Embrace quirks when working with others

Pygmalion

For me, learning to work with people was a two-step process:

  1. Realize that other people are different from me. And I don’t just mean that other people just act differently. I mean they are completely different with different motivations.
  2. Realize that this is actually a good thing.

It seems to me that Derek Sivers has learned the first lesson, but I’m not sure that he’s learned the second. When we realize the first lesson, most of us try to avoid the issue. If people are different, the goal must be to suppress those differences. Unfortunately, people just don’t work that way. David Keirsey would describe this as a Pygmalion Project.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Roman Mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who could not find the perfect woman. Solution? He sculpted one. Venus was touched by this story, so she turned the statue into a real woman.

This is a cute story, but it parallels reality more than we realize. Like Pygmalion, when we encounter someone who’s different our first instinct is to shape them into something that’s the same. Keirsey talks about this as the downfall of many relationships: we go to great lengths to find somebody who is different from us, but then we try to make them into ourselves. Of course Derek shows that one can have a Pygmalion project on themself. If we view ourselves as abnormal, the solution is to be more normal.

This tends to have the effect of lowering one’s self esteem. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself be something you’re not. If you try to suppress your quirks, you will either fail or become a mediocre version of what you perceive as “normal”.

I would argue that not only is it not feasible change peoples’ personalities, it’s not preferable. Your quirks are what make you unique, and they are the reason your coworkers need you. Quirks are different ways of looking at things. Rather than suppress them, learn to appreciate them. Most importantly, become proud of your quirks. Other people may not understand them, and that’s the point.

The only time quirks become problematic is when you turn them into Pygmalion projects. If you expect others to share your quirks, you will quickly run out of friends. However, when you learn to appreciate quirks in yourself and others, you become a better person. You begin to appreciate peoples’ strengths and weaknesses. If you pay attention, you might even discover that the person you thought was incompetent is really just different from you.

The moral of this story: Embrace quirks, but don’t enforce them.