What Makes You ― You? Understanding Personality Strengths & Finding Potential In "Average"

12.10.20 06:56 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

My extreme traits are what make me special, right?

It's my extremes that make me interesting. That's where my exciting potential lies, because extreme is rare. Right?


So many conversations I've had about personality assessments have inadvertently pointed back to this idea.

Where very high or very low percentile marks are reveled in, maybe even exaggerated.

But personality measures aren't the same as measures of skill, and landing in a mid-tier zone doesn't at all carry the same implications…

Context: A Sideways Perspective
My background is in dance. I studied under a framework known as Laban-Barteneiff Movement Analysis (which I'll refer to as "Laban" or "LMA" for short).

In Laban, one of the fundamental concepts is known as "Effort," and it refers to the qualitative aspect of a movement. The concept of Effort contains four dimensions, or dynamic ranges, by which all movement is classified.

The specifics of LMA — while I think they're fascinating — aren't the thing I want to draw your attention to right now. There's a perspective nested inside of this approach that I'd like to bring to the light…

"There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two types and those who don't."     Edward A. Murphy, Jr.

Dichotomous thinking (aka "black-and-white" or "all-or-nothing" thinking) sits at the root of perfectionism and a number of psychological disorders, and it seems like it's on the rise in today's world.

"I'm an HSP." "I'm an Introvert." "I'm an Enneagram #6."

We like to categorize ourselves.

We like to know which camp someone's in.

We like to know who we are.

These labels we use can be incredibly valuable heuristics — they can speed up our understanding of ourselves and of others by making concrete those characteristics that might otherwise evade us. But they're not the end of the story (or at least they shouldn't be).

The Upside of Heuristics
What's a heuristic?

A heuristic is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision. [ source ]

Heuristics are approximations — and they help us move in the world.

How difficult would it be to get anything done if you had to think deeply about every step that you took? If you had to decide whether you were going to walk on the street or on the sidewalk or through someone's yard on your way to work? Or how long it would take to get ready in the morning without the categories of "professional clothing" and "casual clothing?"

How difficult would it be if you had to carefully consider every menial thing throughout your day? You'd never get anything done.

Labels and categories are heuristics, and they help us function.

By bucketing concepts, we're able to navigate the world more rapidly and effectively than we otherwise could.

It's the reason things keep moving forward, and the world doesn't collapse in paralyzed doubt and confusion.

Dichotomous Thinking About Dichotomous Thinking
Dichotomous thinking isn't bad. (It would be a dichotomous perspective to claim that it is… 🤔)

Heuristics have real value.

But there's also a downside. (Actually, there are a few.)

The Downside
Labels push things to extremes…
…and those extremes actually hardly exist.

There aren't really Introverts and Extroverts in the world. You're not really one or the other.

We each have a "home" somewhere on the Introversion-Extroversion spectrum, but the reality of who we are (1) is dynamic and (2) falls on a blended spectrum — not in a purified bucket.

Labels can lead to self-deception…
…and that closed-vision makes us naive and ignorant in a really dangerous way.

Any blindness you have creates distortion in your behavior, which then begins to warp your interactions with the world. Those warped interactions pollute the outcomes you experience — but the deception finds a way to explain it, reinforcing the initial lie and subsequent problematic behavior… and the spiral continues ever deeper and deeper downward.

Labels create self-fulfilling narratives…
…which can be used both to your advantage and to your detriment. So use them consciously, with discretion.

This loops back to the idea that there is some value in labeling and categorizing…

👉 The negative:

When you take on a label and use that as a reason for your behavior ("I'm x type of person, therefore I do things this way and not that way"), you close yourself off from your own potential to do things differently. But…

1 | How well do you really know yourself? You don't know what you don't know. And there's a lot more to you that it's going to take you years — even decades — to discover. Stay open-minded about yourself.

2 | Closed-mindedness kills potential. When you close off your mind to the possibility of a different way of being, then it becomes completely true.

3 | You influence your own genetic expression. Our genes do or don't express themselves based on the environment we create for them. And so we inadvertently determine which of our genes do or don't get activated (to a limited — but substantive — extent).

There's something comforting about seeing the results we expect to see, even if those results aren't exactly what we say we want them to be.

👉 The positive:

The self-fulfilling nature of these types of narratives can also be used to your advantage. They can help you reinforce the qualities that you want to do more of.

For example, "I am going to follow through on this promise because I'm someone who does what I say I'll do."

It's not a magic bullet to overcome your weaknesses, but it can be a useful tactic to help yourself act in accordance with an identity that you value.

At the same time, it's important to remain emphatically aware of your very real capacity for lying to yourself about what you're like, so that you don't find yourself in self-deception territory.

The Other Side Of The Coin

With both the upsides and downsides in mind, let's consider the other option…

It's the idea that each moment in time calls for a uniquely specific response.


I might be in one conversation with Sandra. As we navigate the interaction, I might need to speak up more and be fairly direct about my thoughts in order for the dialogue to be fruitful.

