Student: I want to be Prime Minister!
Me (horrified): Why the hell would you want that? It’d be horrible...
I know, you’re appalled. Not the inspiring and motivational tone a teacher should take, that... but, man alive, really now, what a thankless job.
Some people’s main goal in life is success and achievement. And then there’s people like me: I’m pretty happy if everything is... yeah, kind of ok. If everything is just fine, thanks. If everything is ticking along nicely, then perfect. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about stagnant apathy here – I’m talking about a state of happy, warm contentment, and that, as it turns out, is actually incredibly hard achieve, and seemingly impossible to maintain; especially with all these “success and achievement” types messing stuff up with their obsessive narrow-focus drive and ambition, prodding me from my rest...
What this is, is a fundamental mismatch of priorities – what do you want out of life? Let’s call these different approaches to life Type A (achievement driven) and Type B (contentment driven): These approaches are pretty fundamental, core personality traits and possibly even rooted in your biology; certainly in your upbringing. Ok, it’s a sweeping generalisation – very few people are all one and none of the other, and if you’re like me you can have a fairly Type A approach to some things but a Type B approach to the rest, or flit between the two depending on what situation, mood – or mode – you are currently in. But it’s a kind of scale we can adopt, if you’ll humour me. Look out for it in the work place and you will find at least a couple of salient examples in your colleagues... and if they have to work closely together, this can cause friction and resentments. Type A and Type B people drive each other up the wall. Type A’s plans and schemes are constantly being undermined by Type B’s infuriatingly slow and unfocussed dithering – how can they be so laid-back when there’s stuff to be done? How can they be so accepting of compromise, and even failure, when with a bit more oomph and action we could be achieving this? Type Bs on the other hand are constantly being hassled, prodded and pushed by Type As, who are always messing up their contentment and peace of mind. Why are they so focussed on this stuff? Why is this stuff so important to them? Can’t they be content? Isn’t there more to life? Are they never going to be happy? Why can’t they just leave me alone?! Stop f***ing railroading me with your agenda! Ahem. Sorry, got a bit carried away, that was very un-Type B of me. The point is: Type As and Type Bs infuriate each other, because they simply can’t empathise. They’re unlikely to get along smoothly if they have to work on a project together – but actually, in fairness, probably need each other: To organise, drive and focus Type Bs or to persuade Type As to take a moment and see the bigger picture.
I have stolen this terminology form Meyer Friedman and “R.H.” Rosenman’s research into personality and stress in the ‘50s, ‘60s and 70s, where they identified what they called Type A as ambitious, competitive, aggressive, status-driven, time-conscious, controlling etc. – basically, Gordon “f***ing” Ramsey; and Type B as... well, basically, not Type A – patient, forgiving, non-competitive and “generally lacking an over-riding sense of urgency”. Which makes Type B people sound like Jesus rather than the slackers they probably are, but there you go. People who scored highly on Type A personality tests (and at interviews designed to provoke characteristic responses) were found to be massively more likely to suffer and die from coronary heart disease or similar stress-related conditions. Friedman and Rosenman concluded that, when it comes to stress, Type A = BAD, Type B = GOOD. Which, as someone who scores robustly (though not extremely) Type B on their personality questionnaire, seems at first glance to be a cause to be smug, and all is right with the world. However, as always, there are big problems with this glib assumption – never take psychology research at face value.
First of all, cause and effect is not clear – it could be the high stress that these people are under as part of their working life that is causing both the Type A behaviour and the heart disease; ie. it is situational, and not a core personality trait driving the stress and therefore the CHD. Furthermore, since the “types” cover a whole range of characteristics, it is a bit rich to suggest everyone falls into one or the other, even with a “mixed Type AB” category – for example it is possible to be ambitious, but not aggressive; or forgiving, but still time-conscious; and it is just as likely that it’s just one characteristic such as hostility/aggression, and not a whole sweeping personality “type” that leads to poor handling of stress. Fair enough for the common criticisms; but I’m also slightly suspicious about Friedman and Rosenman’s conclusive assertions – that, for example, Type Bs are in reality just as successful as Type As, so Type B is by far the best way to be. It should be clear – by Type B they do not mean lazy, useless and apathetic idlers, they simply mean calm, positive-thinking, well-adjusted, patient and co-operative, multi-functional types who know how to get that work/life balance right – but these people are extremely rare, and lazy apathetic slackers will surely score highly as Type B also.
