Posts Tagged ‘personality’

The Quest for Balance


Photo by Thomas Gibbard

I recently finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  I’ve read in many places what an invaluable resource this text is for writers, especially in regards to world building, and I agree one hundred percent.  I learned so much from reading this book, and in spite of taking a month to get through the whole thing, I never wavered in my resolve to finish it.

Something in the Epilogue struck me as particularly interesting (although that is relative, since I learned something in every chapter that I found particularly interesting).  Diamond was discussing why it might be the case that Europe obtained global power and multiple colonies on most of the continents before China.  After all, in earlier history, China was far ahead in the technology race and had united a much larger area and population into a single nation.

Diamond concludes that this result is another effect of geography.  China didn’t have geographical barriers to inhibit its unification, while it did have helpful rivers.  Europe, on the other hand, had many geographical barriers to discourage unification (islands, peninsulas, and high mountain ranges) without China’s helpful rivers.  But European nations weren’t that isolated from each other.  This meant that if one ruler in Europe decided a technological innovation was horrible, other nations would still use it until all nations ultimately were forced to use it in order to compete.  In China, on the other hand, if the Chinese ruler, say, took a dislike to ships and shipyards, the technology could be completely lost.

So being too isolated (and on a north-south axis), as many civilizations were in the Americas, meant that technology wouldn’t diffuse easily or quickly between different groups.  But being too unified, as China was, also had an adverse effect on some critical technologies.  Europe achieved that happy balance of fairly easy communication without unification that pushed several of its nations into being colonial powers.  (There’s a lot more to it than this, and Diamond explains it better, so really you should go read his book if you haven’t already.)

It’s amazing to me how critical balance proves to be, on both large and small scales.  On an individual level, the problem is similar.  Take a practical free spirit such as myself, for example.  I could swing too far onto the side of the free spirit, in which case I might become flaky, never complete projects, create a financial mess for myself and need bailing out, or a host of other problems.  Or, I could swing too far onto the practical side and believe, like my friend did, that nonconformist lifestyles aren’t real, stay in a job that makes me unhappy, or save my money and never spend it on amazing experiences or experiments.  Either way, I’d ultimately end up pretty unhappy.

I think most of us struggle with this same problem of balance.  Family time vs. career time vs. me time vs. when I am going to write that novel?  Or what diet can I try that doesn’t deprive me of so many treats that I can’t stick to it?  Or what makes this relationship (or this career or this hobby) worth the work to me, and how can I remain comfortable while still keeping it fresh?  This is an even more familiar problem to the ambivert, who often has to balance alone time with social time in some complex ratio.

We’re all walking multiple tightropes at once, making adjustments (both miniscule and large) as we go.  Sometimes we stop paying attention or over-correct and down we go.  Other times it feels almost effortless.  We often don’t even notice all the balancing acts going on around us every day.

Doesn’t mean we’re not all out on that same rope.

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Looking at the title of my blog, I began to wonder what a free spirit is, exactly.  I know the stereotype in the movies: Summer from (500) Days of Summer, or Sharon Stone’s character in The Muse, or Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I’m not really like any of those women though, so there’s got to be more to it, right?  (Also, what about the free spirit men?  Why can’t I think of any movies about them?  Help me out in the comments, please.)

I turned to the internets to help me out.  Apparently, a free spirit is someone who is not restrained, for instance by convention or obligation.  Or it’s someone who has a highly individual or unique attitude, lifestyle, or imagination.  Or it’s someone acting freely or even irresponsibly (I guess that’s where the practical part of my blog title comes in?)  All the definitions agree on one synonym to describe a free spirit: nonconformist.

Oh, right.  Thank you, dictionaries everywhere, for reminding me what I’m talking about.

Here’s my definition of what it means to be a free spirit:

  • A free spirit thinks for himself, observing and collecting data in order to form his own opinions.
  • A free spirit does what she thinks is right, not what everyone else tells her is right.  She puts a high value on free choice.
  • A free spirit cares about getting to know both himself and the world around him.
  • A free spirit isn’t generally swayed by arguments of what one is “supposed” to do.  She tends to avoid, ignore, or become upset by people who are judgmental or controlling.
  • A free spirit has the courage to test life’s boundaries and limits, and to try things that other people think are impossible, unimportant, or impractical.  (These other people are often wrong.)
  • A free spirit often has her own unique vision of life and the world.

