Categories
Education

The Role of a Tutor

“Children are educated by what the grownup is and not by what he says.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes of the Collective Unconcious)

I’ve been a private tutor for the better part of 7 years now and I have to say that it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s also the thing I think I’m best at, considering that every semester my demand is overwhelming. Every semester, I connect with most of my students in a meaningful way and I’m often told explicitly that I’m the best educator they’ve ever worked with.

I understand I have a serious bias here. Of course I think I’m an amazing tutor! All the students that love me let me know and all the students that don’t go off and find another tutor. So I don’t really know what people think when they aren’t happy with my services. The thing is though, I’ve only had a handful of families over my 7 years of tutoring that decided not to work with me, and every time it was because of reasons unrelated to my competency.

Despite the consistent, positive, and generous feedback I get from my tutoring expertise I still struggle with believing that I, Christopher Mukiibi, know enough to tell people “the truth.” I’m constantly worried that what I’m telling people isn’t true, outdated, or foolish so I’m (maybe to a fault) always learning about the best ways to teach, connect with, and engage my students.

I’ve had educators who wasted my time, squandered potential, and didn’t take responsibility for their presence and I found that to be some of the most abhorrent behavior I’ve ever had to endure. Educators have the power to change the world and unlock the limitless potential of the future, if only they gave it everything. To say that I will measure up to that standard isn’t realistic, but I do try my hardest to strive for that ideal in every way that I can.

And here I am writing this post. My way of articulating what an excellent tutor is, what they do for their students, and how they conduct themselves. At least in the capacity that I can.

This piece, like many of my other pieces, is part of a bigger picture that I hope will enlighten the minds of the future, but I also want it to be a stand-alone piece that demonstrates one of the better parts of me.

A lot of people see tutoring as a cheap profession, but it’s serious and has detrimental consequences if done wrong. By the time my students see me, they usually have little faith in their educational institution. Once I step into their home and assume the role of tutor, the student will unconsciously associate me with the entire education institute. Suddenly, I’m no longer just Chris the Tutor, but I am their representation of the education whether I like it or not. What I am to them is what education is to them.

If I’m useless, so is education.

If I’m interesting, so is education.

If I’m deplorable, so is education.

If I’m admirable, so is education.

Who we are to others is always much bigger than we think.

So as a way to do my part, I’m going to explain the proper way a tutor must conduct themselves in order to ensure a better future with powerful and independent thinkers who have faith and respect for the institutions that have come before them.


Understand the Power

Most people don’t see a tutor as a position of power.

Unless you’re the student.

The student is aware that they don’t know enough and that the tutor probably knows the answers. There’s an innate power imbalance when a tutoring session starts, especially when the student doesn’t know the tutor very well and it’s up to the tutor to take responsibility for that imbalance.

A good tutor must be friendly and approachable. These people are vulnerable and we need to be able to provide the space for them to be vulnerable and wrong. The tutoring session cannot continue if the tutor hasn’t given the student an opportunity to show their underbelly, so to speak. The best way to do this is to focus on the relationships – get to know the student and who they are as a person. Likewise, let them know who you are. Connection is everything.

People work with people – humanize everything and move with ease.

Initiate Support

Students typically don’t like asking for help, especially if we’re dealing with boys. Asking for help is implicitly admitting that we’re wrong and don’t know what to do. Some students won’t even admit this to themselves, so it is up to us to ask them if they need help. The good tutor initiates support. Sometimes the students have no issues with this and you can just get down to brass tax, but if you see that the student is stuck and won’t ask for help, be the helping hand.

No one wants to feel vulnerable, and extending the helping hands makes it a little easier to deal with.

Personally, I make a small effort to have the students ask for help because it primes their minds to take in new information but I am sensitive to my student’s emotional states when I’m doing this.

Clarify the Task

Sometimes students don’t know what to do simply because they don’t understand the instructions. My first line of support, so to speak, is to clarify the task. I just ask the question in a different way, usually in simpler language. Most of the time the students understand the question when I ask it differently.

As a tutor, our job is to meet our students at whatever level they’re at and illuminate the path. In my post, Understanding Development and Mentors, I talk about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and it’s the tutor’s role to meet their student right at the edge of their competency, which is known as the ZPD. The ZPD is where productive tutoring happens, it’s where learning happens.

Provide Guidance with Questions

Too many tutors just straight-up give out the answers to their students.

THIS HURTS THEM IN THE LONG RUN.

Part of our learning process is suffering, pain. It’s one of the many tragedies of life, but it’s not needless. The negative emotion helps the information stick. The systems in our brain that we’re developed for negative emotion were originally used as a survival mechanism. For example, when we touch a hot stove we forever remember to never touch a hot stove because it was painful. If we just give the answer, the student may know it for the time being, but it won’t stay for the medium to long term. Searching for an answer can be a tough and painful process, but it’s where transformative learning takes place.

As a tutor, sometimes we may need to give an answer. Maybe the student won’t ever get the answer no matter how hard they try, that’s fine. It’s our role to meet them wherever they are, but we’re calling upon the highest parts of them. Most of the time, it’s best to lead them with questions. I try to answer their questions with questions.

Check for Understanding

Part of our role is helping the students understand the material, not get their assignments done. This can look different for different classes, but the main idea is the same. There are certain concepts that the student is responsible for knowing and it is the tutor’s job to assist in making those concepts clear for the student.

I usually check for understanding towards the end of sessions in the form of Active Recall questions. I try think along the lines of what is the main idea of the lesson and can the student explain it back to me?

Step Away, but Check Back In

This goes hand in hand with letting the students struggle through their work. It is the role of the tutor to help the students understand their concepts and part of that is letting them struggle on their own.

This would probably surprise many parents, but I spend a solid portion of the sessions just waiting for the students to get the answer or to work out problems.

I would try to have little tasks on my phone or tablet to work on so I don’t accidentally help my students more than they need to. (I do this more often than I would like to admit.) But it is crucial for the student to struggle through the work.

The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

The real masters of tutoring do (next to) nothing.

Teach Procedures and Concepts, Not Answers

Do not teach answers or particular questions. I would argue that it’s crucial for the tutor to be familiar with answers and particular questions, but it would be our role to teach the procedures and concepts associated with solving those problems.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

Teach a student a question and help him for a day. Teach a student a concept (or procedure) and help him for a lifetime.

Hands down, the most valuable thing I got from getting a degree in Chemical Engineering is learning how to solve complex and difficult problems. All the individual questions that I learned most definitely left my brain, but the concepts and procedures are still with me so I can solve similar types of problems.

Additionally, it’s much more difficult to forget a concept as opposed to answers to specific questions.

Encourage Contructive Habits

As tutors, we’re in a special position to influence our students in a powerful way. We aren’t teachers or their teachers, so the authority is slightly different. In my expereicne and many other tutors I know, students open up to their tutors in a special way and hold their opinion in high regard (as long as the tutor conducts themselves in a way that deserves that). On top of that, we’re providing support in a place where they have none so the students are more likely to take what we say as true.

This is a great privilege and responsibility and we should treat it as such. The good tutor encourages constructive habits like asking questions, attempting difficult questions, voluntarily taking responsibility, pushing themselves to improve, and many others.

Do not take your position for granted, be a force for good.

Be Compassionate Towards Their Struggles

It’s hard to do something well the first time. No one is good at anything when they first do it and we need to have empathy for that.

