In the earlier post on Openness to Experience, I extolled the virtues of why we’d want to be open – how it can benefit us as individuals as well as our society. We looked at the Enlightenment for inspiration to see how openness to new thought and ideas changed the Western world.
We talked about how Openness to Experience means being curious about new experiences, new ways of thinking, open to the diversity around us and perhaps have a high level of interpersonal tolerance.
After releasing that post, I went to a Faculty meeting, and Darryl from Finance took me to task for romanticizing human potential and for misleading readers into thinking that all will be bliss if we simply choose to develop this personality trait. He pointed out the political craziness happening in the world today and wanted to know why I wasn’t focusing on fighting that in the blog?
First, let me just say that Darryl in Finance is an ass. I’ve always thought so, and it’s pure joy to be able to say it. Did he put his hand up to write this blog when the President of the School decided to take us online and reveal us to the public? No – he didn’t. Did he spend hours in the library searching through the best minds in history trying to figure out where to start? No. He. Did. Not. So, since I wield the pen…or the keyboard, I get to steer the direction of this blog.
And, you know what? There are two essential lessons I’ve learned through analyzing the best of what humanity has to offer. The first is that we need inspiration – something to work toward. We need to have our minds fixed on that point up ahead, knowing that we’re always better off moving toward it rather than staying stagnant.
The second thing I’ve learned is that if we want to talk about things that matter – and be effective doing it – we need to be the ones controlling the discourse. This just means that we need to be the ones deciding the parameters of the conversation rather than simply reacting to what’s happening around us – otherwise we’ll be consumed by the craziness. We can’t let the craziness dictate what we’re talking and thinking about.
This is why in the midst of some of the most difficult times in history, people point toward our goals and aspirations.
When Martin Luther King was living a nightmare, he spoke about the dream he wanted to create.
Living in house arrest for years, Aung San Suu Kyi talked about the only real prison being the prison of fear.
They both still worked toward changing the reality they saw around them, but they dictated the discourse – they focused our minds on what they wanted us thinking and talking about. Lofty examples for sure, but they prove a point.
Once we have that – once we have inspiration and some control over deciding what’s important – what matters – then we might be more willing to endure things that aren’t easy.
I come from a generation who wanted easy and I see the same in the generation that has followed. I think many of us are coming to realize that easy does not mean better. It just leads to…well… an avoidance of difficult, I guess. Sometimes this really just means a lower set of standards. Sometimes, difficult now means easier later. Sometimes, easy now means a price will be paid later. Life can be kind of a kick in the pants that way. All I’m saying is that maybe if we looked at and pursued what has meaning, rather than what’s easy, we might actually discover The Good.
Of course becoming more open to experience isn’t always a simple task and it won’t miraculously make our lives easier (yes, I’m talking to you Darryl). But it will make it richer. And it will be a recognition that we are complex, life is complex, and that there’s often wonder and satisfaction in discovering what life has to offer.
So today, we’re going to take a more nuanced look at the difficulties we might face when becoming more open and why it’s still not only a good thing to do, but is an essential part of our nature.
Let’s start with the essential to our nature part of the discussion, because it’s kind of exciting.
In 2014, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported on a study that provided cognitive training to older adults. This study showed that with just 10 sessions designed to improve reasoning ability and speed of processing for the brain, there were dramatic results. With a few added sessions over three years, the effect of the training lasted for up to 10 years. Now that is awesome. As someone who stockpiles post it notes due to my remarkably bad memory, this is really good news. But, while this is exciting, the more exciting part for our discussion is still to come.
What has been discovered is that training the brain to function better has another unexpected result. It also creates individuals with higher levels of Openness to Experience. How fascinating is that?
As we get older, being closed to experience can mean that we don’t explore the world and that we become more isolated. These have dire consequences for the elderly. An Openness to Experience, however, leads to greater well-being and a higher quality of life. Kind of sounds like we’re meant to develop it, no?
But, what is even more interesting is that it was long believed that our fundamental personality traits don’t change once we’re adults. Basically, it was thought that once we’re baked, we’re done. This study shows that thinking this way is wrong, and that human beings are capable of change at a fundamental level, no matter how old we are. The adults in the study mentioned above were, on average, 73.6 years old.
The above study states that, “openness – being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits … requires cognitive function.” That’s why we can change this part of ourselves. Because we can change our brain, we can alter how open we become.
Doesn’t it logically follow that we not only want, but need to exercise our brain? If a natural outcome of developing our brain is Openness to Experience, wouldn’t you say that being open is the logical end of this equation to being human?
So, Openness, is like the result of eating your veggies. Veggies make us healthier and, therefore, adds to the quality of our lives. Cognitive development leads to openness and, therefore, adds to the quality of our lives.
So, what’s the downside? When you become more open, your brain deals better with complexity. According to some, if we are high on the spectrum of openness, we will likely prefer an unstructured work environment, value autonomy, and thrive with challenge. However, while this sounds great, it’s only a good thing if you have a job that allows for it.
If you have a repetitive job that doesn’t involve a lot of independent thought, being Open might make you a wee bit cranky and weirdly less effective at work. As the study says, it benefits people “who are engaged in jobs that are more complex and entail a high level of independence, autonomy, and creative thinking. Furthermore, high openness may act as a deterrent in jobs that contain mechanical tasks with little independent thinking.”
So, there’s the rub. It could be that if you are high on openness and work in a job that is structured and requires little independent thought – you might become quite dissatisfied. Like most things in life, it’s complex. Whether this happens or not depends on the mix of other personality traits you possess.
So, it might be that becoming more open is kind of like taking the red pill. You take it and you become unhappy with the reality you discover. Maybe you’ll need to work to change that reality so it suits you better.
But, it might also mean great things for your work life, depending on where you work. As this study suggests, people high in Openness are likelier to “initiate new ideas, and have a creative bend of mind.” I know which one I prefer and I know what is likely to add to our lives and make for a better society.
Another positive and/or negative to Openness is that if we possess high levels of openness, we are “capable of feeling deeper and more diverse emotions than a normal human being.” That might sound good, but it really might not always be fun. It could often suck. I’ve had to swear off Russian novels because they seriously mess with my emotions. But, again, easier does not always mean better. Richer and deeper experiences change us, and change the world.
So, this conversation seems a bit heavy to me (that’s why I didn’t want to start with it – Smart-Ass Darryl from Finance), so we’ll be moving on to something a bit lighter next time. Let’s start talking about some of the simple and fun things we can do to become more open to have richer and more meaningful lives.
As we’ve said, being Open to Experience can change us as individuals, add to our lives, and help us to make the world a more accepting and diverse place.
Dare to be.