In Make Your Job a Calling, we make a case that a key strategy for discerning a calling is to start by understanding your gifts, where “gifts” is defined very broadly to include all of those aspects of what make you unique. Psychologists have worked hard to identify the key aspects of people that are important in understanding individual differences, and one of those is personality.
Personality is somewhat tricky to define, but two main themes cut across the various definitions that scholars have proposed. The first is that personality reflects a characteristic pattern of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This theme refers to the structure or description of personality. The second is that personality involves mechanisms—psychological, biological, interpersonal, and so forth—that can be used to explain those patterns. This theme refers to the process or explanation of personality; it taps less into what personality is and more into how personality develops. In terms of understanding individual differences as they relate to figuring out what type of career path is the best fit for a person, the first theme is most important.
To understand the structure or description of personality, we make an important distinction between types and traits. Types refer to discrete categories that are sometimes used to classify people. For example, one pop psychology approach describes four basic types of people—Lions, Otters, Golden Retrievers, and Beavers. Another divides people into four colors—Orange, Gold, Green, and Blue. Both of these are basically restatements of the Greek (and later, Shakespearean) notion of the four temperaments (Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Melancholic). A more sophisticated approach forms the basis of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which classifies people into one of 16 possible types by providing them with a four-letter code based on where they gravitate on four pairs of opposites—Introversion (I) / Extroversion (E), Sensing (S) / Intuiting (N), Thinking (T) / Feeling (F), and Judging (J) / Perceiving (P).
There is a lot to appreciate about type approaches—they are easy to understand, they identify both strengths and vulnerabilities in everyone, and serve as a very useful vehicle for stimulating discussion. However, type approaches have rather serious problems, too. MBTI results, for example, tend to be alarmingly unstable over time, with some evidence suggesting that as many as half of people receive a different four-letter code upon being retested just 5 weeks after their initial assessment.[i] A fundamental problem is that most people fall toward the middle of each dimension, which means that two people who are very similar but just barely land on opposite sides of the Introversion and Extraversion cutoff, for example, are classified as opposites, whereas someone with a mid-range score of Introversion is granted the same type as someone who is an extreme Introvert. Concerns also have been raised about the mixed results from studies that have examined the ability of MBTI types to predict important work-related outcomes, such as salary increases, promotions, job satisfaction, and job performance.[ii]
Most personality psychologists believe that differences between people are best represented not as all-or-nothing characteristics, things we either have or we don’t, but rather as traits—dimensions that describe characteristics that all people possess, just in different amounts. Consider extraversion. Type approaches often divide the world into introverts and extraverts, either/or. A trait approach thinks of extraversion as a continuum. Some people have very high levels of extraversion; they are extremely talkative and bundles of endless energy. Others have very low levels; they are very shy and would always prefer curling up with a book next to the fireplace to spending the evening bar-hopping. Most of us, though, fall somewhere between in between. Regardless of how much extraversion we have, all of us can be described according to where we fall on the continuum for this trait. Trait approaches are typically more complex, but also more accurate predictors of real-world behavior than type approaches.
The most popular personality trait approach is the “Big Five,” an approach that is supported by thousands of studies spanning more than three decades. The Big Five consists of (you guessed it) five traits, believed to be the basic building blocks of personality, and is easily remembered with the acronym OCEAN:
- Openness to Experience. Those with high levels are imaginative, intellectually curious, creative, and unconventional; those with low levels are down to earth, practical, and content with the familiar.
- Conscientiousness. High levels = responsible, persevering, organized, disciplined, determined. Low levels = spontaneous, careless, easily distracted, absent-minded.
- Extraversion. High levels = sociable, talkative, assertive, energetic, active, adventurous. Low levels = reserved, self-contained, cautious.
- Agreeableness. High levels = cooperative, trusting, good-natured, accommodating, unselfish. Low levels = cynical, irritable, negativistic, headstrong, stubborn.
- Neuroticism. High levels = nervous, prone to distress, insecure, tense, emotionally volatile. Low levels = relaxed, stable, calm, resilient, secure, content.
The Big Five recognizes that some personality tendencies are “better” or “worse” than others, in terms of their real-world impact. Those high in conscientiousness make the best employees, for example, whereas those high in neuroticism are vulnerable to experiencing depression.
Traits also are fairly stable over time; especially once people reach their early twenties, how high or low they are on a trait, compared to others, doesn’t change much as move through adulthood, on average. This is important to realize when you are using your profile of high and low trait scores to help make decisions that have long-term implications—such as what career path might be the best fit with your personality.
How can you learn more about the Big 5, and even get scores to describe your personal Big 5 profile? Start by spending some time on a very useful webpage that University of Oregon professor Sanjay Srivastava put together. It contains loads of helpful information about the Big 5 and the Five Factor Theory, including links to Big 5 scales you can complete for free.
[i] McCarley, N. G., & Carskadon, T. G. (1983). Test-retest reliabilities of scales and subscales of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and of criteria for clinical interpretive hypotheses involving them. Research in Psychological Type, 6, 24–36; Myers, I. B., McCaulley, M. H., Quenk, N. L., & Hammer, A. L. (1998). Manual: A guide to the development and use of the Myers- Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.
[ii] E.g., Pittenger, D. J. (1993). The utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Review of Educational Research, 63(4), 467-488; Rahim, A. (1981) Job satisfaction as a function of personality-job congruence: A study with Jungian psychological types. Psychological Reports, 49, 496–498.Tischler, L. (1996). Comparing person-organization personality fit to work success. Journal of Psychological Type, 3834-43.