For tutors and educators, the material is literally easier to do because we’ve had the time to develop and strengthen the neural pathways necessary to run those concepts. If we’re learning it for the first time, we need to understand that we would also struggle regardless of who we are.

I often reflect back on the times when I struggle with certain concepts. 9/10 times my students make the exact same mistakes I made when I was learning a subject. This also gives me an edge in pinpointing their mistakes – they’re all the same one’s I made!

Admit Defeat, but Don’t Give Up

We have to be able to admit when we don’t know an answer, but we also cannot leave our students dead in the water. Have a bank of resources to refer back to when you don’t know something. This is much easier in the 21st century. I have a google drive folder with pdfs of textbooks, workbooks, lecture slides, and notes for all the subjects I specialize in. I also recommend connecting with other tutors in your area that are willing to help answer questions when you get stuck. Currently, I’m working on a resource bank on my website that educators and my students can use.

Promote Academic Honesty

Like I said earlier, tutors have a special kind of authority when it comes to academics. Our students look to us to learn what is right and wrong with academics. We have to take this role on with seriousness and responsibility. As tutors, we represent the institution of academics and the students are developing their relationship to the academic institution through us. This means how we approach our work will influence how our students will approach theirs.

Here’s where it gets serious, the way people approach their work (or anything else) also influences their relationship with themselves. The approach of their work influences how they know themselves and what kind of people they think they are. This decides which challenges people are willing to take or ignore, which ultimately decides their lives.

This may seem dramatic for some, but as I like to say we cannot fathom the impact of our actions. As tutors, we have to take on the responsibility of being the vehicle that people use to develop their relationships with not only academic institutions, but all institutions.

I’ve used my position to help students see that the whole system isn’t set up to hurt or control them. They can see this through me. Through my actions, I show them that there are parts of this world that actually have their back and want them to win.

With that said, plagiarizing is a weak move. Don’t give them work that they can turn in as their own. Turning in “bad” work is better than turning in fake work.

We can also promote academic honesty by discouraging dishonesty. Suffocating the behavior right when we see it is the best way from keeping things whole. I try not to encourage things that aren’t sustainable over the long term.

Lead Them to the Answer

People can only perceive what they can conceive. So just telling them the answer will be like talking to a wall. If we didn’t think of it, then we can’t perceive it. As tutors, we need to lead them to the answer. They need to see how the answer comes to be and why it’s important. Just giving the answer is like showing someone something that doesn’t exist.

Things stick with us when we come to the conclusions on our own.

I know I mentioned this in other sections, but I want to emphasize that this goes along with the idea that the tutor meets the student at their level of understanding and guides them through. This means waiting until the students get the right answer and rewarding them for hitting the mark. It’s okay to nudge them in the right direction, but telling them the exact answer never works in the long run.

Be a Mentor

Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone could use more guidance. As a tutor, we have a unique position to offer that mentorship and wisdom. The good tutor has a desire to pass along knowledge that they would love to have known earlier. The good tutor suffers for the greater good, learning the material the hard way and teaching the lessons so other’s don’t have to.

If we can take on the role of mentor, our tutoring automatically levels up because now we aren’t just there for the student’s academic performance, but for the student as a whole.

Contextualize the Information

I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me “When am I ever going to need this?” This is a classic case of not understanding the context – how the information fits into the bigger picture of their life. Context is specific to every individual and how something fits into my life will be different from how that same thing fits into someone else’s.

The good tutor helps the student make this connection. They help them see why it’s important to educate themselves and learn what’s in front of them. The trick is framing the information in a way that is relevant to that particular student. In order to do this effectively, we have to know what the student is aiming at. What kind of life they want, what kind of things they want to do. When those goals are made clear, putting most things in context is fairly easy.

If a student isn’t clear on exactly what they are aiming for, I try to show them that their academic challenges are opportunities to develop themselves in the face of things they don’t want to do. Life, regardless of which path we take, is full of things that we don’t want to do and knowing ourselves as the type of people who can get shit done even if we don’t want to will give us a serious advantage in life.

Putting things in context will help us understand the why.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Go Deeper

The good tutor must be able to take each concept 7 times deeper than it needs to go.

There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the student may not understand how the first method works. If that happens, the tutor needs to be able to explain the concept in a different way. The second is that the tutor needs to be able to learn and update new methods of problem solving when they encounter one. Both of these reasons require a deeper knowledge of the concepts.

The deeper knowledge also prevents us from simply memorizing different ways of solving problems or concepts. The deeper knowledge allows us to accurately synthesize the data so we can present the ideas in a way that our student can understand. Each students has unique perceptions and a deeper knowledge can ensure that we accurately communicate those ideas no matter how unique.

Own Your Presence

The good tutor takes responsibility of their presence. We own 100% of the feelings of our student and take it upon ourselves to moderate our behavior accordingly.

Sometimes we need to be tough, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to give the answer, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to speed it up, sometimes we need to slow down.

The flow of the session depends on the student. The tutor should be able to adjust to the needs of the student, not the other way around. Some tutors expect the student to form to their methods of teaching, but that creates resistance and unnecessary effort for both parties.

We can’t force a horse to drink, we can only lead it to the trough. But coming from a place of 100% ownership, we are able to think of solutions we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Be Flexible

The good tutor is flexible. We must be able to move and keep up with the student. Sometimes that means speeding it up, sometimes that means slowing it down. Either way we need to be capable of both.

Changing our teaching style to accommodate for their understanding is one of our primary roles. While, if possible, the primary role of the student is to open their minds and pay enough attention to understand the information regardless of how it is presented.

The good tutor is also easy going and not too rigid. Flexibility creates an ease which encourages an environment of growth and vulnerability. Additionally, flexibility can mean to be rigid when necessary as well. Sometimes structure could be the the environment we’re looking for.

Maintain Visions

The best tutors can perceive and maintain visions for their students, even if they can’t for themselves. Most of the time, tutoring is not a quick process and lasting results take a long time to see. The only way to see them is to maintain a vision of the long term. The good tutor sees this and holds it as the target even when the student is blind to it. When things get stressful, we shorten our time horizons which means we lose our vision for the future and stop moving towards it. If the tutor can keep this vision alive for the student during times of hardship, then the student is much more likely to actually reach their goals. The tutor needs to be able to see what the student cannot.

Maintaining a vision is the bare minimum to realizing a goal, but it’s hard to do on our own.

Focus Intensely

A good tutor can focus, knows how to focus. A tutoring session should never be limited but the attention span of the tutor. If it’s easier for the tutor to get off track than the student, then the student is better off working on their own.

Now if you have trouble focusing don’t think that you can’t be a phenomenal tutor. Focus and attention span is like a muscle and can be improved over time with tracking. When I first started tutoring I had to push myself to flawlessly focus for an hour, but now I can go 2-3 hours without an issue.

Pay Respects to The Before & After

A good tutor understands that the world is loaned to us from our children, but also given to us by our parents. So it is up to the tutor to embody gratitude to the ones who came before us and enrich ourselves with their greatest accomplishments and ideas, but also pay respect to the minds that come after us and nourish them properly.

If we can arm our future with the wisdom of the past, we make the world better.

The good tutor learns how to plant from the ones who came before and plant seeds so the ones who come after can enjoy beautiful flowers. I try to leave bits of knowledge so that the students can make good choices when the time comes. Most of the time they don’t make the good choice, but sometimes they do and that would not have happened without the seeds.

Match Their Efforts

The good tutor matches their student’s efforts. There is no use in trying harder than the pupil.

