Friday, May 6, 2011

6 Clues to Character

6 Clues to Character

Image of a young woman's face
Seconds after Tamara was ushered into his office, Michael knew she was right for the creative staff of the advertising team he ran. Within a year, they were not only a productive duo professionally, they were dating. She soon jumped to another agency largely so they could live together openly. A year later, they were married and enacting their plan to start a boutique agency together. Business grew comfortably although not spectacularly—until the recession hit. Having observed from a master how to initiate client contact, Tamara went into overdrive. Michael, unflappable as ever, admired her indefatigability. The harder she worked, the more Michael's praise got under Tamara's skin; she grew to hate being viewed as indefatigable. Over the last half of 2008, she says, "anxiety began shredding me." Good as he was as a life partner, she came to realize, Michael lacked "the gut-fire" for business; a downturn was the clearest time to see it but the worst time to accept it. Desperate to keep her whole life from falling apart, she quietly contacted a consultant. The plan: Close the agency, look for separate jobs or freelance arrangements, and keep the marriage. Could she live with that?

It's taken over two rocky years for the shame, the anger, and the disappointment to subside. Tamara would happily erase the entire entrepreneurial episode. "I should have paid more attention to Michael's approach to work," she now says. "Yes, he has a great reputation, but there were signs he just wasn't driven. He's very confident, but he doesn't have that competitive edge. He never hid his nature. I partly blame myself; we could have avoided a few nasty years."
Does any one of us know who our lovers, our friends, our business partners, our children—and even we ourselves— will become, especially when tossed into a new set of circumstances? Most future forecasting is stunningly off the mark. Typically, it assumes too many discontinuities from the present. But psychology knows that the future grows out of the past, and both tend to be built on observable aspects of character and behavior. It's possible to extrapolate from today to tomorrow—if you know what to pay attention to.
Even with children, development is not a mystery, says Susan Engel, a psychologist at Williams College. "It's a crystal ball. You just have to know how to read it." The trickiest part may be finding—or deliberately creating—situations most likely to elicit the traits you want to observe in action.
The important signs of a person's path into the future inhabit six broad domains, says Engel: intelligence, drive, sociability, capacity for intimacy, happiness, and goodness. All six elements show up early in life and don't change much over its course. As outlined in her recent book, Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, the six can be seen as an index of what really matters in life.
Some are traits, more or less wired into personality—such as basic level of interest in others. But some have a considerable skills component—for example, how we explain the events of our lives. A small shift in attributional style, for example, will have an outsize effect on a person's motivation and propensity to happiness. Sociability may be a basic component of personality, but it's still possible to influence its expression by learning how to approach others.
Much as we may recognize the importance of each domain for foretelling the future, still we have trouble knowing exactly what to look for. Tone is one of the big distracters. Being low-key, for example, does not preclude happiness, as some people assume. Nor does winning prizes in school predict later success. But it turns out that many of the attributes that most influence us, that create that je ne sais quoi known as character, are fairly stable over time. As a result, we can scrutinize them at any one point and project them into the future.

image of a young woman with a white painted face
Intelligence: The Biggest Boon

Of all the attributes to consider in another person, intelligence is probably at the top of the list. Since it is the most stable quality over time, and primarily a product of genetic endowment—although stimulating environments allow it to blossom—it is almost as reliable a guide in children as it is in adults. More than any other trait, it is the great declarer of possibility, an indicator of the likelihood of doing well in life.
Try to define intelligence and you'll have one of psychology's longest-running fights on your hands. This much can be said with impunity: It encompasses the ability and speed of processing information.
It allows for, although makes no guarantee of, deeper understanding of life, experiences, and other people. It underlies the ability to deal with complexity.
As cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman sees it, there are two major types of intelligence—controlled and spontaneous. They operate differently and confer distinct advantages. At the top of the hierarchy is the capacity for conscious, deliberate, abstract thinking, which is what is generally measured on intelligence tests. "Conscious intelligence reflects the capacity of working memory and executive functioning, skills requiring focus and related to cognitive control," he explains. It is goal-directed and draws on a limited pool of attentional resources.

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