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The Personality Predicament

When I was in high school (I forget which year), my English teacher led us all to the computer lab and sat us down in front of a career guidance program. The district had obviously spent a lot of money on this software, given the fancy graphics everywhere, and we collectively needed to justify the purchase. For about a half hour I answered seemingly random questions about what I would prefer to do with my life and how I would act in certain situations. Finally, a beautiful chart materialized before me, detailing my personality traits and the suggested career path I should pursue:


I was outraged. How could this be? In middle school I had resolved to be a neurosurgeon. I was the resident math geek of my grade and the star of my Science Olympiad team. I was clearly destined to work for NASA or cure cancer or at least discover some new species of seaweed off the coast of South America. I couldn't paint or shape a pot to save my life, but "Artist?"

I studied the pie chart to figure out where the program had gone wrong. The "creative" slice was larger than the "analytical" one. The questions must have had some hidden tricks to them, I decided, or the test designers had misinterpreted what the answers meant. They even admitted as much on the results screen, with a note that we should navigate our lives based on what we "like" to do and not take these recommendations at face value.

But it still bothered me, so I took the test again, and again, until I wrangled it into telling me that I was supposed to be a scientist. And I was content.

Until half a decade later, when I discovered that I detested academia and lab work, and I scuttled into the safety of library and computer science before ending up on this couch writing novels.

Contrary to the myths told to me by teachers and television shows throughout my childhood, what a person is "good" at has very little to do with the arena in which they'd most likely succeed. To be a researcher (or a lawyer or entrepreneur), you do not necessarily need to be "smart;" it's preferable to be a driven, stubborn, cut-throat egomaniac. To be a manager, nurse, or teacher it's not enough to be an expert on your subject; you have to be patient, sympathetic, and willing to withstand irrational abuse.

The predicament I'm finding now, though, is that to be a writer you have to be both. You have to be arrogant enough to want to push your ideas on other people, and to work tirelessly to reach the top of the Amazon sales charts. You have to believe strongly enough in yourself and your books to keep your confidence when people bash you in public, as if you have a skin of steel.

However, you also have to have an abnormal capacity for sympathy. You need to question your every assumption about yourself and others in order to improve. You have to be able to see the world from any perspective, especially the unpleasant ones. Your own sex or the opposite one or any gender in between, liberal or conservative, anarchist, despot, spineless victim or schoolyard might need to embody them all. You should be able to empathize with a pedophilic serial murderer if you have to.

In other words, you must have zero pride and an excess of it simultaneously. This isn't a difficulty for writers alone; I think anyone who produces content for entertainment faces the same conflict. Actors must have it the worst.

I haven't mastered the art of straddling the fence yet. Even though I know I should have confidence, I still take it personally when people write hostile reviews or no one buys my stuff. Of course, I could take the easy road and shirk both sides: cave to demand and write popular fluff in which evil is evil, good is good, and there's no need to think or question anything. The heroine shall be pretty and just clever enough to be modern but still useless, the hero shall be chivalrous with a hint of a dark past for doki doki titillation, and the villainess shall be so outrageously sexy and ruthless that everyone can hate her happily, and no one could possibly be made uncomfortable by the recognition of their own flaws in her.

But if I did that just for money and accolades, I might as well go a mile down the road to the "Gentleman's Club" and dance in a sparkly bikini. Though I'm pretty sure that wasn't one of the options on my suggested careers list.


Anonymous (April 1, 2012, 10:35 pm)

whether "artist", "scientist" or "negative capability", it's wise to avoid burnout.

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What is the first letter of "Oregon"?