Personality: How to Build It – Lessons from the Past

I didn’t unlock the secret to success. Although, it’s likely that I’m in a slightly better position than I was yesterday. On a recent and brief trip to Cadaqués for the purpose of a little relaxation and recuperation, I embarked on an unplanned adventure through time that unexpectedly gave me a much-needed lift on my perspective. The mechanism through which most of this change occurred was through the relaxation of the mind by virtue of one of the most fascinating and curious reads I’ve ever had.

It was a book on personality, lent to me by one of my best friends who I met while studying my master’s degree in Barcelona this past year. While skeptical at first, the catalyst for me actually opening the book was my understanding that that this book was published in 1915 and that it had been in the family of my classmate (who hails from Germany) for at least 3 generations. Humorously, I had misunderstood the origins of the book. It was actually a gift to him during his undergraduate studies in the States from one of his professors who was an avid book collector. The fact that the book was a portable size and just 120 pages also helped my cause.

This book, called “Personality: How to Build It,” was written from the perspective of a French man, who presumably was himself, “successful”. In this book, the author is concerned with conveying what he believes to be the recipe for success in terms of creating for oneself an aura, a reputation, and a unique identity focused around cunning, sensible discretion, winning ways, and various categories of achievement relative to others. The key element of the author’s taxonomy of a winner, who he refers to as “adroit arrivers”, which I could not reconcile, was this conditionality and relativity to others.

The author, to be fair, in all of his brazen, omniscient authority, certainly conveys some advice which is helpful and relevant today – perhaps even timeless. The way he eloquently speaks of exposing something original to the world and knowing oneself well enough to identify special qualities and to develop them, is inspiring. Care and vigilance, energetic sincerity, perspicacity, determination, and perseverance are all astutely analyzed as elements necessary to form a personality. While pride, envy, jealousy, and conceit are graphically described and demonstrated as defects to be overcome.

But what is most fascinating is that valuable insights can be derived even from the elements that aren’t accurate or relevant today. By combining a contemporary perspective, a reflective mind and a little multidisciplinary academic knowledge, it’s possible to infer from the contextual setting of the author, valuable lessons to better understand the world of yesterday and today, and the people in it. For one thing, the world was much simpler back then, or at least our understanding of it was. Now globalism drives our world economy, almost everything we know about our world is available online, and greater attention gets paid to social issues such as poverty, equality, human/civil rights, and climate change. Also, Psychology (the study of the human mind and behavior) was in its infancy – and still is, really; although it has come a long way since 1915.

Despite the author’s elegant early 20th century language and convincing tact when conveying his point of view, I still disagree with a couple of concepts. Although the author masterfully sells the ideology of “arriving” and that of narcissism, using subtle descriptions, intriguing anecdotes, and profound assurance in his tone, I couldn’t come to grips with his outlook. Maybe it’s not so obvious at first, what’s so bad about “arriving” or being a “winner”. Aside from the conditionality of the author’s definition on one’s position relative to others; is there really a definitive end, a point at which we can confidently say, “I’ve arrived; I’ve won; I’ve done IT!”?

I do not agree that this belief in a definite goal – which still requires maintenance to retain one’s position over others – is superior to the approach that life is a journey with no predefined script where the only instructions for this role are those related to self-improvement. Not to mention that progress or achievement defined dependent upon one’s initial position across the spectrum of others, may not maximize one’s potential. Rather, competing with one’s self is a strategy better designed to maximize one’s potential. Aside from fulfilling our potential, happiness and meaning can come from other sources – often those we least expect – like everyday wonders that occur when we stop to smell the roses. This highlights the importance of also enjoying the journey; cherishing the present.

Perhaps another thing that our overwhelmingly complex world of today impresses upon us is the consciousness that each of us is but a blip in the grand scheme of time, generations, cultures, and societies. To live with this realization, it is essential to have humility. If we have great faith in something, it must come from some source more profound, more enduring than our selfish ego. Trusting too much in one’s mind can be tempting but dangerous.

