Gretchen Rubin

A Little Happier: Sometimes, What We Consider a Limitation Can Be a Strength.

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In psychology these days, one of the most respected models is the “Five Factor” model, also called the “big five.” It describes personality in terms of five major dimensions :

  • openness
  • conscientiousness
  • extraversion
  • agreeableness
  • neuroticism

Helpfully this creates the acronym OCEAN which is a useful mnemonic.

This is a very interesting model, and I have many thoughts about it! But right now I’ll mention one thing that really has struck me.

When you look at the model, it’s clear that the factor “openness to experience” is something that’s deemed good. It’s described as “appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience.” I’ve also seen it described as “the depth and complexity of an individual’s mental life and experiences, or intellect or imagination.”

On the other hand, I’ve seen a description that suggests that people with low openness “seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded.” I’ve also read that these folks “probably prefer routine over variety, stick to what they know, and prefer less abstract arts and entertainment.”

One thing I’ve learned in my own observations of human nature is always to look for the bright side and the dark side of anything I see. I see something, I ask: What are the benefits, what are the strengths of a particular pattern of human nature, and given that, what are the accompanying limitations and drawbacks? Every plus has its minus. But sometimes I really have to think about it.

So as I was thinking about the Big Five, I asked myself, “What’s the positive side of being of low ‘openness to experience?’ How might we all gain, as humanity, from this aspect of human nature?”

And I thought of a passage which gives a perfect example. I came across this passage during my research for my biography Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.

This is an observation made by the prominent British politician, diplomat, and writer Harold Nicolson, in his Diaries on October 17, 1940. Note the date: this was in the early days of World War II and during the Blitz, the persistent German bombing of London. (I believe he was serving as Parliamentary Secretary at the time.)

In this period, London was reeling from the constant bombs, and people were struggling to figure out how to deal with it. This was the era of “Keep calm and carry on.”

In this passage, to set the scene, Nicolson is talking about the state of a London street, a street called King’s Bench Walk, and the reaction of his housekeeper, Mrs. Groves.

King’s Bench Walk is still all right and Mrs Groves is there, as determined as usual to pretend that all is unchanged.  I used to be irritated by the Cockney love of the familiar, feeling that it closed their minds to new experiments, but now their obstinate clinging to the rock of our tradition fills me with pride.

Recently, too, I’ve been reading the work of novelist and essayist Wendell Berry. In particular, I recommend the terrific novels Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. The protagonists of these two novels certainly wouldn’t score high on “openness to experience,” and in the novels, we see the beauty in their perspective.

Given the circumstances, sometimes, what we might think of as a limitation can actually be a strength, or what we think is a strength might prove to be a limitation. Or it might add a dimension to the world that would otherwise be lost.

And when we understand that, we can have more compassion and respect for other people, and why they may see the world the way they do, even when it’s different from our own way, and even when we disagree with it.

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