All of our victories are our own and we should not take that from them.

When we meet the student who is ready to give it their all, we rise up.

The tutor should never be the limiting reagent.

Track Their Cognitive Load

A good tutor is attuned to their student’s cognitive load. Cognitive load can be thought of as our brain’s processing power. As I mentioned earlier, a 1-hour session was exhausting and it usually is for the student too. Now I can do 2-3 hour sessions without even thinking about it, but I have to keep in mind that my students don’t perform at that level.

Sometimes parents just want to have the sessions go as long as possible, but the student is only capable of working for an hour. It’s our job as the tutor to recognize when the student is tired and stop the session if the student isn’t processing adequately. There is no use in pushing our brains to work when we’ve hit our cognitive load limits. All we get there are diminishing returns.


This was a pretty long list, but it’s not entirely comprehensive either. Like my other posts, this is full of methods and tactics, but what I want is for people to understand the principles behind them As so that they may create tactics that are more effective than mine.

Tutoring is a beautiful thing.

We shape thinkers. We open minds. We design the future. We help people realize their potential.

Categories
Education

Solo Studying vs. Group Studying

“Surround yourself with good people that compliment the areas where you are weak”

Jacko Willink (1971 – )

The professor just announced the exam is coming up. We’re a little stressed, but not too stressed. Luckily, we’ve read Chris’ blog posts and understand the fundamental principles of studying Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We also read my posts of Strategies for Better Studying 1, 2, 3, & 4, so we know a thing or two about how to studying for this exam effectively.

On top of that, we read his posts on time management and scheduling Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 so we know exactly when and where we can start applying the study strategies. We even read his post on Conquering Test and Performance Anxiety, so we have some strategies to handle that too.

It’s safe to say that we know a little bit about kicking academic ass, but then our classmate turns to us and asks a question.

“Hey, do you want to join our study group?”

Suddenly, we’re present to the fact that we don’t know if we actually want a study group or not. We aren’t sure if the study group will help or harm the progress we already made.

Maybe there will be people in the group that know way more than us and this study group will be the difference between a pass and fail.

Or maybe they’ll constantly go off-topic and spend too much time on the concepts we already understand.

Study groups and solo studying each have their own benefits and drawbacks. What determines if a study group will be beneficial is based on a few variables. The best way to decide for ourselves is to be knowledgeable of the benefits and drawbacks of group vs. solo studying and weigh them according to our particular situation.

Benefits of Solo Studying

The first (and possibly most obvious) benefit of solo studying is fewer distractions. When we are left on our own, we have the minimum amount of distractions available to us. Fewer distractions mean a higher probability of accomplishing deep and substantial work. If we can minimize our distractions, we have a greater chance of reaching flow and making significant progress.

Fewer distractions also mean higher access to focus, which is a fundamental ingredient to deep work.

When we study on our own, we have complete control over the study environment and study schedule. This means we can study whenever and wherever we want. Want a midnight study session in the parking lot of McDonald’s? You got it.

Although I don’t recommend studying at midnight in a Micky D’s parking lot, it is nice to be able to choose when and where we study. This way we can minimize excuses. No waiting on other people. No scheduling conflicts. It’s just us and our material.

Studying solo gives us maximum flexibility. We can take breaks whenever we want and spend as much time as we need on whatever concepts we need to. When I was in O-chem, I spent an ungodly amount of time going over reaction mechanisms. I would come home at around 7 pm and review the mechanisms over and over until midnight or 1 in the morning. This was possible because I was studying alone. I didn’t need to wait for anyone or make sure that everyone was cool with the time. I was simply able to use the time I found and didn’t need to qualify it. Most of my classmates wanted to study when I had work, so I had to go about it on my own.

Another fantastic benefit of studying solo is not spending extra time on concepts that we already understand. For me personally, there are some topics that I get faster than others and some topics that take me longer to understand. When we study solo we don’t have to hold anyone back from their studying and no one has to hold us back from ours. We can spend our time focusing on the concepts we don’t really know, which is crucial for effective and efficient studying.

Drawbacks of Solo Studying

When we’re working on our own it’s easy to talk ourselves out of studying, especially when no one else is counting on us to study. It can be extremely motivating when we have people around us who are focused on the same goal as us. If sticking to commitments is challenging, I recommend checking out my posts The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1) and Maintaining Purpose.

Another drawback of solo studying is increased potential inaccuracy with facts. It’s hard to make sure that we’re studying something correctly if no one is around to double check out work. Yes, we can refer to the textbook, lecture notes, or other resources, but it’s still possible to support evidence that supports our incorrect beliefs. When we are studying solo we have to be mindful of cognitive bias, particularly confirmation bias.

When it’s Best to Study Solo

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)

There are a few indicators that let us know when it’s probably in our best interest to study on our own.

If the group is too talkative or off pace, then it’s probably time to switch gears and study solo. Now, this isn’t to say that study groups need to be quiet. After all, coming together and studying requires conversation but that conversation should be in service to the greater purpose of understanding and learning the information that we’re responsible for knowing.

Pay attention to where the group is headed. If you sense disaster, run immediately.

Another sign that it’s best to study on our own is if the sessions are rescheduled. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, we need to maintain commitments to ourselves, no matter how small. If the group decides that 4-5 pm after class on Friday isn’t good enough, we can still study at that time. If the group bails, no worries we can still kick ass all on our own.

Although there are many indicators, the last sign I’m going to discuss is if the group has a different level of understanding that we do. It is a colossal waste of time to study in groups if the group is far ahead or far behind our own understanding. Trust me, I’ve tried it both ways. It’s best to study with people of similar or equal competency, too much time is wasted otherwise.

Benefits of Group Studying

While studying on our own is effective, studying in groups can provide many advantages. With groups comes an opportunity to discuss concepts with others which tests our comprehension as well as creates more intricate neural connections. The more connections we have to a particular piece of information, the easier it is for us to recall it.

The group setting can also be a place to get our questions answered. If someone in the group knows more about a concept, then they can explain it to us exactly how we need it. Our group members may have a fresh understanding of the subject, so they know precisely what we need to know to go from ignorant to expert. This is a fantastic place to break down complicated topics.

Additionally, being around other students can be motivating. I know I’m less likely to slack off if I’m in the library with a group of other academics trying to prepare for this test. Especially if the test is graded on a curve and I have to perform better than my classmates.

It’s been known that social interaction makes people feel safer and calm their nerves. Group studying can work the same way. Studying alone can be an anxiety-inducing activity, especially if we’re seriously behind, but studying with a group could help calm the nerves too. The sense of “all of us are suffering together” makes things a little less painful and nerve-racking. Working with a group to solve a bunch of problems is a lot less daunting than working along to solve a bunch of problems.

When we study in groups, we get to teach each other. The opportunity to teach others is one of the most powerful study methods at our disposal. Teaching to our group mates puts us in the role of “expert” and it is from that place where we confront the gaps in our knowledge.

This happens to me with tutoring all the time. There are two possible outcomes when I try to teach something – I either teach it flawlessly or I don’t and realize that I don’t understand something. The best part is that if I mess up teaching the concept, the less I mess it up in the future. Honestly, it’s embarrassing, stressful, and painful to teach something that we don’t understand and that negative emotion gives a strong enough jolt to make me remember all the things I didn’t know the next time I have to teach. It’s kind of like putting our hand on a hot stove, the pain helps us remember.

