Character Study

The better you know yourself, the better your relationship with the rest of the world. – Toni Collette

My son is in his first term of college and is taking a career class that is helping him narrow down career options based on his interests and personality. It’s a pretty brilliant idea, actually. I wish I’d done something similar in my first year of college; perhaps I’d have realized that my chosen career wasn’t a good fit for me and changed tracks.* Instead, I had to figure it out the hard way in my 20’s, when I finally started to realize what I was good at, and what I enjoyed.

I don’t suppose I’m the only one who missed the mark on understanding certain things about myself as I established my adult identity, but I got so many things wrong. There really should be some sort of “adulting” certification, and personality testing should be a mandatory component.

Let me provide an example: I really enjoy time spent with friends. When I was younger, I looked for all sorts of opportunities to engage with people, because I thought I was an extrovert. That makes sense, right?

Except I was wrong. I’m an introvert, and I’m not actually a “people” person, I just happen to have great friends.

Here’s my shameful secret: I don’t really enjoy large events with lots of people. I’ll even go so far as to say that I prefer to see my friends (whom I love) individually or in very small groups where I can have meaningful conversations, not en masse. Don’t get me wrong, I do still occasionally attend big events because I see the value in bringing people together, but I tend to keep time spent at them short, partly because they require a certain amount of politics (not my strong suit) and partly because I don’t want to have to shout to be heard.

When I was younger, I would drag myself to large get-togethers even when I didn’t really want to go because they were “fun” (according to some arbitrary standard, obviously). But about 10 years ago I went through a difficult period that made me rethink my priorities and how I was spending my time. I normally do a lot of reading, but back then, I was on fire. I was trying to effect change in my own life, and that’s when I happened across The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Gretchen conducted a year-long experiment where she tested different techniques that are supposed to raise happiness levels – to mixed results – and then documented what she had learned about herself along the way. It’s fascinating, really, and well worth reading if you have the chance.

The most important thing I walked away with from that book is that you must recognize your own natural tendencies. If you follow them, you’re going to be happier. You just are. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, because there’s usually a gap between who you’d like to be and your true self. I want to be the person who loves socializing and big parties, but I’m not.

In that same vein, I love taking personality tests, but when I do, I must take them very quickly, without considering the questions for too long. Otherwise, I tend to answer them in a way that feels “correct”, rather than one that is true. It’s so WEIRD. It’s not like I’m taking the test in front of a group of people who will judge the result, so who, exactly, am I trying to impress with my responses? Myself? Well, that’s just sad. I have to say, the really crappy part of this “recognizing your own tendencies” process is that it requires some hard examination of and brutal honesty about the thoughts and intentions behind your actions.

We have an obligation to do self-work, and yes, we can modify our thoughts and behaviors to become more of the person we want to be. But I think we all have an essential nature, and it’s pretty important to understand what it is while we’re trying to improve ourselves.

I don’t think that most of us are looking to be ecstatically joyful all the time. (We’re realists, aren’t we?) But I think we can recognize the things that bring us happiness and try to do more of them. We can also get rid of some of the things that don’t.

Your “happy life” doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Remember that.

PS: Interested in what personality tests might tell you? Check these out. Share your results if you like, I’d love to hear what we have in common, or don’t.

Enneagram

Myers-Briggs

The Four Tendencies

*Maybe not, though. I’m obstinate, and odds are I might have continued on my chosen track.

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