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Personality: The hidden link between passion and profession

(This post is a transcript of my TEDx speech on 21 April, 2018, in Shanghai.)

A few years ago, I met a vibrant young lady from Shanghai, who is the daughter of two painters — let’s call her Nora. They gave her one piece of career advice: never become an artist. Her story impressed me because, instead of absent-mindedly nodding her head like I would have done, she obediently studied finance and became an accountant. She did a good job, but it made her feel aimless and abandoned. Sitting in her silent cubicle, she kept asking herself why she wasn’t as calm and systematic as her colleagues. Why her attempts at friendly chats over the plastic separation met with icy stares.

It wasn’t her fault. Like so many smart and hard-working people, Nora simply listened to well-intentioned advice that lead her, as a Chinese proverb says, climb a tree in search of fish. As a consultant, I encounter career mismatches every day: outgoing people impatiently swearing over pages of financial analysis, and warm-hearted helpers terrified to miss aggressive sales targets. They are talented people asking themselves the question: “What is wrong with me?”. Hearing their stories, something important occurred to me: parents, educators and bosses unwillingly recreate such vicious circles with advice that ignores the very foundation of successful careers: personality.

Personality defines your thoughts and actions. It is the key to your success, but also causes most of your frustrations. For example, observe how differently people behave at a coffee break. Some throw themselves into uninvited conversations with defenceless strangers. Others suspiciously clutch their cups near the closest emergency exit. What you see there was the most obvious personality trait: extroversion. Extroverts are born with the desire to seek intensive human interaction, while introverts engage in contact when they please, and otherwise guard their privacy.

Such observations are thousands of years old. The first recorded personality classification system by the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates consisted of four temperaments. Although modern science rejects the medical foundations of his theory, the idea that personality has four building blocks have stood the test of time surprisingly well. It inspired psychologists like Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler, and through them the assessment systems we use in modern management. Using such personality profiles, I coach senior executives in multinational companies from Amsterdam to Singapore, completely stuck in fish-less trees. If Hippocrates could somehow watch us through a detective mirror, he would recognise his original categories and feel quite pleased with himself.

Imagine the four personality factors like a team of advisors in your head: a determined inner salesperson; a cheerful but neurotic entertainer; a warm-hearted but hesitant helper; and a responsible but somewhat annoying tax officer. In key moments, they often quarrel with one another, and one of them usually wins — that defines your character. Modern personality assessment added colours to the equation, which aren’t accidental. Across ages and cultures, red has been associated with struggle and courage, yellow with energy and fun, green with harmony and compassion and blue with calm and discipline.

There are ‘Red’, ‘Yellow’, ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ solutions to any problem. Let’s say, a colleague asks you to proofread a document, ten minutes before the deadline. You politely decline because you are busy. Now, someone with a Red-dominated character will try to challenge you into it, while a ‘Yellow’ like me will either charm you or won’t shut up until you give in. ‘Greens’ tend to guilt you into it, recalling the favours you owe the team. Those with strong ‘Blue’ will appeal to an agreement, rule or tradition that proves that you must do it. Which of these colleagues you most resemble implies the personality factor that helps you succeed — your talent.

The problem is that in most communities, advice comes in predictably uniform packages, like the antibiotics that some doctors prescribe, regardless of which illness you have. The process starts early in life. Schools and junior jobs have a strong bias towards task-focused talent on the left side. There are some variations across cultures. For instance Asian families typically push their young towards ‘Blue’ professions like finance, medicine and law, while parents in the West are more open to ‘Red’ style careers like sales and management, or even athletics. Meanwhile, those whose talent falls on the people-focused right typically discover opportunities in liberal arts, service professions or entertainment when they are old enough to choose for themselves.

Disregarding natural diversity for practical reasons has one disastrous consequence: people begin to see their own personality as a weakness. There are just as many extroverted ’Yellows’ born in Japan as in Brazil. But energetic and fun behaviour triggers completely different reactions in Rio than in Tokyo. When our nature clashes with expectations, the result is self-doubt. It’s like blaming the shape of your head when the headphones don’t fit. Think of Nora: the more she tried to repress her inherited creative talent, the more frustrated she became. Eventually, she quit her job in finance to figure out what she wanted with her life.