Drawbacks of Group Studying

Studying in groups can be extremely powerful, but that’s not at a price.

With groups comes a higher chance to get distracted. All it takes is 1 person to derail the whole group. The group is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. This isn’t to say that all groups are distracting, some groups could offer a perfect study environment but that has to be intentioally selected for.

Groups are also less flexible when it comes to studying schedules. We risk spending too much or too little time on concepts which is an inefficient use of our time. Additionally, we can only study when EVERYONE’S schedule allows for it, which drastically limits convenience. A certain time may be optimal for everyone’s schedules, but that time may not be optimal for studying. I recommend scheduling study sessions during the hours you feel the most alert, for me that’s around 11 am – 2 pm. Knowing thyself is key here, as with most things.

One last point, including more people tends to make systems run slower, be mindful of that when picking groups.

When it’s Best to Study in Groups

“In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes & The Collective Unconscious)

Here are a few things to look out for when determining if we should study in a group:

If our classmates are high performers and highly motivated, a study group could be the difference between success and failure. I’ve had study groups with struggling students, average students, and high achieving students and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that studying with the high performing students gave me better results than the other two groups. Be cautious of groups if other people tend to distract you more than motivate you. Know thyself is the most useful piece of advice here. If other people motivate you more than distract you, then go for it. Sometimes our classmates can help keep us focused when we get distracted.

Additionally, it has been proven that it is easier to recall information through discussions because the conversations allow us to make multiple connections to the information. The multiple connections we create make the recall easier. Study groups are great for having a discussion about a concept or idea.

I recommend group studying when we are comfortable with a subject. If there isn’t much deep work to be done, groups are a fantastic way of studying more efficiently, However, if there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done I suggest studying solo or with one other person.

What to Look for in Study Partner (or group)

There are a few things I like to keep in mind when looking for people to study with —

  1. Make sure that they are looking for the same type of study partner. They have to be able to match our needs as we can match theirs. Some questions to ask can be: How often will we be studying? What kind of studying will be do – more learning or more reviewing? Will it be online or in-person? Are they someone we can easily communicate with? Are they someone who is mindful and respectful of our time as well as their own?
  2. Make sure that they have a similar study plan and test date. This is easy if someone is in the same class as us, but not so easy for standardized tests where people have different dates and times. If they have a different test date than us, then they will inevitably have a different study plan and our time together may not be as constructive as it would be if we had to same test dates. A test coming up in 2 days requires a different strategy than a test coming up in 2 months.
  3. Make sure they have complementary or similar struggles. This is the best way to utilize group studying. Refer to the first quote I put at the beginning of this post. We get an opportunity to learn from our classmates when we surround ourselves with people who understand the concepts that we don’t. In my experience, if a student understands a concept proficiently, they can explain it to a fellow student better than a professor. Additionally, if they have similar struggles, then we can spend most of our time tackling the things we don’t know together.
  4. Make sure they have similar study habits. Maybe they like silence and we like some chill lo-fi in the background. Maybe they like larger groups and we like smaller ones. Maybe they prefer to study in the afternoon and we prefer to study at night. Paying attention to our own habits allows us to understand what we need to create our own optimal study environment.
  5. Make sure they are someone that you can share resources with. They should be knowledgeable in efficient and effective study techniques, (and if they aren’t then share my content with them so they can be) so they can teach us new methods or whatever else they learn. I showed my girlfriend Anki when she was studying for her MCAT and she showed me Anki plug-ins, which brings active recall to a whole new level.
  6. Make sure they can motivate you and keep on on track. It’s easier to hold ourselves accountable when we have partners. They can lift us up when we’re feeling down and keep us on the straight and narrow.
  7. Make sure that they are comfortable to be around. This helps us with actually asking for help when we’re stuck. When I’m tutoring my students, I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible because I know that we’re spending most of our time together working on something that makes them feel inadequate or is at least proof of their incompetence. These things are impossible to work on if we aren’t comfortable.

Bottom Line

I’ve had study groups save me, like my first exam for O-chem 2. I wouldn’t have studied anything that my group was studying, but thank God I did because all of that stuff was on the test. But I’ve also had study groups sink me, like in P-chem. I studied for my 2nd P-chem exam with a group of peers that I share multiple classes with. We studied for hours and hours but when it came to testing day, we all got D’s.

Group studying and solo studying — one isn’t inherently better than the other. Their benefits only shine through once we know what we want.

Determining the superior method depends on what we want to accomplish.

If there is a lot of work to catch up on I recommend studying solo or with 1 other person. If we’re more comfortable with the material and just have to focus on review, then groups are a fantastic option.

I’m a little bias because most of the powerful study techniques I talk about don’t require groups, but circumstances change and it’s better to be educated about the options so we can pivot rather than just picking one side and brute-forcing it.

Know what works best for you in terms of study techniques and do that. If you prefer flashcarding alone, do it. If you prefer discussion groups, do it.

The bottom line — get those neurons firing.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

The Hero of Heroes: Marduk vs. Tiamat & The Significance of Speech

“A problem well put is half-solved.”

John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

An Invisible World

In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.

What a mouthful.

I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.

Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.

But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?

Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.

Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.

From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.

Let me explain using businesses as an example.

Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.

In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.

If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.

This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.

I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.

People live in conversations.

Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.

Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.

The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.

We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.

I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.

Speech

Tiamat and Marduk

This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.

It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.

Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.

Chaos & Order. The Anima & Animus. Tiamat & Apsu

Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.

There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.

As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.

Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of. Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.

Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.

So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?

Chaos reigns.

Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.

Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.

The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.

Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.

I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.

Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.

So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.

Marduk vs. Tiamat

From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.

The Fall of Tiamat

So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).

When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.

Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.

I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.

Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.

It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.


Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:

What does it mean to harness speech?

I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.

Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.

How we phrase things is how we understand them.

Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.

Harnessing speech involves practicing specificity.

From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.

But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?

Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.

I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.

Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?

I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.

So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?

Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.

This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.

Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.

I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.

I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.

This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.

Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.

This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.

I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.

When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.

What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.

Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )
Categories
Lifestyle

Personality and Trajectory (Part 2)

“No matter who you are, The Man does occasionally bend his ear to you even if his eyes are looking elsewhere, he does now and then condescend to listen to your demands and let you appear at his side. But you never think to listen to yourself, to bend your own ear to what you yourself have to say.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

In Personality and Trajectory (Part1), I brought up the idea of studying our personality in order to tailor our life trajectory. When we clearly understand what our personal preferences are, we could start to build an environment that compliments them. Since building something like a life trajectory is a massive undertaking, I recommend starting with a rough sketch of our preferences, so to speak, and refining it from there. In that post, I proposed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a means of creating this rough sketch of our trajectory.

This post is mainly going to focus on The Big 5 Model, also known as the five-factor model (FFM) or the OCEAN model. It will provide descriptions of each dimension of personality according to the FFM, as well as what success would look like for people who score high or low in each particular dimension. I will also discuss how we can use The Big 5 Model to add on to and polish our pre-existing trajectory framework based on MBTI.

Before I really get into this, I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Personality and its Transformations Lecture Series. It’s free on YouTube and it’s filled with everything you need to know about personality, how it transforms, and much much more. Jordan covers The Big 5 Personality Traits as well as other concepts related to psychology and philosophy.