This does not mean a free spirit is a trampler, i.e. the kind of person who doesn’t care about other people’s feelings.  Nor are all free spirits incapable of compromise and discussion.  They aren’t inherently flighty or irresponsible or train wrecks on wheels.  Free spirits can be any of these things, just like everyone else, but they don’t have to be.

I also suspect there are those to whom free spiritedness comes easy, and those for whom it’s very difficult.  Or maybe there are just people like me who swing back and forth between the ease and the struggle.  There are noisy free spirits and quiet free spirits, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts, free spirits who engage in risqué behavior and those who think risqué is passé and so go to the other extreme.  (Ask me sometime why my ears aren’t pierced and you’ll see what I mean.)  Some of us are stubborn while others are fickle, some of us are dedicated while others drift from thing to thing.  We can be challenging, yes, and difficult to understand, but we love life with a passion that makes it all seem worthwhile.

Whatever our shortcomings, we make the world a more varied and interesting place.  We are agents of change and opponents of inertia.  As Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a 19th century British poet, said:

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.


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Dichotomies are popular partly because they’re catchy and partly because they’re so easy on the brain.  Black vs. white, capitalism vs. socialism, introversion vs. extroversion, right vs. wrong.  Sometimes I wish things were actually this simple, but most of the time I don’t because these comparisons don’t allow any wiggle room or tolerance for difference or adjustment.

So when we talk about quantity vs. quality, both of these attributes contribute to overall well being and success (I’ll save defining “success” for another time).  Is one more important than the other?  I would argue that for many people, one is weaker than the other, and therefore we need to expend more effort and awareness on whichever side is more personally difficult.  Let’s look at some definitions.


  1. Music: number of hours spent practicing and learning new music.  Also preparing music for a performance or audition deadline.
  2. Writing: butt in chair principle; number of hours spent writing and revising, or a daily word count goal.  Also would include having a submission goal of how many markets you submit to per period of time.
  3. Interpersonal: amount of time spent both thinking about what your relationship (and loved one) needs and implementing that, whether by spending more time talking, doing activities, writing emails, cleaning the house, or what-have-you.
  4. Running a business: amount of time spent both on finding and implementing strategies in advertising, marketing, getting your name out there, as well as time spent providing your core service or product and planning special events.  Focused on goals either financial or quantity-based.

These are all great goals, concrete goals, measurable goals.  They require self discipline and commitment to achieve on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, sometimes quantity is not enough.  Standing in the practice room day after day for sixty minute practice sessions that go exactly the same way every time is not usually going to lead to improvement or make a great singer.  Being so obsessed with word count that you can’t afford the time to stop and think how you can use your words more effectively does not make a better writer.  Trying really hard to be a better spouse without being willing to take some personal risks isn’t always effective.

But what happens if we don’t focus on quantity?  Our brilliance is often derailed by lack of organization or dedication.  Projects don’t get finished or maybe don’t even get started.  Businesses fail due to lack of exposure or avoidance of hard financial numbers.  The people we love may feel neglected or friends might characterize you as a flake.  We might sound great when singing but our inability to learn music on time and behave professionally holds us back.


  1. Music: choosing one or more technical suggestions to work through during that day’s practice session.  Being willing to try new things even if they feel weird and don’t work right away.  Working on what your teacher brought up during your last lesson and then giving her feedback as to how it’s going in practice.
  2. Writing: choosing subjects/stories that are close to your heart and therefore dangerous.  Taking the time to revise as much as a story needs.  Doing the necessary preparation work (whether that be research, outlining, note taking, character profiles, etc.) that you personally need to write your best story.  Focusing on a particular aspect of craft while writing, even if it slows the work down.
  3. Interpersonal: prioritizing by finding out what makes the most difference to the other person in the relationship.  Getting to the root of any issues between you.  Attempting to see that person without your usual bias and love them unconditionally.  Being honest and open about hard things as well as good ones.
  4. Running a business: Providing individualized service to your clients.  Prioritizing the goal of improving your product or your abilities.  Remembering the people factor in business.  Not cutting every single corner for cost reasons if the quality detriment is high enough.  Focusing on goals of service and satisfied customers.

