both the feature and bug components of my desire to plan, it allows me to triage and fix the bugs in real-time. After all, isn’t understanding why something breaks the first step in fixing it? The more you can pinpoint the bugs, the more you can grab your “internal engineering” team and fix the issue.

Some Personal Examples: My need to plan, tendencies to be reflective (causes too many “hindsight is 20/20” moments), creativity (can cause a lack of focus).

Achilles Heel

Traits in this category are much larger bugs than they are features. These are things that straight up hurt you. With these traits, it’s best to try and manage the bugs as they appear such that they don’t overwhelm you. Can you think through a few of the biggest problems these traits create for yourself? Can you brainstorm ways to actually solve them? For example, a big Achilles Heel for me is my lack of self-control. Throughout my life I’ve had trouble saying no to extra desserts or that the next episode of television. However, there is a feature that comes with this bug: my ability to zone in and get to work is like no other. My friends and coworkers often tell me how shocked they are that I can sit down and work for 2-3 hours at a time. No flinching. No breaks. I can get into flow and start drinking from the firehose. So, the more I can learn to manage the ways in which my lack of self-control hurts me and leverage the ways my bug as actually an accidental feature, the better off I’ll be. Can I work to apply my lack of self-control in new ways? Instead of binge watching five episodes at a time, how do I bring myself to binge read for five hours at a time? Instead of eating that extra dessert, how do I bring myself to do an extra half hour in the gym? I’m still working on all of these things, but the first step is recognition that work is needed in the first place.

Some Personal Examples: Lack of self-control (but can allow me to zone in), lack of patience (but allows me to not be scared to jump right in and get to work).

Differentiator

Traits in this category are much bigger features than they are bugs. These characteristics are your special sauce—the things that lift you up, draw your friends to you, and propel you forward. Differentiators scale, meaning it’s a simple skill that pays massive dividends the better you get at them. I consider compassion a big Differentiator for me. My ability to lean in, understand, and help friends and colleagues who are in need not only helps relieve their stress, but also makes me feel good. My compassion comes with just a few bugs, the largest being that I can internalize the problems of those around me. Basically, when I am helping others, I pass off their problems as my own. Learning to separate that continues to be a struggle, but again, recognizing that downside comes with compassion helps me better manage it.

Some Personal Examples: Compassion (but can cause me to internalize other people’s problems as my own), optimism (but can cause me to fail to recognize the true negative realities of a situation), humor (but sometimes jokes are received in ways they are not intended to be).

Ask for Help

Traits in this category are both small features and small bugs. Ultimately, things here are skills or characteristics that are undeveloped—the places in life where you seek out assistance from others. They are small features because you don’t have strong competency. They are small bugs for the same reason. This category can include more casual skills such as time-management, public speaking, cooking, organization. These are areas where you may have some skill, but aren’t an expert. For me, that’s in how I handle my health and fitness. I often find myself Googling healthy things to eat, workout plans to try, and asking my friends for their advice. While I definitely find myself improving a bit more each day, it still doesn’t feel like a strength to me. It feels like something I’m still trying to master. Knowing when to ask for help is more important than believing you can accomplish things yourself.

Some Personal Examples: Health and fitness (my old roommate is my personal, part-time running coach and virtual workout classes have been my go-to during this time), cooking (will continue using this an examples because I’m just so bad at it).

Grid Shortcomings

This grid has two shortcomings:

  1. It can be tough to recognize how your strengths can actually lead to weakness. What makes us strong in one way can make us unbalanced in another. Seeing all sides of a feature can make us more well-rounded, but it’s a tough thing to do in practice. The first step is spending time alone, thinking about how your strengths can impact others around your or different areas of your life. Doing so will be challenging, but the long-term gains are far worth it.

  2. This grid doesn’t indicated whether you should become competent in the areas in life in which you ask for help. Ultimately, if you are bad at, say, organization—is it better for you to learn that skill or always seek out help in order to address the weakness? That answer is up to you. Whatever you decide should be centered on understanding how learning (or not learning) that new skill impacts your other traits and other areas of your life.

We are not one-dimensional, obviously. What is a strength today has the ability hurt us in unrecognizable ways tomorrow. Reflection and thinking through ways our traits a can help and harm us is critical to leading a happier and more balanced life. I hope today’s grid illuminates a way for you to begin having that conversation with yourself.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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