If we can believe labour statistics, half of our audience today is in a similar situation, either looking for a job or considering a new one. Even if you are perfectly comfortable in your current career, periodically you have to rethink who you want to be. When you find yourself asking: “What is wrong with me?”. I assure you: there is nothing wrong with you. It is more likely that you are struggling with three stubborn myths that I find behind most mismatches between passion and profession.

The first myth is that being dispassionate, or even disappointed, with your work is what adulthood is all about. It’s just part of growing up. Essentially, it is the philosophy of my lorry driver uncle, who would have convinced young Elvis that there was no money in playing music, Elon Musk that it was impossible to fly a car to space, and Steve Jobs that ‘Apple’ was a stupid name for a company. The more you hear such voices, the louder they get in your head. But like other loudspeakers, they often play the wrong recording, because advice usually follows the speaker’s own character. Scientific research, on the other hand, finds that happy and successful people consciously make choices in the light of their personality, and adjust when they see a mismatch. But if so much advice is misplaced, how do you know who you really are?

That brings us to the second myth: the belief that modern life rewards conformity over individuality. I certainly see why many people think that our world is becoming ever more uniform. People follow the pre-set rhythms of traffic and work hours in cloned buildings, and the books, theatres and greeting cards that used to bring colour to our lives now all fit into little grey boxes we call tablets. One of the thousands of workers in a factory or office tower might feel no more unique than one confused little pixel in the screen behind me.

But you cannot change human nature the way you recolour a pixel. The very companies that provide your screens, phones, groceries and services apply personality systems to predict your desires, habits and life choices. One such system, supporting the four personality factors with advanced brain research, is behind matchmaking websites. Online retailers and tech firms collect data with our every move and assess our natural risk tolerance, outgoingness, pro-activeness and flexibility. You will notice the same four colours in the logos of many such firms, including Ebay, Microsoft and Google.

Don’t worry: you can find out what tech companies already know about you without a brain scanner. After all, all they do is observe behaviour. While big data systems observe your behaviour in the cloud, you can learn to do the same with your own eyes. Humans send out thousands of clues that reveal their personality: all you have to do is watch. Sitting at a table, some people act ‘Blue’ and right-angle their pens, notebooks and phones. Given the chance, they will re-arrange yours too. Some ‘dress for success’ like a ‘Red’ while others prefer a homy hoodie, ‘Green’ style. Lunch breaks are fantastic opportunities to observe ruthlessly efficient ‘Red’ multitasking meals, extroverted ‘Yellows’ hunting companions, ‘Greens’ dutifully going with the flow and those who eat according to countless ‘Blue’ rules and principles. Observing others will also reveal your own true colours, and the opportunities they imply.

To turn those opportunities into better choices, you still have to challenge the third myth. Many adults seem to believe that it’s too late for them to change. This tragic misconception suggests that as you stop growing in height, you become unable to pick up new skills, adapt to new life situations or even learn a new language. I could quote you scientific proof to the contrary, but instead, let me see a show of hands: How many of you hope to make life adjustments on retirement? We don’t think it’s too late to change then! Whenever you feel to old to grow, visit a recently retired relative or friend who signed up for Vietnamese cooking lessons or established a coin collecting club.

Talent is like a muscle: it might be sore when you start using it after years of idleness. But like someone who starts with light yoga and eventually runs a half Marathon, you will get stronger. So did Nora, by the way. After she had quit accounting, she discovered a great way to combine her training in finance with her inherited creative talent: when I met her at a a networking event, she created marketing campaigns fora top sports brand.

Of course, nobody expects you to quit your job unless you want to. There are infinite ways to mix the four colours. But when you discover a long-neglected shade in your personality, make adjustments to your work focus if you can, or your daily routine — which you surely can. Perhaps you will allow your creativity to shine through an analytical profession like Nora did. Maybe you have an opportunity to become the organiser in a messy team of innovators. Applying your talent can be a revolution, or a steady evolution. But it is important, and never too late, to take the next, ever more rewarding step towards letting your true colours guide you from passion to profession.

Thank you!

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