What happens if we don’t focus on quality?  We work hard for many years and get “stuck” in the same spot, like we’re running in place.  We crank out large volumes of work lacking the spark that will lead to publishing that novel or winning that part during auditions.  Our relationships coast along but don’t necessarily deepen.   The business tends to get a higher than average turnover of clients or customers.  We rush to complete a task without thinking of the meaning behind the task and making sure we do it to their best of our abilities.

Now for me, quality is a lot harder than quantity.  Quantity is easy for somebody like me who has determination, self discipline, and organizational skills in spades.  Quality, on the other hand, is a bit more mystical because it depends on stuff you can’t measure in numbers.  It depends on taking risks.  It doesn’t always conform to plan.  It could end in spectacular failure instead of middling mediocrity.  So for me, I need to put a lot more focus on quality to get myself in balance.

What about you?  What do you need to focus on, quantity or quality?

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I’m a big fan of personality tests.  My favorite is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  You know the one that gives you a result with four letters?  Yeah, that one.

Inevitably, when I take one of the Myers-Briggs online tests, I come out about fifty/fifty on the introvert/extrovert scale.  Sometimes I tip slightly over to E (51-52%) and other times I flip over to the same percentage for I.  So which am I?  The one I started out with as a child (definitely I) or the one I worked so hard to change into as a young adult (E)?  Which am I?  So I turn, as usual, to the internet for answers.

First, let’s define our terms.  Strong qualities of an extrovert include: action oriented, importance placed on breadth of knowledge and influence, enjoys frequent interaction with people, recharges from spending time with people, “fades” when alone, thinks as they speak and prefers thinking out ideas through speech instead of in own head, enjoys large social gatherings.  Strong qualities of an introvert include: thought oriented, importance placed on depth of knowledge and influence, enjoys substantial interaction with people, recharges from spending time alone, often prefers solitary activities (not necessarily because of shyness or social awkwardness), more likely to think before speaking, may be more reserved and/or less outspoken.

Wonderful Wikipedia informs me there is a third option: ambiversion, which includes those people who fall in the middle of the extroversion-introversion spectrum.  Ambiverts enjoy social interaction and groups but also value their alone time.  Interestingly, Britannica informs me that most people are ambiverts.  This is where, I suppose, I fall in.  In a lot of ways I fit the introvert mold well, but sometimes I do enjoy groups of people and hashing out ideas with others.  And the easiest way for me to recharge is neither in big groups (this doesn’t work for me at all) or alone time (this works better, but too much unfocused alone time and I will start wallowing).  My favorite way to recharge is with conversation time either one-on-one or in small groups, discussing ideas, thoughts and feelings in a more intimate environment.

Is this typical for ambiverts?  Here the internet fails me; most of the articles on the subject unearthed by a quick Google search don’t seem overly substantial.

And why do I even care?  The internet does help me here, making these possibly wild claims:

“Extroverts make up about 75% of the American population.”

“The American stereotype of success is often associated with the expressive, gregarious, high-energy extrovert, an ideal personality that leaves the introvert with an overwhelming identity crisis.”

“Western culture seems to favor extroverts. Indeed, extroverts seem to always be having a great time! One study found a positive correlation between extroverts and happiness (extroverts appear to be happier than introverts).”

Hmm, no wonder I care!  However, while the majority of Americans may be extroverts (I have no idea of the validity of this statement), I don’t buy this idea of extroverts as the ideal of personality.  Both types have their pros as well as their cons — while the extroverts might have more obvious ones, I would personally rather be in a conversation with someone who thinks before they speak.  And there are loads of famous, successful people on both sides of the spectrum, although interestingly, it is much easier to find lists featuring the introverted ones (yet more evidence of the value judgments being placed on this dichotomy in our culture).

Maybe our society would be a healthier place if we obsessed less about the introvert-extrovert question and spent more time trying to understand each other as individuals and being basically kind to one another.  The Myers-Briggs test is meant, after all, as a tool of self understanding, not another way to bash at your self esteem or feel superior to others.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in: are you an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert?    If you’re an ambivert, how do you recharge?  How important do you find these distinctions?

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