The Big 5

This model of personality suggests that there are 5 main dimensions to human personality. Each dimension, or factor, was determined through a factor analysis applied to personality surveys. The factor analysis was applied to the surveys to discern commonalities between descriptive words that people would use to describe themselves. This means that these experiments were based on semantic associations and not quantitative empirical data, however, no model of personality is perfect and knowledge of The Big 5 is extremely valuable for developing an even deeper understanding of our personalities.

Some critics of The Big 5 claim that 5 dimensions are not complex enough to capture a human being. While it is true that The Big 5 Model probably does not accurately capture a human being in its entirety, 5 dimensions do carry sufficient complexity to describe human behavior. Newtonian physics occurs in 3 dimensions (4 tops) and that’s enough to invite serious complexity. Add 2 more dimensions and we get the complexity of a human…sounds about right to me. 5 dimensions are plenty complicated, especially when we dive into how people’s personalities fit into these groups.

Another thing to keep in mind is, similarly to MBTI, these personality traits can fluctuate over our lifetime and that is okay. Humans are constantly growing and changing and personality goes along for the ride.

Our own personality should be one of the biggest factors when we are considering which choices to make when building our lives. If we’re high in extraversion, then we probably won’t want a job that sits us in front of computer screens all day with little social interaction. If we’re lower in conscientiousness, we wouldn’t want to be in a position of high power and authority because people are going to need things from us all the time and that would drive us crazy.

Before I get too ahead of myself.

The 5 dimensions of personality are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism
Percentage vs Percentile

FFM is measured by percentiles. This is not to be confused with the percentage. Let me give an example to make this clear. If someone were to score 90th percentile in extraversion, this would be mean out of 100 people they are more extraverted than 90 of them while being less extraverted than 9 of them. This does not mean that they are 90% extravert and 10% introvert, although that is a common interpretation.

All the traits are normally distributed, meaning most people are in the 50th percentile range while there are very few who score high or low.

Openness

Or to be more specific, openness to experience. This dimension explores how open-minded someone is. Openness can be broken up into six subcategories which are:

  • Active Imagination
  • Aesthetic Sensitivity or Artistic Interests
  • Awareness of Inner Feelings or Emotionality
  • Preference for Variety or Adventurousness
  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Liberalism
Potential breakdown of openness expression

Openness can be expressed through any of these six categories but does not have to be in all of them. For example, one who is high in openness may express it through their heightened preference for variety, but may not have a particular aesthetic sensitivity. However, that same person will most likely have a higher aesthetic sensitivity than one who is less open.

People who are high in openness tend to be more liberal, have more imaginative sexual fantasies, and experiment with drugs or participate in other risky activities. What is novel is exciting to the open person. Open people also need to be creative, if they aren’t they lose their vitality quickly.

Openness has also been found to be positively correlated with intelligence. Right now, it’s unclear whether intelligence may predispose the individual to openness or if openness predisposes intelligence but nonetheless they are correlated. (McCrae and Costa, 1987).

People who are low in openness tend to be more conservative, don’t like trying new things, and enjoy routines. Closed individuals are less flexible than their open counterparts and tend to be more analytical.

Individuals who score low in openness may do well at jobs that don’t require creativity and involve routines. Individuals who score high in openness may do well at jobs that require creativity and flexibility. Success to the open person can look like large blocks of time for creative work and exploration while success to the closed person can be predictable and orderly environments.

Conscientiousness

This is one of the biggest predictors of long-term life success. People who score high in conscientiousness tend to be responsible, organized, hard-working, intentional, goal-oriented, self-disciplined, and serious. These are the types of people who would spend all day chopping down trees to build a cabin if you left them alone in a forest with an ax. Conscientious people tend to be in leadership positions along with earning more and better work relationships. These folks also love to plan things.

Similar to openness, conscientiousness can be broken up into the following six subcategories:

  • Self-Efficacy
  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement-striving
  • Self-discipline
  • Cautiousness
Potential breakdown of conscientiousness expression

Conscientiousness can be expressed through any of these categories, but not all. People high in conscientiousness tend to be great at self-regulation and impulse control. When taken to the extreme, conscientiousness is responsible for the “workaholics” and “perfectionists“. These types rarely miss bill payments, take notes, keep promises, and are punctual. They are less likely to engage in risky behavior. High scoring conscientious types also tend to keep to-do lists and attend to tasks with little delay.

People who are low in conscientiousness tend to be laid-back, less achievement-driven, and are more likely to commit anti-social or criminal behavior. Especially if they are paired with low agreeableness. Nonconscientious types are also more likely to oversleep, be late, or avoid tasks that demand action.

Success for conscientious people looks like the most conventional sense of the term. They would excel in high-powered positions with clearly defined rules. Their life would be full of routines and order. Clean environments where everything is in its place.

Success for nonconscientious types may look like surrounding themselves with automated actions and little external responsibility. They would probably excel in positions requiring creative work with a fair amount of flexibility, not the types of jobs that require someone to show up and act on a regular basis. They would prefer a little more chaos in their environments and would probably be bothered by too much order. Nonconscientious types would probably love having pets (as long as they are conscientious enough to take adequate care of them!).

Extraversion

This trait is the dimension of positive emotion and an indicator of how outgoing or social someone is. Highly extroverted types love to be around people, go to social gatherings, and work well in groups. They also tend to seek out the company of others, are enthusiastic, energetic, and action-oriented. These people are the life of the party and love being the center of attention.

The six subcategories which extraversion is expressed are as follows:

  • Friendliness
  • Gregariousness
  • Assertiveness
  • Activity level
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Cheerfulness
Potential breakdown of extraversion expression

Unlike MBTI, there is no introversion dimension. In The Big 5 Model, introversion is just the absence of extraversion. Kind of like cold from the scientific perspective. There is no cold, just the absence of heat.

People who score low in the extraversion dimension are commonly referred to as introverts. Introverts have less enthusiasm and energy than extroverts, are less involved in social activities, and tend to be quiet and keep to themselves.

Matching a job to our level of extraversion is crucial in building a satisfying life trajectory for ourselves. Higher scoring extraverts may want to go into jobs that need a high level of interaction like teaching, sales, nursing, PR, or other service jobs. Introverts may want to find jobs that allow them to work independently or don’t require much social interaction. Excellent jobs for that could be authors, librarians, engineers, music or video editors, or computer scientists.

Success to an extrovert would require them to nurture their relationships carefully so they can have people there to celebrate their big wins with them. Success to an introvert would require them to create plenty of opportunities for space for recharging in between their other activities.

We can’t talk about this dimension without talking about Ambiverts. These types are equal parts of extroverted and introverted. They don’t have preferences for working in groups or alone. They are not uncomfortable in social settings, but being around people can tire them out. They love being the center of attention, but only for a short time. Some people think they’re quiet, while others think they are social. They lose themselves in conversation just as easily as they can lose themselves in their own thoughts. Ambiverts tend to do extremely well in both personal and professional settings.

Agreeableness

This is the social harmony and cooperation dimension. High scorers of agreeableness tend to be friendly, self-sacrificing, warm, polite, helpful, considerate, and generous. They usually take the Lockean approach to human nature and believe that people are fundamentally good. Agreeable people see others as decent, honest, and trustworthy much like themselves. Agreeable people are more than willing to put aside their own interests for the good of other people or social harmony. In unhealthy doses, agreeable people could end up as pushovers.

Agreeableness can be expressed in these six subcategories:

  • Trust
  • Morality
  • Altruism
  • Cooperation
  • Modesty
  • Sympathy
Potential breakdown of agreeableness expression

People who are low in agreeableness are known as disagreeable and tend to put their own needs above those of others. They are also more distant, less friendly, and less cooperative than their agreeable counterparts. Highly disagreeable people tend to gravitate towards anti-social or criminal behavior.

