Illustration: Ashley Siebels
The same traits that make people a nightmare to deal with can also make them the people who change the world.
As any mathematician knows, averages can be deceptive. As a general rule, anything better aligned to fit a unique scenario is going to be problematic on average. And qualities that are “generally good” can be bad at the extremes.
When it comes to the extremes of performance, averages don’t matter; what matters is variance, those deviations from the norm.
You may think intensifiers are only relevant to areas of individual artistry and expertise, like sports, or that they just aren’t relevant in the regular world. You’d be wrong.
Consider some of the richest people in the world. Do you see conscientious rule followers, free from negative outlier traits? No.
Fifty-eight members of the Forbes 400 either avoided college or ditched it partway through. These fifty-eight — almost 15% of the total — have an average net worth of $4.8 billion. This is 167% greater than the average net worth of the four hundred, which is $1.8 billion. It’s more than twice the average net worth of those four hundred members who attended Ivy League colleges.
The hard-charging Silicon Valley entrepreneur has become a respected, admired icon in the modern age. Do these descriptors match the stereotype? A ball of energy. Little need for sleep. A risk taker. Doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Confident and charismatic, bordering on hubristic. Boundlessly ambitious. Driven and restless.
Absolutely. They’re also the traits associated with a clinical condition called hypomania. Johns Hopkins psychologist John Gartner has done work showing that’s not a coincidence. Full-blown mania renders people unable to function in normal society. But hypomania produces a relentless, euphoric, impulsive machine that explodes toward its goals while staying connected (even if only loosely) with reality.
So under the right circumstances there can be big upsides to “negative” qualities. Your “bad” traits might be intensifiers. But how can you turn them into superpowers?
I asked Gautam Mukunda, Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard Business School, and he said there are two steps.
First, know thyself
If you’re good at playing by the rules, if you’re a filtered leader, then double down on that. Make sure you have a path that works for you.
If you’re more of an outsider, an artist, an unfiltered leader, you’ll be climbing uphill if you try to succeed by complying with a rigid, formal structure. By dampening your intensifiers, you’ll be not only at odds with who you are but also denying your key advantages.
By knowing where your strengths are, you’re miles ahead of the average person in terms of achieving both success and happiness. Modern positive psychology research has shown again and again that one of the keys to happiness is emphasizing what are called “signature strengths.”
Research by Gallup shows that the more hours per day you spend doing what you’re good at, the less stressed you feel and the more you laugh, smile, and feel you’re being treated with respect.
Once you know what type of person you are and your signature strengths, how do you thrive? This leads to Mukunda’s second piece of advice.
Second, pick the right pond
You’ve got to pick the environments that work for you. Context is so important.
The unfiltered leader who is an amazing success in one situation will be a catastrophic failure in the other, in almost all cases. It’s way too easy to think, “I’ve always succeeded, I am a success, I am successful because I am a success, because it’s about me, and therefore I will succeed in this new environment.”
Wrong. You were successful because you happened to be in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment.
Ask yourself: Which companies, institutions, and situations value what I do?
Context affects everyone. In fact, the conscientious valedictorians so good at following rules often stumble the most here. Without an existing passion and being so eager to please, they often head in the wrong direction when they’re finally free to choose.
Whether you’re a filtered doctor or a wild, unfiltered artist, research shows the pond you pick matters enormously. When Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg looked at top Wall Street analysts who jumped ship to work for a competitor, he noticed something interesting: they stopped being top analysts.
Why? We tend to think experts are experts just because of their unique skills and we forget the power of context, of knowing one’s way around, of the teams who support them, and the shorthand they develop together over time. That’s one of the things Groysberg discovered: when the analysts switched firms but brought their team with them, they stayed awesome.
When you choose your pond wisely, you can best leverage your type, your signature strengths, and your context to create tremendous value. This is what makes for a great career, but such self-knowledge can create value wherever you choose to apply it.
If you follow rules well, find an organization aligned with your signature strengths and go full steam ahead. Society clearly rewards those who can comply, and these people keep the world an orderly place.
If you’re more of an unfiltered type, be ready to blaze your own path. It’s risky, but that’s what you were built for. Leverage the intensifiers that make you unique. You’re more likely to reach the heights of success — and happiness — if you embrace your “flaws.”
From Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Copyright © 2017 by Eric Barker. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.