Then I might be in another conversation with Raphael and need to draw on a different set of characteristics - I may need to be more attentive and thoughtful before speaking in order for our conversation to go anywhere.

There's value when I move along dynamically around the different modes of interaction in order to do my part in bridging the gap between where I am and wherever that person is.

Similarly, I might be working on one project and find myself in an ideation stage, and then switch gears to another project that's in a development & feedback stage. In each, it's beneficial if I'm aware of the degree to which I should bring an explorative vs. a targeted perspective.

Rather than reverting to a default way of being, it's more valuable to see the situation in front of you for what it is and for what it needs, and then to reach into your toolbox and bring forward the traits that will best meet that moment...

Finding Efficient (read: Functional) Intentionality
Intentionality is great — it's obviously optimal to bring a tailored response to your situation.

But it's also an overwhelming task.

To be truly intentional and specific in every small thing you do holds you back from doing the most important thing: engaging in life.

Extreme specificity interferes with your ability to do anything, because of the cognitive load it requires.

The Gold Standard In Intentionality
This brings me back to Laban.

In LMA, the core aim was to find intentional Effort qualities.

But it does so by first defining the qualitative spectrum you have at your disposal.

For example, let's say I'm developing a piece of choreography, but something about the execution isn't landing.

To correct the situation, I would consciously identify where on each of the Effort spectrums that particular movement should fall. The dimensions provided the heuristic, while the exact quality expressed remained open for intentional choice.

In redefining the heuristic, a shift happens in the fundamental value structure…

Rather than glorifying the extreme ends of a quality, the LMA approach places the spectrum itself in the highest place of value, esteeming the tension that exists between the two polarities more than either of those polarities individually.

For example, "Weight" is one of the four Efforts.

In this case, Weight is the fundamental thing of value. And both Lightness and Heaviness exist as tools for expressing Weight.

(More on this in a minute.)


The Modern Western Frame Of Mind
In school, we lived or died by measures of competence.
100% = good
0% = bad

A student who demonstrates a grasp on something receives a good score, is deemed competent, and by extension, the student is implicitly deemed good
(Whether the measures were appropriately selected or well designed is debatable — but that's a separate question from the one at hand.)

I think we've internalized that perspective — which works on scales of competence — but it doesn't work on qualitative dimensions.

Scales of Competence vs. Dimensions of Quality

Examples of scales of competence might be:

  • how fast can you run a mile?
  • how accurately can you calculate these numbers in your head?
  • how effective is your solution to this problem?

This is where your degree of mastery can be rated on a scale, where 0 represents no competence and 100 represents high competence, near perfection.

Examples of dimensions of quality, on the other hand, include:

  • Focus: ranging from narrow (focused) to wide (explorative)
  • Engagement: ranging from introspective (internally engaged) to interactive (externally engaged)
  • Kindness: ranging from comfortable (radical understanding) to challenging (radical honesty)

This is where two polarities exist that both complement each other and hold each other in tension. These two polarities form a dynamic range on which you can operate with varying degree. One end isn't inherently better or worse than the other. Each one is useful in some circumstances and not-so-useful in other circumstances. And sometimes, they're both irrelevant.

Conflation of the Two

In the modern western frame of mind, we tend to place emphasis on our "personality strengths."

And they are, in fact, strengths.

But also…

We can make an easy mistake that interferes deeply in our engagement in the world…

The Mistake
The mistake occurs when scales of competence are conflated with dimensions of quality.

For example, you might be told that you have a particular strength:

  • "you are organized"
  • "you are highly sensitive"
  • "you are very open"

But then you might implicitly apply the competence scale to this qualitative aspect — internalizing the idea that "openness" (for example) ranges from 0–100, and that 0 is bad and 100 is good.

Too easily, we (by default) push ourselves to amplify those qualities in order to move closer to "good" (100).

👉  Issue #1:
This leads to a cyclically-reinforcing extremification of that quality.

The problem is that the 100% level of that quality is not inherently "good" — it's neutral. It's a tool that is useful in some situations and irrelevant or even harmful in other situations.

👉 Issue #2:
It also leads to a looking-down on the "other" quality.

For example, someone who has become extremified in their strength of high sensitivity might look with condescension on someone who's behaving more straightforwardly, not realizing that the two things complement each other — that they're two ends of the same spectrum, and that the spectrum is the thing deserving of value. The spectrum is what matters, more than either extremified expression of it.

What if we de-emphasize the expressions of a dimension and raise the value of the dimension itself? What if we learned the value of the whole range and worked to develop our capacity to navigate dynamically and intentionally across that range?

Intentionality of Degree, Dynamism & Variation
The thing that makes choreography interesting is the dynamism and variation in the moment-to-moment choices that are made about qualitative expression.

It's interesting because it reflects life.

The reality in which we live resides on a foundation of nuance and dynamism.

Heuristics help us navigate that reality…

Measures of competence help us develop greater competence…

But it's the tension of the dynamic that allows for both adaptability and a deeper experience.

When we bring intentionality to that spectrum, we can find a much better engagement with the situation — one that makes us feel more alive and that improves the outcomes substantially.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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