Success to an agreeable person will have a lot of social cohesion. They would love to be surrounded by people who like them and are great at building teams and maintaining relationships. Some great careers for agreeable types include nurses, counselors, teachers, or HR specialists.

Success to a disagreeable person will have a lot to do with how they feel about their own desires. Since social harmony is not a big goal of disagreeable folks, their own interests will take that place. So a successful disagreeable person would be more satisfied with getting what they want at the cost of social cooperation than being tactful and considerate of others’ needs. Some great careers for disagreeable people include scientists, critics, or soldiers.

Neuroticism

This dimension determines our susceptibility to negative emotion. Negative emotion being anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, depression, worry, or loneliness, not negativity. Highly neurotic individuals tend to respond worse to stressors and interpret them as more severe than they are. People who score highly in neuroticism have a harder time remaining emotionally stable and balanced. People who are high in neuroticism feel negative emotion faster and more intensely than less neurotic types. They are emotionally reactive and tend to give emotional responses to situations that normally wouldn’t affect many people. Highly neurotic types tend to be self-conscious, shy, and have trouble controlling urges or delaying gratification.

The six sub traits of neuroticism are as follows:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Self-consciousness
  • Immoderation
  • Vulnerability
Potential breakdown of neuroticism expression

Individuals who score low in neuroticism are known as emotionally stable. People with lower levels of neuroticism are desired in most professions because they tend to get less distracted by work, their personal lives, or other stressors.

High levels of neuroticism are associated with a higher risk of mental illness and less favorable results on measures of health and relationships. However, neuroticism provides a higher sensitivity to potential threats which is a useful survival mechanism. People with high levels of neuroticism also learn faster than their emotionally stable counterparts. I talk a fair bit about the utility in experiencing negative emotion in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). We learn faster when we experience negative emotion and since neurotic types are more sensitive to negative emotion, they experience this sooner.

The knowledge of our own sensitivity to negative emotion is critical when examining the potential realities in front of us. Fairly neurotic types may want to consider that they don’t work well under pressure and plan ahead so their work can be done at a leisurely pace. Emotionally stable types may not have to exercise that type of consideration, but may keep in mind they would be fantastic for high-pressure careers like firefighting or surgery.

Methods of Identifying Personality

All of this knowledge is great, but how do we determine exactly where we land on each dimension?

There are multiple methods with some being more accurate and precise.

The easiest is taking a test while in a neutral psychophysiological state. There are tons of resources online. I recommend understandmyself.com. Make sure you are as neutral as possible. Don’t take the test upset, tired, or hungry. On the flip side, also don’t take it if you are happy, excited, or anxious! This knowledge is crucial to take into account when we plan our futures including study schedules, career goals, relationship choices, and other life plans.

Be sure to keep in mind that personality, especially since there are no flawless models, is just a starting point when it comes to designing a life trajectory. Paying attention to our inclinations is a promising way to know what kind of life fits us best. Knowing ourselves takes time because we have multiple levels all working together like an orchestral symphony. Personality is a great starting point for building a foundation for the knowledge and cultivation of our inclinations. People like Steve Jobs or Robert Greene achieved the levels of success they had because they took the time to get to know themselves and cultivated their personal interests.

Knowing ourselves intimately gives us access to deep satisfaction that we couldn’t get anywhere else. I was lucky enough to have parents support my inclination in music at a young age. I got to explore my love for music and the deeper I got, the more I fell in love with it.

Fast forward to post-college where I am forced to deal with the realities of life and decide what my life will mean, I learn that I’m high in trait openness. From my own analysis and reflection, I discovered that long periods of time where I can be creative will satisfy my openness appetite. Combining the knowledge of these two ideas, I spend years slowly molding my schedule into one that provides me ample time to be creative. Today, I can say with 100% certainty that it gives me inner peace and a pure sense of satisfaction to have connected with something deep within me. Getting to know ourselves is truly the best way to spend our time. It enriches every aspect of our existence.

Another method of identifying personality is writing an autobiography. Now, this doesn’t have to be some thick book. It could be short with just a few paragraphs. There are no rules for writing the autobiography other than you have to write it yourself. The real meaning lies in what we write and not how much we write. This method is less quantitative than the online exams but could offer deeper insights.

Articulating the past is helpful because we can clearly see how we understand the past. We can stand back, look at the picture as an outsider, and make sound judgments about what we think, or feel, or know.

Writing an entire biography is difficult, so to make it a little more manageable, just start by breaking our life story up into 5 epochs. The way in which we divide up our lives gives us a hint into what we value. For example, when I last did this exercise I noticed that my epochs were based on what my main occupation was at the time. This particular division suggests my proclivity towards high conscientiousness. The time before last, I split my life up by which people I spent the most time around, which can suggest my agreeable tendencies.

Write your story and see how you know yourself. It can be very interesting to examine our lives through our own eyes.

Relationships

The world of personality research has given us a wealth of knowledge that we can use to better understand ourselves and others. Relationships regarding personality are not blanket statements about any specific group of people. There will be exceptions in every case. For example, women tend to be more agreeable than men but that does not mean there are no agreeable men or disagreeable women.

One personality relationship worth paying attention to is between gender differences. Across cultures, women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, friendliness (extraversion subset), and emotionality (openness subset). Men, on the other hand, typically report higher levels of assertiveness (extraversion subset), and adventurousness (openness subset). There is much overlap between men and women except for the difference in neuroticism, which is the biggest and most prominent difference in these self-reported studies.

Each of these traits has been believed to have evolved out of survival. However, success in the modern world and survival in the wild require different abilities and skills. Agreeableness, for example, is great for caring for infants. That’s why we choose to take care of them if they’re crying at 3 in the morning rather than throw them out the window. However, agreeableness isn’t so great for moving up the corporate ladder. Sure we need some agreeableness to cooperate with everyone, but we need to be disagreeable enough to fight for opportunities and look out for our own interests. All of these traits are useful for survival, but not in the modern world. Some of them can do more harm than good, I talk a little bit about that in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2).

There are also trends with personality and birth order. Frank Sulloway, an American psychologist best known for his work on birth order personality research, argues that firstborns are higher in conscientiousness and lower in openness than their later-born siblings. He also argues that firstborns are more socially dominant. There have been other studies conducted that have fallen in line with Sulloway’s claims, but with a small correlation.

There are some correlations between personality and substance abuse as well. The personality profile of a typical heroin user would be low in neuroticism, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness. The personality profile of a typical ecstasy user would be high in extraversion, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness.

There are also connections between personality and health. Research has found that being high in conscientiousness can add 5 years to your life and being high in neuroticism is related to less favorable health outcomes. People who report high levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness tend to have lower risks of mortality as well. It seems like it pays off to try to be conscientious, extroverted, and open.

Here are some connections between academic achievement and personality. Conscientiousness is predictive of GPA and exam performance. Students who report higher levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to have higher GPAs and exam scores. Those who report higher levels of neuroticism tend to have less desirable academic outcomes.

Personality can also be a predictor of job performance. This is partly why I suggest using personality to help shape our life trajectory. We are more likely to enjoy jobs that we would excel in. People who excel in leadership positions are perceived to have low levels of neuroticism and high levels of openness while maintaining balanced levels of conscientiousness and extraversion. Studies have found that employees are less likely to view their supervisor’s actions as abusive if they consider their supervisor to be high in conscientiousness.