Even more damning is a look at rival personality/stress models, such as Stephen V. Kobasa’s “Hardiness scale” – which suggests some personality traits make you more resistant to stress (or “Hardier”). This is based around the “3 C’s”: Commitment – which means you get actively involved with things and see projects through to the end; Challenge – which means you see problems as a positive challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle; and Control – which means you see yourself as in control of your fate and the situations you find yourself in. If you lack these, you won’t deal so well with stress – you will tend to get stressed easier. According to Friedman and Rosenman I am Type B, so I deal well with stress. According to Kobasa I am not particularly “Hardy”, so I don’t. I don’t score very highly on the “3 C’s” – I’m reasonable on Commitment, not brilliant, but not terrible. I am traditionally a stand-back-and-observe type, but less so now I’m older and more confident... I’m reasonable on Challenge, despite my sneery cynic pose and tendency to displays of depressive histrionics – I’m open minded, and I will generally be up for sorting stuff out and giving things a go in a reasonably positive fashion... It’s on Control that I fall down badly, not because I always feel out of control in situations, or unable to handle myself – I don’t – but because, as an avowed realist I am quite convinced (from both intelligent reasoning and undeniable, slightly bitter experience) that, actually, a hell of a lot of stuff that life throws at you is out of your control. You can only make the best with what you’ve been given, and greater forces than you rage about you constantly, puking up unpredictable and immovable curveballs that you must constantly dodge or climb over. Ok, the more savvy and proactive you are the more you can affect outcomes and transform situations, I understand that, I really do – but plenty of things simply will not be predicted or will not be changed. We are not Gods. There is no “karma” and you don’t make your own “luck” at all – luck is fickle f***er. Going about insisting you are always in control seems to me pure delusion – a happy, motivating, stress-busting delusion, maybe, but still simply sticking its fingers in its ears and going la-la-la in the face of the facts, nonetheless.
Whatever, Kobasa’s model seems to contradict Freidman and Rosenman. The "3 C's" are traits much more likely to be shown by driven, Type A "doers" than laid-back, go-with-the-flow B's. So is this Type A and B stuff bollocks? Well, I suppose we can say it’s an over-simplification, though intuitively there does seem to be something in it (at the risk of damning it with faint praise and consigning it to pop-psychology). Certainly some people clearly are those types (Gordon “f***ing” Ramsey), and the characteristics listed would seem to tend to clump together. Incidentally other types have been added – Type C, who tend to bottle stress up and not deal with it, and may appear fine on the surface but are all worried and knotted up inside. This allegedly leads to a high incidence of cancer in these types, though this is far from proven; and Type D, who typically respond to stress by getting depressed (- well, alright, if we’re talking purely about stress response, that is quite clearly me – my characteristic urge when it all gets too much is to simply gnash my teeth in woe, hide away, and sleep. Stress-leads-to-anger-leads-to-“isn’t-everything-shit”-despondency-leads-to-shut-down). But how these later additions fit exactly with Type A and B is unclear – these types are stand-alone, developed by others, and not necessarily on the same scale as Friedman and Rosenman’s Types A and B.
If we are going to stick with exploring Friedman and Rosenman’s model, on a personal note, I’m still sus about the idea that a Type B personality always leads to better experience of stress. While, yes, I have never had a highly-strung “stressy” personality, once I got a pressured and high-responsibility job, I suddenly realised that, even so, I didn’t have such amazing tools to cope with it: I’m aware that my Type B tendencies are actually at the root of what causes me stress – my slowness, procrastination, disorganisation, lack of assertiveness, terrible time-consciousness, easy boredom with relentless work, incredible bodily resistance to switching gears (getting active in the first place or turning off once I am), my insistence on spending huge swathes of time on unproductive and unrelated interests (case-in-point – this blog), my inability to concentrate and focus on one simple dull or repetitive task without getting side-tracked or going off into thoughtful reverie... all of these things are pretty Type B and constantly mess me up when it comes to doing the job and getting things done: I need to keep a tight rein on them at times – but if the rein is too tight I end up getting angry and depressed. In fact, while I can wind myself into quite an impressive and zingy all-cylinders-firing energetic work-machine (no, really!) when I’m on form, it always takes a while to crank up and I simply cannot maintain a Type A level of efficiency for a protracted period without burning out quickly – I can’t think of anything more life-draining and dispiriting than living a Type A life.
