Brian Little on the TED stage

I am an introvert. I don’t make waves. Except, sometimes I do and I then watch in surprise and confusion as the world around me suddenly accepts my lead.

Here’s an example.

Years ago while living in Asia, I was going through a stressful time. I was going to start a new job in a managerial position (a first for me), so naturally I was anxious to get back to the city after a weekend away with friends. We were sitting on the bus that would take us back to Taipei, when an official looking man approached us and told us to get off the bus.

I lost it. We were in a small village high in the mountains and there was no way to know when, if at all, another bus would come along in time for us to catch it. Normally I would concede that an individual should stand back for the majority. I stared defiantly at the people waiting to board the bus, and proceeded to let the man know in no uncertain terms that we would not get off the bus.

Eventually, the bus departed with about six of us on board and around 40 people watching as it left. This introvert’s heart was pounding in utter disbelief. What happened?

Noted Cambridge personality psychologist Brian R. Little explains that we sometimes employ what he calls free traits when we need to get a personal project done, in this case my needing to get back to Taipei in time.

Little explains that in the first place we think of our personality in terms of personality attributes that we have: our openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeability and neuroticism (what he calls the Big Five personality traits).

The second is in terms of what we do — our personal projects.

We have personality traits and it’s important to know what they are, but we are more than a bunch of traits. There is something else that makes each of us who we are.

“I’m uncomfortable putting people in pigeonholes. I don’t even think pigeons belong in pigeonholes,” he tells his audience during his hugely entertaining TED Talk that has been viewed more than 4 million times (see below).

“So what is it that makes us different? It’s the doings that we have in our life — the personal projects. You have a personal project right now, but nobody may know it here. It relates to your kid — you’ve been back three times to the hospital, and they still don’t know what’s wrong. Or it could be your mom. And you’d been acting out of character. These are free traits. You’re very agreeable, but you act disagreeably in order to break down those barriers of administrative torpor in the hospital, to get something for your mom or your child.”

I acted out of character on that day. I put an official in his place who thought he could bully a foreigner into giving up her seat so he wouldn’t lose face for overbooking the bus. But on that fateful day, I couldn’t afford to be my normal agreeable self.

And now, thanks to Brian Little, I am no longer puzzled by my behavior that day.