The Tragedy of A-type Personalities

This is not going to go well. For those that don't already know, there is a very general classification system that divides people between A-type and B-type personalities.

Here is Wikipedia's definition of A-type personalities:

The theory describes a Type A individual as ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status conscious, can be sensitive, care for other people, are truthful, impatient, always try to help others, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, proactive, and obsessed with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving "workaholics" who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.

And here is the description for B-type personalities:

The theory describes Type B individuals as a contrast to those with Type A personalities. People with Type B personality by definition generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they are not achieved. When faced with competition, they do not mind losing and either enjoy the game or back down. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective, thinking about the outer and inner worlds. Furthermore, Type B personalities may have a poor sense of time schedule and can be predominately right brained thinkers.

For now, let's leave aside all of the problems with assigning people into one of two broad categories and simply work within this model.

In my field of work, I interact and coach with people of both sides of the coin.  Lately, I have noticed something significant about A-type personalities: they are suffering, and doing so invisibly.

Here is the problem: A-type personalities are driven towards a strong and consistent work ethic.  They are people that are more likely to attack something perceived as a problem, rather than suffer through it.

When I perceived a problem in my career as a software project manager, I was unwilling to sit with it.  Like the  stereotypical A-type personality, I attacked.  I attacked the situation I was in, and I went out and started doing.  I started studying for the LSAT and immediately began applying to law schools.

It turns out, there's a lot of A-type personalities that end up in careers like Law.  There is a huge amount of work, it requires a great deal of time and energy, and it's stressful.

A-type personalities are used to stress.  In fact, you could say that they "excel" in it.  By excel I don't mean that they enjoy it (despite what some may report) - I mean that they produce results when under stress.  B-type personalities are more inclined to shut down and withdraw in times of pressure and stress.  A-type personalities are more inclined to knuckle down and work even harder.

Here's the thing.  Both of these ways of dealing with stress are counter-productive and detrimental to the people employing them.  The difference is that the way a stereotypical B-type personality is likely to deal with the problem is more likely to be seen.  When our friends are sitting around and not achieving much, we are aware - we have concern for them.  You can't get by without a job.  You can't get a job without taking action.  When someone is in this place, it is easier to notice when they may need support.

Let's contrast this with the way an A-type personality works when under pressure: attacking.  When the stress is piled on, instead of ensuring that they have enough time for themselves and are sourcing themselves before anything else, A-types are more inclined to attack the work and complete even more of it.

Through the lens of society, when B-type personalities are struggling it looks like failure.  They are not generating the necessary results, they are not making enough money to survive, they are not present at work, etc.  By contrast, A-type personalities appear to be thriving when they are struggling.  They are making income (often more than they might otherwise be, given all of the hours they are working), they are producing results at work, and they are reliable to do so.

And in this lies the tragedy.  While A-type personalities should be happy, based on society's checklist of success, they're actually miserable.  This leads to things like drinking problems, continually escalating spending (retail therapy) and relationship and personal breakdowns, all of which are disguised by the veneer of success.

This way of looking at success and thriving is so ingrained in our culture that it is often invisible to A-types themselves.  "I don't need support, I'm killing it at work!".  "Why would I need support?  I'm making tons of money and I go on vacation three times a year".

The final piece of the puzzle is that, because of how we've learned to view success in our society (and because most of us have developed a scarcity-based mindset of jealousy towards those that have achieved "success"), we generally have little, if any, sympathy and compassion for these people.  Remember, A-types are prone to attacking.  In those moments when they would most benefit from support and love, their inherent tendency leads to them lashing out and mistreating those around them.  In doing so, they push away the very support and connection they would most benefit from.

As you can imagine, simply identifying and gaining awareness of this cycle, let alone actually getting out of it, is a significant challenge.

So, where do you start?  How do you begin resolving this cycle?  Awareness.  Check in with yourself.  See what you notice.  For me, and likely many A-types, I wasn't even able to see it until it was reflected to me by my coach - so give that a try.  Do a complimentary session with a coach (me, or any other), and see what is reflected.

Until next week.