Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
It takes all kinds, my father would say when I was growing up. It took me awhile to realize that this is literally true for living things. Look at the different kinds of plants and animals there are, each adapted reasonably well to its local environment, and thriving there while other creatures exploit other niches. Living things have different tool-kits, shaped by the conditions under which they evolved, that allow them to thrive. Think of the quicksilver brilliance of a hummingbird on the wing, the aggression of an ostrich protecting a nest, the graceful swoop of a pelican and the ungainly waddle of a well-insulated penguin, the raucous clamor of crows. Which one is the best bird? Well, best for what? Each one is better than others at living in its own environment.
I wonder sometimes if there’s a metaphor there for human personality traits. Personality traits are like different tools that are distributed across the population, and each one offers advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. It really does take all kinds.
Are there any truly bad personality traits? Perhaps not. (There are truly negative behaviors, but that’s not the same thing, although traits obviously predispose us toward certain behaviors.) Maybe there are unhealthy extremes for each trait, but by and large each one helps you sometimes and hurts you at others. I think we call the same trait by either a positive or a negative name depending on who has it, whether we’re finding it useful or annoying in the current situation, and to some degree our history of interacting with people who have that particular trait.
The art of building successful families or workplaces or teams of any kind has a lot to do with finding a way to use the strengths of a variety of personality types, not trying to make everyone match some ideal. Think about going to the video store with friends. If everyone’s really opinionated, you might never find something everyone can agree on. On the other hand, an easy-going crowd can drift for a long time saying, “Well, that would be nice” or “Whatever you want” until you all leave the store, irritated, with a movie that no one really wanted to see but everyone thought someone else wanted to see.
This is obvious, of course, but there are areas these days where we sometimes think in terms of ideals that we should all try to reach. For example, psychopharmacology is probably going to continue to come up with new ways to tinker with our selves; some biochemical interventions are obviously beneficial, but if we move toward shaping personality rather than curing illness, we will at some point need to realize that there isn’t any one ideal personality that will be happy and productive in all situations. Psychiatry and related sciences seem bent on describing variations from normal as syndromes or disorders, ignoring the possibility that there is no such thing as normal. Since each trait, and each constellation of traits that makes up a personality, has its good and bad points, none is trouble-free and probably none is completely negative.
Another area where this comes into play is genetics. When people talk about the potential for genetic manipulation that will allow us to select particular features of our children, they tend to assume that there is one desirable set of characteristics that everyone will want his or her children to have. But when you think about it, this might turn out to be remarkably hard to do. First, I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible to figure out how to select for something as broad and subjectively identified as personality characteristics. Even something like intelligence comes in many flavors and possesses many components, and is not determined by a single gene or even a simple combination of genes. Leaving that aside, how on earth would we choose what kinds of humans to produce, given the chance?
Would we favor extroverts over introverts? The practical over the innovative? The builders or the dreamers? The cautious or the daring? I wouldn’t want to be responsible for choosing any one of these over the others, because I think every personality trait is a mixed blessing. And if people did want to choose, they would choose differently. There certainly are dumb things we can and maybe will do if we start trying to engineer personalities, either through pharmaceuticals or through genetics, but I don’t think we’ll create a uniform race of superpeople. Even if we could agree on their attributes, and even if we could figure out how to create them, they’d struggle with the downside of their strengths the same as the rest of us.
In short, there is no ideal and maybe not even a normal. We vary in the traits we possess and the strength of each one. The environments we’re raised in shape our inborn tendencies in different ways. And that’s as it should be. The diverse combinations that result can be a source of strength, not a liability.
The challenge is to find the strengths in our diversity. We often feel that life might be easier if everyone were just like us. You think how many mistakes could be avoided if everyone paid careful attention to details like you do, or you wish other people would try to get the big picture and stop harassing you with those little details. It’s usually easy to appreciate your own traits, and harder to appreciate those of others.
Obviously our traits are more malleable than the bright plumage of the hummingbird or the caw of the crow. We live in a complicated environment that requires different things from us at different times. We can learn how to flex, how to be the best of who we are and still work around our weak spots, sometimes borrowing insight from those who are not like us.
This is often easier said than done. Sometimes when you’re dealing with people who are bafflingly or annoyingly different, it’s tempting to shrug and give up on understanding, much less learning from, their take on the world. But if we’re smart and charitable, we try to figure out how the world looks to them rather than just assuming they’re crazy. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t think they’re crazy; sometimes we admire them and wish we were more like them. Either way, we have to stretch to learn other ways of experiencing the world.
