Are we surrounded by idiots or is the joke on us?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business by Thomas Erikson. I mean who hasn’t. It’s been an international sensation and people everywhere have been taking the test in droves to find out which color they are. Or to figure out what colors the people around them are.

I understand the appeal of taking personality tests like Erikson’s. It can be fun to define oneself and recognize one’s personality traits and behavior in typologies and descriptions. It somehow makes us feel normal and understood yet special and seen all at the same time. And entertained too, when a test seems to hit the nail smack on its head. I used to like taking tests like this as much as the next person, that is until I started doing research and realized just how problematic they can be.

One problem is defining people and putting them into boxes. When I researched women who opt out, I was struck by how people have often tried to define especially women to explain why they do or do not work and/or have a career. You know, a woman might be a career type of person, or a family first person. Depending on her behavior she can be put in a range of different boxes or categories to explain why exactly she makes the choices she does and/or why she doesn’t seem to want to do what it takes to have that successful career feminist have fought for her to be able to have.

Only that she can’t. She can’t actually be defined by her behavior because there are so many things other than her preferences that shape what she does. So just because she doesn’t prioritize her career at a given time, doesn’t mean she isn’t a career type of person. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have a career, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes. It just means that at that particular time in her life she may have other responsibilities and priorities and it might not even be a question of choice. Or she may be continuously discriminated and sidestepped at work. Or she may have a spouse who is never around and if she doesn’t take care of her children (or her ailing parents or her sick sibling or friend…), who will?

It might be that she cannot put her career first at that particular time, but it might also be that in five years she will.

The problem with typologies is that they define us as a certain type, while in reality this changes over the life course depending on where we are and what is going on in our life at any particular time. Another problem is that if we get defined by typologies, we tend to be stuck in a box by others, which it then can be difficult to get out of. After five years, the woman in the example above might not even get an opportunity to show what she can do because she has been defined and put in the ‘family first’ box.

And so it is with colors as well. When we get defined according to a certain color or set of colors, either by ourselves or others, we get simplified to the point that it can really be problematic.

When we define someone according to a color, we do it based on what we know about the person, or what we think we know about the person, and not on who the person really is in all his or her complexity. We may unconsciously condition ourselves to only notice behavior that confirms that color and as a result not even notice or acknowledge behavior that contradicts it. This is human, we tend to observe what supports our beliefs (even if they aren’t accurate). It doesn’t matter what a person says or does, we will only see what we want to see. A person might, for example, be trying to reach a common understanding with us, but if we think of the person as red and very competitive, we might misconstrue this behavior and not appreciate what that person is really trying to say or do.

So, if worst come to worst, it might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of just being ourselves, and rising to our full potential, we get pushed back again and again into the box that others have defined for us. It just ends up holding us back.

But still we like typologies. They have a way of making the complexity of the world more manageable, and we use them all the time in organizational settings to determine who we are and how we can work more efficiently as teams.

However, the problem is, that defining people doesn’t actually predict their behavior. Research has shown that just because you are defined as a certain ‘type’, it doesn’t mean that you will act like that ‘type’ is expected to act. Behavior isn’t determined so much by personality, but rather by situation. What this means is that the way team members act and react in different situations, rather depends on the organizational culture, the behavioral norms in that organization, do we feel psychologically safe, the task at hand… to name a few. Defining someone as red or green or yellow or blue, really doesn’t say very much about how that person is going to act in any given situation.

But the thing that really takes the cake, is that as far as I understand, there is no research that actually supports these color typologies. They aren’t actually new, they are just colorful versions of existing typologies, for which there actually is no empirical support. What this means is that this test is neither accurate nor reliable, and no academic I know of would actually use or recommend it.

But then Erikson doesn’t have any formal training in this area, so who knows if he is even aware of this. Or if he is, maybe he just doesn’t care.

If you want to read more about this, here is an excellent article for those of you who understand Swedish: https://magasinetfilter.se/granskning/omgiven-av-idioti/

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Tell yourself you can and you will

One of the things that my own opting out and in journey has brought me is a whole bunch of firsts. When I opted out of my career in consulting to work on my PhD, I was flung out of my comfort zone as I navigated new worlds and ways of doing things, and it has continued ever since. One reason is of course that whenever you embark on a new profession or way of life, you are bound to do many things for the first time. But another reason is that once you get in the habit of doing new things, the threshold to saying yes to new ideas and opportunities becomes lower. You simply become more open to trying things you never dreamed you would do.

Let me tell you about one of my firsts. A couple of years ago, my son, who has been following my research and the attention it has received from the sidelines, asked me if I could write a book about my research that he could actually understand. My research was just kind of hard to grasp for a ten-year old.

At first, I was just mostly flattered that he was interested in what I do. But I come from a long line of readers and I’ve read more books to my kids than I can count, so the idea of writing something that a ten-year old could read actually felt quite intriguing. It tickled my imagination and I started getting ideas regarding characters and plots, and what I would want the message to be, that is what main thing about my research I would want to convey.

I didn’t get a chance to write any of this down because, of course, like many other things, there just wasn’t time for anything else than what I was already working on. But he kept asking. Every once in a while, he would ask me if I was working on it yet. He was very persistent, so finally I told him yes, I would do it. I mean how do you say no to something like that anyway?

But still I couldn’t seem to find the time and still he kept asking.

So finally, last summer, during my summer holiday on the island, I started working on it. For two weeks I sat at the kitchen table in the sweltering heat as my family went on about their lives around me, and I wrote. I experienced flow like I have never experienced before and I was having so much fun.

After two weeks, I had a story about a girl and a boy dealing with questions of gender, identity, diversity, and the need to do things on terms that work for them. That meant that when I returned to work, I had most of a first draft done. I put in some extra effort; I finished it and edited it with the help of my daughter (for which I am so grateful), and then I let it sit. As with all creative endeavors, this was also one filled with self-doubt, but I tried to ignore that and focus on how much I enjoyed writing it instead, and how attached I had become to these two characters I had created.

Now, during my Christmas break, I finally got it out again, reread it and did some final edits. Although it was scary to say the least, I decided to quickly send it to a publisher before I changed my mind because a fundamental truth is that a text that is never sent never gets published either. Besides, I needed an expert’s opinion. Was I any good?

So that’s what I did. I sent it last week and get this, I got a response after just a few days, which in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. By now you’re thinking it was accepted and that I will soon be the author of a children’s book. I mean I’ve been building the suspense for the last 700 words and why else would I share this with the world? But that isn’t what happened. It was rejected, but since I have made it my mission to share not only my ups but also my downs to give a more accurate picture of what success, or hard work rather, really looks like, I decided to write about it.

Yes, it was rejected and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. But it was also a very nice rejection. I got many positive comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement to keep writing. And I was also told I’m welcome to submit a new manuscript in the future.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the manuscript. I suspect I will keep working on it, although not right now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have another book that needs to be written, so maybe next summer when I’m on the island again?

In the meantime, I’m going to read it to my son (who is older now but the story was originally for him so he will just have to deal with it). But also, by writing about this I’m taking this rejection (a nice rejection but nevertheless) and actively choosing how I make it a part of my narrative. Now it’s not just a rejection, it’s a part of the story of how I continue to develop as a writer.

Because we should never underestimate the power of what we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we failed, we will feel like failures; but if we tell ourselves that we can do it, we will. And I can do it, I just need a little bit of practice first.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!