No wonder Type A types tend to see themselves as superior. In terms of energy, drive and focus they clearly are. As someone who dresses distinctly to the B side of the scale, I have plenty of examples of what I would consider under-achievement littered throughout my history. Not because I lacked the ability or know-how, but because I simply didn’t put myself forward or apply myself enough; not out of laziness, but because I just didn’t realise the importance or feel the urgency of it at the time. You live and learn, I guess, but motivation for the likes of me cannot be forced – it’s there or it’s not. If it’s not, and yet you still have to proceed, your life becomes maddeningly dull and empty, and at worst stressful, exhausting and hellish. Obviously a degree of success and achievement and recognition is essential to contentment, but it is not everything. For genuine so-called Type Bs there is a natural ceiling of activity where things just cut off: When the effort and stress out-weighs your likelihood of tangible reward, and starts impinging on your happy, healthy mood, Type Bs just – stop. It’s like a natural in-built safety mechanism, to protect against the possibility of crisis or breakdown. But it means they will never achieve that sheer hyper-organised, bee-like activity; the perfection and glorious heights of people who will single-mindedly drive themselves into obsession pursuing a particular goal, when nothing less will do. For a true Type B, a little less will do, as long as it’s ok. No giving 120% for these lads. 90 at best. Sheesh, ok, maybe 95 if it’s really, really important, but jeez, a fella’s got to have a little in reserve.
Which brings us on to the real problem, which is this (and in this I think Friedman and Rosenman genuinely had something): In the modern workplace it is Type A behaviour that is rewarded. Everywhere I’ve ever worked wants you wound up to hyper efficiency all the time. It’s so obvious it barely needs saying. I got so fed up with the word “outstanding” as teacher that it came to induce an unconscious Pavlovian sneer – “good” wasn’t good enough, and “satisfactory”... well, hell, that just wasn’t satisfactory. Words like “outstanding”, “excellence” and “achievement” are used so liberally, and drilled in so relentlessly, like motivational tourettes, in the modern workplace that they have become virtually meaningless to my ears – in the way that repeating the word “socks” or “tree” to yourself 100 times divorces the sound from any sense. Try it. In most workplaces (private or public sector) these days everything is target driven – and if you meet those targets, the targets are just put up again, in some kind of Sisyphian ritual of existential futility. Companies and institutions have their own Type A ambitions, and none are ever content to simply rest where they are – but then, in business, as in life, I suppose no position is stable – if you are not going up then you are on a dangerous plateau of stagnation and it could be the beginning of a downward turn and, ultimately The End – you cannot afford to get complacent. Still, many a business or institution has precipitated its own demise (or at least done more damage than good) by over-extending themselves – because they could not be content with their current position, they couldn’t leave things be: It wasn’t broke but they still tried to fix it and lost the culture that made things work so well in first place. Toyota. I’ve seen it happen first-hand (not with Toyota). It seems intuitively true that those at the top will tend to be Type A – they must at least be ambitious, competitive, single-minded. Not always, maybe: “Type A” is a sweeping generalisation involving a suspiciously large batch of characteristics after all; and Type Bs may be called upon to fill such roles if they just happen to be good enough. Certainly those calm, positive, well-adjusted, patient and co-operative types do exist in such positions (I’ve seen that first hand too – a life-affirming privilege) – but still, experience all points to non-Type As in senior positions being the exception rather than the rule. And therefore Type Bs will always be at their mercy. I suppose it has to be this way really – if society was run by Type Bs one suspects the result would be a bit shoddy, and certainly progress would be very slow and limited; but I don’t think it would collapse altogether – it would simply be a humbler, messier, more basic and perhaps more uncertain world. But a happy one.
Though I guess a Type A would say: Why the hell would you want that? It’d be horrible...