My friend Jean suggests that one way to do this with people close to you is to try to find positive or at least neutral terms to describe the other person. You know how this naming of characteristics goes. For example, we have the courage of our convictions. Those other guys are stubborn or even downright pigheaded. I value good living; he’s a spendthrift. I’m thrifty; she’s a tightwad. I’m meticulous about details; you’re a fussbudget. This is something of a parlor game that you can use to translate personal ads and resumes. The idea is to try not to think of your sweetheart or child or friend as flaky, and ask your nearest and dearest not to think of you as timid; spontaneous and prudent are both much more generous assessments of each other’s characters. Basically this boils down to trying to see the people close to you the way they see themselves.
Of course, different personality types tend to favor certain values and behaviors, and you need to negotiate the ground rules for behavior within a relationship, no matter what kind of personalities are involved. The whole process is easier, though, if you can shift your perspective somewhat, and one way to begin is to change the labels you put on things.
Note that I’m not talking about a fuzzy-headed effort at enhancing self-esteem by never saying anything bad about other people. For starters, there are some behaviors that are in my opinion required of everyone, and I’m not trying to whitewash misbehavior by blaming it on the personality someone was blessed and burdened with. I’m talking about balance. You probably already have some negative words for the things that irritate you about other people. The best way to learn how to accommodate the inevitable differences in people is to try to understand how it looks from the other side. Maybe this will ease the friction in a family or at work, and at its best, it can give you a glimpse of another way of seeing and evaluating the world, something more or less foreign to you but still understandable if you make the effort.
Of course, we’re sometimes attracted by someone’s spontaneity and then frustrated by his or her flakiness. This is another place where the alternate names for a single trait come into play. A charming playfulness turns into airheadedness; a protective streak comes to seem controlling; someone with a strong sense of responsibility winds up looking like a fuddy-duddy. Again, the good and the bad are opposite sides of the same thing. If you want a mate who is willing to take over paying the bills, you’re going to have to put up with times when he or she looks to you like a killjoy. I think one of the richest experiences of growing older is to learn to accept things and people as wholes, in all their complexity.
In some cases, I wonder if there are biological underpinnings to particular characteristics, so that the pluses and minuses reflect an inevitable trade-off. You may have read the recent news story about the gonopodia of mosquitofish: larger ones attract the ladies, and thus enhance reproductive success, but they also make it harder to evade predators. You can’t be both a babe-magnet and the speediest swimmer. Or to take a human example, I’m fairly sensitive to emotional and other stimuli, so it takes me awhile to adapt to new situations. While I enjoy traveling and seeing new places, I have to do so carefully, because the discomfort of strange surroundings can wipe out the joy of discovery. I might dream of adventures, but I have to accept that, like the Mole in The Wind in the Willows, I am a creature of the garden-plot, and that the full asperities of nature in the rough are not for me. On the other hand, I can derive a great deal of enjoyment from the most everyday things. I don’t need to spend a lot of money or go to exotic places to find joy and pleasure in the mundane. (And as Mole realizes, the pleasant places that surrounded him “held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.”) I don’t know if there is a physiological basis for this sensitivity to stimuli, but I do think that the good and the bad aspects are linked and I probably can’t have one without the other.
I think the key thing to realize is that everyone is trying to perfect a kind of balancing act, to live with the mixed bag of attributes that make up who he or she is. We are, I hope, never going to make humanity over into a uniform personality, and we need to learn to live with what we’ve got. The best way to look at it might be similar to the Vulcan idea from Star Trek of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, and, as Spock said one time, the way our differences combine to create meaning and beauty. Think of the grace and tact of the wishy-washy among us, for example, or the strength and tenacity of the loudmouths. Remember the steady reliability of the worry-warts in your life, or the joie de vivre of the unpredictable. Even if there are some personality types that you simply can’t get along with in close quarters, be glad that there are people out there who are different from you and willing, even happy, to do all the jobs and fill all the roles that you can’t imagine yourself in. It’s not always an easy way to look at life, and maybe I’m dreaming to think we can manage it. But then, I do tend to be an idealist and a dreamer. You could call me a visionary, or you could call me impractical, or even a crackpot. I like the word “dreamer” though. It can go either way.