Professional burnout is highly correlated with high levels of neuroticism. People who report higher levels of agreeableness tend to make less money than their disagreeable counterparts.

Conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the conscientiousness the better their performance. Extraversion is the 2nd biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the extraversion the better their performance. Agreeableness and Neuroticism are tied for 3rd, lower levels of each being tied to higher performance.

Research on how the individual traits affected individuals and organizations at work found that individuals (or organizations of individuals) who are higher in openness are more proactive with tasks but less organized and proficient. Both of these effects are mutually exclusive. Those who are more agreeable tend to be less proactive with tasks. Those who are higher in extraversion are, on average, less proficient at tasks. Those who are high in conscientiousness tend to relate positively in all forms of work performance. Highly neurotic types tend to relate negatively to all forms of work performance.

In romantic relationships, personality could predict satisfaction and relationship quality during the various stages of a romantic relationship.

Dating couples’ studies suggest that people will have higher relationship satisfaction and quality if they see their partner with lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of conscientiousness as well as see themselves with higher levels of conscientiousness.

Engaged couples’ studies suggest that relationship satisfaction and quality are higher among those who report their partner as high in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness and lower in neuroticism. Satisfaction and quality are also higher for those who report themselves as higher in extraversion and agreeableness. Neuroticism predicts worse relationship satisfaction and quality for both self-reported and partner-reported studies.

Married couples, on the other hand, demonstrate higher levels of relationship satisfaction and quality when self-reporting higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness as well as partner-reported agreeableness.

Personality can also show up with people’s political identification, but not with all 5 traits. People who are higher in conscientiousness tend to be more conservative, while people who are higher in openness tend to be more liberal. The other three traits have not been found to be linked to preferred political ideology.

Personalities are subject to change as our lives move and one of the traits the changes the most with age is neuroticism. Research has found that neuroticism tends to decrease with age and after major life events.


Similar to MBTI, The Big 5 has a few critiques as well. While The Big 5 is more based on empirical evidence, it is still limited in its predictive power and does not accurately encompass all of the human personality. However, it’s one of the best models we have and that doesn’t mean that we can’t use it to our advantage.

Since there is more research related to the Big 5, we can use what rings true from The Big 5, MBTI, our personal experiences, and other sources to clearly articulate our preferences. We can use everything we know about personality to create a more refined way of determining our life trajectory. Keep in mind which traits you have and how they will change and use that knowledge to inform your choices when you choose what you do for work, who you marry, where you live, and why you do what you do.

While it’s great to tailor our life trajectory to our personalities, that does not mean we should avoid exposing ourselves to the opposites of our preferences. Wisdom is always on the other side of what we are.

“Become who you are. Become all that you are. There is still more of you – more to be discovered, forgiven, and loved.”

Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Categories
Lifestyle

Personality and Trajectory (Part 1)

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Personality has always been an interesting subject for me. I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick and what separates an individual from the rest of the crowd. Personality is one of the many factors which determine individuality. Personality can be thought of as a collection of qualities that make up our overall character. Over the years, there has been much debate over what those qualities are and how they present in human behavior. Today, multiple theories have been widely accepted by the public and are used in business practices.

Learning personality is a fantastic way to connect with and understand more people than we otherwise would, but I don’t just stop there, I like to use it to help determine a complimentary life trajectory. Learning about our own personality gives us an insight into what kind of life we would actually enjoy.

It’s too easy to get caught up building our life for other people or chasing romanticised ideals. This is how people get stuck with jobs and relationships that they hate. People think they want these things because someone else told them it was worth having or because they saw it in the media. I see this with my students all the time, they stress out over which career pays the most, is the most “secure,” or looks the most glamourous. I see students intentionally repress themselves in order to fit into a mold that they will never truly accept.

The trick to avoiding this pitfall is learning about what makes up our personalities and tailoring our trajectories to fulfill ourselves. If we know what we would like to do, then we can pick a role within society that can satisfy that. Sounds simple enough, but people don’t really act this way. We live in a complex society and there are roles that need to be filled by people of certain temperament. It’s better to fill these roles with people who naturally fit into them, rather than waste resources trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Our personality is something to take into account when we are designing the trajectory of our lives. It’s something we need to grapple with. It’s much easier to put ourselves in an environment which compliments our strengths, than to reject or ignore part of ourselves which cannot easily changed.

In this post, I’m going to talk about a popular theory of personality. It’s slightly outdated and not entirely scientifically inaccurate but it is widely accepted and used in many institutions, so it’s useful to “be in the know” with this information. Plus it’s fun party talk.

Myers-Briggs Personality Types

Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator or (MBTI) is a method of categorizing people through a questionnaire which outlines the differences in how they perceive the world and make decisions. It was created by American mother-daughter duo, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. MBTI is widely accepted throughout the business world as well as socially, especially in the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, MBTI does has significant scientific deficiencies, poor reliability, and is not entirely comprehensive of human personality. However, MBTI is useful to know because it gives us a common language with people who do accept it. MBTI is popular in the corporate world, because it does an excellent job in categorizing people without hurting anyone’s feelings. This theory of personality has a way of making everyone seem like they have no downfalls and can always contribute, which is powerful in business environments. Businesses tend to do better when the people who run it feel better. Empirical personality data isn’t as relevant to performance as we would expect. MBTI is also fantastic at providing a basic structure for understanding personality, but it’s crucial to know that it does not supply us with the whole picture.

MBTI is based on the assumption that people have specific preferences for interpreting experiences and pursuing our desires. It also draws from Carl Jung’s typology theories which suggest people have four modes of cognitive functions (Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition) as well as one of two polar orientations (Extraversion or Introversion). Even though Jung’s theory of psychological types was not based on empirical scientific studies, they were based on clinical observation, introspection, and anecdotes. Since the conclusions did not originate from controlled scientific studies, they are not accepted by the scientific community. However, Carl Jung was an amazing thinker and I do believe he was one of the few operating with precision at the edge of our collective understanding. His conclusions, from his observations or otherwise, were always made with the intention of bringing man closer to truth that we all can accept.

MBTI sorts out personality in 4 major continuums. Each person leans more towards one pole of each pair similar to right-handedness or left-handedness. When a person determines which side of each continuum they express, they are assigned a type. There are a total of 16 different types, 1 for each combination of the letters.

Let me give an example using my own letters. I’m more introverted than extroverted. I’m more intuitive than sensory. I’m more of a thinker than a feeler. Usually I’m more perceiver than judger, but recently I have been more judger than perceiver. This gives me the letters INTJ. (Some days I’m an INTP) The letters come from the capitalized letter in each word: Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judger.

Extroversion vs. Introversion

MBTI and Jung use introversion and extroversion in similar ways. Introversion meaning inward-turning and extroversion meaning outward-turning. These both are often referred to as attitudes that one uses to function in the external world.

Simply put, extroverts are recharged by people while introverts are recharged by alone time. Each type is usually drained by the opposite activity, extroverts are drained by alone time and introverts are drained by social interaction. However, there are other notable differences between them.

Extroverts direct their energy towards people and objects while introverts direct theirs towards concepts and ideas. We can always find out which attitude people take by paying attention to the topics of their conversation or asking them what their ideal weekend would look like. If someone is frequently talking about people and things they’re most likely extroverted. If someone is frequently talking about concepts and ideas they’re most likely introverted. An extrovert’s ideal weekend is probably spent going out and seeing a bunch of people, celebrating at the club, or another type of high energy ordeal. An introvert’s ideal weekend would probably be spent inside with a good book or TV show along with ample time for reflection.