The author seductively paints the portrait of the ideal personality as one who must necessarily think critically and strategically about how to advance one’s position via self-centered manipulation of the mind. Depending on how you look at it, this can work out well as in the case of the Medici family with the help of Niccolo Machiavelli during the Italian Renaissance period. These teachings make me think that the author must have been skilled in his ability to overpower his cognitive dissonance with confirmation bias. I further hypothesize that he lived within society in which his state of mind actually served him quite well. Perhaps the author’s stance still maintains great advantages at an individual level, but on an aggregate scale, I don’t think the general equilibrium outcome would be so wonderful if too many in the population subscribed to his outlook.

Our brains are an indispensable tool, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves by overestimating its ability to unlock the answers to some of the greatest challenges we’ll face in life. Excessive stroking of the mental ego can actually build a toxic immunity to one’s humanity. Ego-centrism puts self-interest ahead of building relationships, serving others, improving the livelihoods of those we touch and the welfare of the greater global society. Our humanitarian instincts can mysteriously tap into the unknown, and more likely build a connection to something infinitely vaster than one’s self.

The read was fascinating, helpful, humorous, curious, and even a little disconcerting (at the moments I was hoping that not everyone in the world is thinking the same way as the author with respect to “arriving” on a narcissistic shuttle). At the dismaying moments it seemed possible that the elite establishment of this previous era were the precursor to the dominance of unfettered global capitalism, and the seeds of the now robust and rising tide of neoliberal politics and academics we observe in the US and in parts of Europe? I clearly connect the author’s categorical mindset to statistical discrimination and virtuous cycles for the upper classes and vicious cycles for the poor.

Developmental psychology tells us that some of the personality traits the author addresses are not so easy to change, and traumatic life experiences during sensitive stages of life can have a much more formative impact on one’s psychology than a self-help book or coach as an adult, when one’s personality is all but cemented. Nonetheless, we should always celebrate and foster the full evolution of our character, personality and unique identity, while not failing to take lessons from the past; and let’s motivate ourselves to maximize our potential in ways that can only be defined more broadly.

The first thing to avoid is that chronic and contagious folly, fashion, which changes our habits, our thoughts, our body and our life. Accept it only in reasonable form, follow it from a distance and under the least enslaving form.

Conserve your innate originality. Don’t be dragged into tastes which are not your own. Defend yourself against any characteristic of others. Learn to judge everything for yourself without being the perfect repeater of the judgements of others.

… Live stoically on the borders of a promised land, in spite of revolts and unbeliefs which mutter within you. Be the captain of your ship of destiny launched on the ocean of life.”

— H. Laurent, “Personality: How to Build It”

 

(Image © Benjamin Anderson 2015)

Growth vs. Improvement

The term “growth” can take many meanings, and it’s often not well defined when used in broad contexts. However, when it’s employed in economic terms, this word usually has a specific meaning. A one-year Master’s program in Economics can be intensely demanding, and in the process has a way of modifying cognitive processes (independently of the sheer acquisition of knowledge). Today, I’m reflecting back on a time during the previous term in which I was lost for answers; or the answers I came up with at the time were not acceptable to me. The question that entered my consciousness, and refused to disappear, was, “when does growth stop; both economic and personal growth?”

This thought arose from my present set of challenges. Mentally and physically, I had the demoralizing sense that I had peaked and that I was approaching the beginning of the end. I felt limited in my ability to retain information at the same rate as I once was capable of, and although I had been consistent in my exercise and conditioning regimen, I felt that, at best, I had begun to plateau. Similarly, taking into account trends in globalization, demographic trends, wealth concentrations, and technological innovations, it seems natural for the global economy to eventually reach a static equilibrium in which net growth (in economic terms) should approach zero. Caught up in the rigorous mindset required to prepare for exams, I was thinking reductionistically, as economists often do.

The answers came to me from combination of two sources which academics knows little about: faith and time. This wisdom clarified for me that I had oversimplified my question as a result of reductionist thinking.  One of the biggest challenges people (including economists) face is how to ask the right questions. The right questions are usually not satisfied with the conventional answer. I realized, growth must be redefined. It should be defined, in the case of personal development, not as an index of IQ, memory, economic knowledge, one’s vertical leap, bench press, or 40-yard-dash; or, in the case of economic growth, GDP. These may be markers, but these markers have many limitations in the evaluation of a person or a society, on the whole.

