Thinking Out Loud No. 29

Contextual conscientiousness, YouTube videos and optimistic art

Hello everyone!

It’s the ‘August bank holiday weekend’ here in the UK, which means that tomorrow (Monday) is a public holiday. It is therefore cloudy and cold, which makes this an ideal day to be inside writing newsletters and listening to some progressive trance.

Long weekends are a funny thing. They provide just a little more space from the normal working structures: one more day to rest and reconnect with a slightly slower pace of being. I believe this to be intensely valuable and really resonate with David Whyte when he says:

"The core difficulty at the heart of modern work life is its abstraction from many of the ancient cycles of life that allow the silence and time in which true appreciation and experience can take place. The hurried child becomes the pressured student, and finally the harassed manager." 

This week I have written a briefly on ‘contextual conscientiousness’ and how it has shifted my self-identity this week. I also talk briefly about my experience of learning to make videos for the Alexander Technique course, and there’s some futuristic art at the end!

Contextual conscientiousness

You’ve probably heard of the Big 5 personality model (aka ‘OCEAN’), which identifies five key dimensions along which our personalities vary. Rather than invent my own definitions, each of the following comes from Wikipedia.

  • Openness to experience. “Openness to experience is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things.”

  • Conscientiousness. “Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses.”

  • Extraversion. “Extraversion is characterized by breadth of activities (as opposed to depth), surgency from external activity/situations, and energy creation from external means. The trait is marked by pronounced engagement with the external world.”

  • Agreeableness. “The agreeableness trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others.”

  • Neuroticism. “Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression. It is sometimes called emotional instability, or is reversed and referred to as emotional stability.”

When taking tests for these traits, I tend to score extremely high in openness to experience (surprise!), moderately low in conscientiousness, moderately high in extraversion, slightly above neutral in agreeableness and moderately high in neuroticism. 

Let’s talk about that “moderately low in conscientiousness” — where does that come from?

Conscientiousness is a funny one, because it’s also seen as a virtue. Being low in conscientiousness makes you lazy, apathetic, disorganised and undisciplined, right? And these are bad things, particularly in the environments I’ve tended to inhabit — a global top 10 university and employers that can and do perform careful selection. 

With that, it’s important to bear in mind that personality tests like the Big 5 are based on self-reported judgements of our own behaviour. While I’m capable of observing myself dispassionately to some extent, removing my own distortions, or benchmarking to the entire population, is difficult — if not impossible. This means that the scores I get must necessarily be a combination of ‘how I perceive myself’ and ‘how I actually am’.

What this means is that if I see myself as less conscientious than my peers in the contexts I inhabit then I am likely to believe I am not conscientious at all, because I’m assessing myself only in those contexts and against an already highly conscientious cohort. And the truth is that in many contexts — particularly in the traditional work environment — I often struggle to be as conscientious as my peers. Couple this with my relatively high neuroticism and of course I’m going to evaluate myself harshly on the questions that assess my conscientiousness. 

I sit in stark contrast to a good friend of mine, who I have always regarded as highly conscientious. He goes to the office and can maintain focus for the full nine hours every day, churning out consistently high quality work very quickly. I, on the other hand, get easily distracted and suffer much more from Parkinson’s Law (that work will expand to fill the time available for it). On the surface I appear far less conscientious than he is.

But what happens if we change context? This friend told me that without the external structure of work he would sit around all day and do absolutely nothing, and this is largely how his evenings and weekends look. And why not? He is conscientious at work such that he can do that if he wants outside of it — and that’s what he wants.

This is the polar opposite of me, sat here writing issue No. 29 of a newsletter on a Sunday and about to launch an online course. I have always filled my evenings and weekends with side projects. If you were to remove the structure of work from my life I would very quickly fill the resulting void with structures of my own.

So which of us is conscientious? 

In my previous conception I would have said “he is, and I am not”. Now, though, I’m seeing that we both are — just in different ways. 

His conscientiousness is one that fits better with how society is currently structured: show up, deliver, and leave. My conscientiousness needs to be self-directed and becomes elusive as it becomes ‘non-optional’. 

As it turns out, it’s sensationally difficult to force me to do things I don’t innately want to do, and it always has been. This applies to both external forcing (others telling me) and internal forcing (me telling myself). But, when free to play, I don’t just sit around watching TV: suddenly I “display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations” — in other words, I am highly conscientious.

This may sound obvious, but it really is a major shift in my self-concept and one that, despite its apparent obviousness, I haven’t recognised before. Perhaps now that I have I will answer the Big 5 questions a little differently.

How about you? Do your Big 5 traits vary by context, and if so how? And I’d encourage you to consider this from a wider perspective than the one you default to — the change might surprise you.

Learning to make videos

I’m going to be including a lot of videos in my Alexander Technique course, and I harbour a quiet view that I might become a ‘YouTuber’ one day. So, of course, I’m learning to make videos in public.

My latest discovery is that the rear facing camera on my phone — coupled with an external microphone — actually produces high quality videos. It’s great that this is accessible without having to spend huge amounts of money on expensive additional gear.

That said, I do still need a better tripod…

(… and don’t forget to subscribe! as the YouTubers say.)

Media of the week

This week I came across some more ‘optimistic art’ on Twitter. 

I love pieces like this that show technological advancement within the wider context of thriving environmental systems.

I have a long-form essay in mind that brings together all my ‘positive future narratives are vital’ thoughts, but that will have to wait until after the course is launched.


Image by Adam Varga.

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