This is not to say that extroverts can never be alone, or that introverts hate being with people. Everyone needs some amount of social interaction and alone time. Our attitudes merely reflect our preferences and how we choose to interact with the world around us. Neither attitude is more advantageous or otherwise, they are simply two sides of the same coin.

The following statements will apply to you if you are more extroverted:

  • I am seen as “outgoing” or as a “people person.”
  • I feel comfortable in groups and like working in them.
  • I have a wide range of friends and know lots of people.
  • I sometimes jump too quickly into an activity and don’t allow enough time to think it over.
  • Before I start a project, I sometimes forget to stop and get clear on what I want to do and why.

The following statements will apply to you if you are more introverted:

  • I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.”
  • I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
  • I prefer to know just a few people well.
  • I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.
  • I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

This dichotomy is based on how we psychologically perceive the external world. These are both functions of gathering information. Sensing individuals tend to trust information that is tangible, concrete, and understood by the five senses. They’re less likely to trust “gut feelings” or other “hunches” that come out of nowhere. For them, meaning lies in the data, what is in front of them.

Individuals driven by intuition tend to trust information that is remembered or discovered through analyzing patterns. Since they trust information that doesn’t have to fit within the five senses, they tend to be more excited by what the future has in store. For them, meaning is not in the data but the principles and theories which underlie the data.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive through sensing:

  • I remember events as snapshots of what actually happened.
  • I solve problems by working through facts until I understand the problem.
  • I am pragmatic and look to the “bottom line.”
  • I start with facts and then form a big picture.
  • I trust experience first and trust words and symbols less.
  • Sometimes I pay so much attention to facts, either present or past, that I miss new possibilities.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive through intuition:

  • I remember events by what I read “between the lines” about their meaning.
  • I solve problems by leaping between different ideas and possibilities.
  • I am interested in doing things that are new and different.
  • I like to see the big picture, then to find out the facts.
  • I trust impressions, symbols, and metaphors more than what I actually experienced.
  • Sometimes I think so much about new possibilities that I never look at how to make them a reality.

Thinking vs. Feeling

Thinking and feeling are based on how we prefer to make choices in the external world. Both thinkers and feelers make rational choices based on certain kinds of information which were gathered from their senses or intuition. Thinkers tend to make their decisions based on objective measures while aiming to be reasonable, logical, or causal. They are usually personally detached from their decisions and try to match their choices to a given set of rules. Thinkers also tend to have low tolerance for those who are inconsistent or illogical. Thinkers give direct (and sometimes harsh) feedback and view the truth as more important than feelings.

This is not to say that thinkers never make emotional decisions, MBTI simply lets us know one’s preference in decisions making and is not a predictor of behavior. They also don’t “think better” than their feeling counterparts. MBTI doesn’t measure cognitive ability, just preferences.

Feelings types tend to make their choices based on empathy, balance, harmony, and with consideration for others’ needs. Feeling types try to see what works best for everyone involved and are willing to sacrifice logic and truth for the good of the majority. 

Thinking types will have a hard time leading a healthy and productive life if they make their choices based on their feelings, while feeling types will have a harder time leading a healthy and productive life if they make their choices based on their logical reasoning. Both types tend to lack the opposite senses necessary to make good choices. Similar to our attitudes toward the external world (extraversion vs. introversion), one isn’t better than the other, they are both different sides to the same coin.

The following statements will apply to you if you decide through thinking:

  • I enjoy technical and scientific fields where logic is important.
  • I notice inconsistencies.
  • I look for logical explanations or solutions to most everything.
  • I make decisions with my head and want to be fair.
  • I believe telling the truth is more important than being tactful.
  • Sometimes I miss or don’t value the “people” part of a situation.
  • I can be seen as too task-oriented, uncaring, or indifferent.

The following statements will apply to you if you decide through feeling:

  • I have a people or communications orientation.
  • I am concerned with harmony and nervous when it is missing.
  • I look for what is important to others and express concern for others.
  • I make decisions with my heart and want to be compassionate.
  • I believe being tactful is more important than telling the “cold” truth.
  • Sometimes I miss seeing or communicating the “hard truth” of situations.
  • I am sometimes experienced by others as too idealistic, mushy, or indirect.

Judging vs. Perceiving

This dichotomy is based on how we relate to our perceptions of the external world. This continuum is heavily influenced by our sensing and/or intuitive natures, because we are either judging or perceiving the information obtained through those perceptions.

Judging types take in information with the intention of using it later and, in the words of Myers, like to “have matters settled.” They usually have a plan in mind and are only interested in information if it’s related to their goal in some way. They tend to be more comfortable once decisions have been made and the environment around them is under control.

Perceiving types take in information for the sake of learning. They love knowing things just to know them. Perceiving types learn about and adapt to the world around them rather than structure it themselves.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive your information by through judging:

  • I like to have things decided.
  • I appear to be task oriented.
  • I like to make lists of things to do.
  • I like to get my work done before playing.
  • I plan work to avoid rushing just before a deadline.
  • Sometimes I focus so much on the goal that I miss new information.

The following statements will apply to you if you perceive your information by through perceiving:

  • I like to stay open to respond to whatever happens.
  • I appear to be loose and casual. I like to keep plans to a minimum.
  • I like to approach work as play or mix work and play.
  • I work in bursts of energy.
  • I am stimulated by an approaching deadline.
  • Sometimes I stay open to new information so long I miss making decisions when they are needed.

For more information on each of the MBTI traits, I suggest going to myersbriggs.org. It’s the place to go for more thorough explanations of everything MBTI and where I got most of this information, like the relevant statements for each type.


Like I said earlier, personality changes throughout our lives and these letters are just letting us know our proclivities, not defining who we are as people. However, knowing my MBTI can give me an insight into what kind of life trajectory I would be the most satisfied with with the least friction.

According to my MBTI, I would most enjoy a trajectory which: provides me with ample alone time (I). opportunities to discover new information (N). puts me in environments where the culture values reason, logic, and causality (T). gives me the opportunity to make decisions on my own time at my own pace (J).

Through understanding our personality, we can create paths for ourselves which compliment our proclivities. For example, if I were extroverted, I would probably best enjoy myself in an environment surrounded by others.

While MBTI can give us delightful insight into what life trajectories would best compliment our nature, there are some criticisms that are important to consider:

  • These types are generalizations which do not accurately describe an individual.
  • There are people who do not fit nicely into these 16 groups.
  • MBTI suggests that there are no negative personality traits.
  • MBTI is widely accepted in the workplace, even though there is no evidence that supports MBTI is predictive of performance.

There are others, but these are the ones I’ve encountered to be the most substantial. All these criticisms bring up the question:

Why still use MBTI?

It can give us a rough idea of what kind of life trajectory we would fit well with and as I’ve talked about in my other posts, we do things badly before we can do them well. If we want to design a beautiful life trajectory, we need a rough starting point. MBTI is great for that. Plus it’s fun party conversation if you ever run into an MBTI nerd. Additionally, since MBTI is commonly accepted in the workplace, it’s useful to be in the know when people try to use it’s coded language.

Find your letters and start discovering which paths most align with you.

In the modern world we have choices, why not choose what fits us?