One could name a multitude of other factors that should weigh into a comparative analysis of an individual or a society, other than the conventional measures. In the personal case, it’s essential to evaluate how one lives and treats others (personal flows in economic terms), rather than simply one’s mental, physical, or economic assets (personal stocks). Likewise, economic growth is only relevant in the context of what that “growth” means for members of a society across a plethora of dimensions for all of its citizens such as health, happiness, and social mobility. Also, classically defined “growth” is often accompanied by trade-offs and externalities, which is why I prefer a readjusted or discounted measure of growth in the evaluation process.

This week, as part of an appropriate tribute to the recent passing of the legendary Tarheel basketball coach, Dean Smith, Kenny Smith recited some wisdom he was given by Coach Smith, which I think punctuates more precisely how we should define this ever-present objective we call “growth”. Dean Smith said he doesn’t care so much about winning because sometimes when you win, you actually lose, and sometimes when you lose, you actually win; therefore the goal should be to improve. Improvement is an idea that we should always strive for. It implies only net gains; it has already factored externalities and trade-offs, as well as the present and future consequences. This logic is beautifully simple. On the economic and individual level, I prefer the analysis of improvement which, empirically, is a little bit more difficult to measure, but, by construction, yields better outcomes. So whether it’s economic development or personal human-capital development, I think we should redefine our thinking less in terms of the superficial – which at times can be more readily measured – and more in terms of Coach Smith’s concept of improvement.

Given the fact that we are in a capitalist society, we still do not want to overlook not only what a corporation produces and its profitability but also how it impacts the environment, touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.

— Dean Smith

(Image © Benjamin Anderson 2014)

Small Blessings, Big Wonders

Every day I have woken up in the magical city of Barcelona, located in the extraordinary world that we call “earth”, I’ve felt brand new. Like a baby captivated by the ordinary, I am awed by small things that in aggregate create an existence that is inspiring beyond the limits of imagination. Whether it’s the cooling, gentle sea breeze that whispers through the elegant palms on my walk home, or the people and animals all frolicking harmoniously together in the park on a clear, Mediterranean fall day; I am reminded of all the blessing bestowed upon me. These blessings, big and small, amount to something wondrous.

When I see what many small things can become, I extrapolate that concept to my purpose and vision; I imagine what small daily achievements can make my long-term accomplishments spectacular. Perhaps this is why expectations are sometimes met, but other times, they are positively shattered. It’s good to set goals, but I refuse to subscribe to the belief that a goal is a limit.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.

– Mother Teresa

(Image © Benjamin Anderson 2014)

Miscellaneous Happiness in Barça Life

Life in Barcelona can be as fast or as slow as you want it to be. Since classes have started, the pace for me has been more of the former. However, I do pause and appreciate throughout my day. With a mixture of big events and many elements of simple life all converging in the same city, people here are living their lives their way. Instead of chronicling a big event or major attraction, I’ll focus on detailing a few of the little things that allow me to slow down! Here are a few small miracles I appreciate the most:

  • The beckoning scent of croissant con xocolat wafting out of the bakeries during morning jogs,
  • the bursts of laughter among friends echoing up to the apartment from the neighborhood tapas bar at the corner of our pedestrian street,
  • the feel of the fresh, cool Mediterranean breeze coming off the water, ruffling through the palms in the park on the walk to class,
  • the energy and excitement of the children playing various games in Plaça Barceloneta well into the evening,
  • watching the diversity of people passing by from my favorite bench looking on to the beach; some exercising, some en route to a destination, and some with nothing to do at all,
  • the tranquility of the streets before the sun rises over the sea,
  • the resounding roar of the lions feeding in the zoo while I, too, eat my lunch in the campus courtyard,
  • the determination and energy of the countless runners, cyclists, basket-ballers, cross-trainers, skaters, roller-bladers, and walkers,
  • the glow of the moonlight over the sea as commission-less artists craft sandcastle masterpieces in the foreground while wind fills the sails of boats in the distance,
  • the looks of amazement from tourists as the emerge from the underground metros in perhaps their first view of the city.

These are just a few of the things that make life special. Perhaps this is also just a small list of reasons why people seem to enjoy their lives so much here, despite any negatives! In Barcelona, regardless of your preferences, it seems to be easy for people to find what makes them happy in this vibrant, diverse world.

Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.

– Baruch Spinoza