Personality Prostheses

Notes of TEDxNeathPortTalbot talk on 24th Nov 2018

Do you find yourself saying, “if only … “?

“If only I was more tidy.”

“If only I was more organised.”

“If only I was better at time management.”

Sometimes this can be an excuse, letting yourself off the hook, because you are just not that ‘kind of person’.

However, more often the tone is self-accusatory or self-condemnation — we treat our personalities as a sign of moral failure.

Don’t worry; it’s not just you!

Alan at TEDxNeathPortTalbot, photo Mission Photographic (2018)

Some years ago colleagues and I were doing research on people’s desktops; both physical desktops with papers on and digital desktops with icons and files spread out. This is a fascinating area: you see the most apparently chaotic desktop, with piles of papers everywhere and yet the person can reach into a pile and find precisely the document they are after.

We interviewed many people about their desktop use, and we tried to ensure that the interviewees understood that this was open-ended research. Yet the first thing everyone said as the interview was about to start was to apologise for the state of their desktop: physical and virtual.

We use moral language for aspects of our personality.

Moral language for something that is hard to change; not only condemning ourselves, but giving a sense of the inevitable that freezes us from potential action.

Photo Matthias Sebulke (2005), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schreibtisch.2.JPG

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Let’s cut to an easier topic.

Over the summer my wife and I were emptying our house on Tiree, one of the Hebridean Islands, as we moved down to my new job in Swansea. We moved a ton of books — and by this I mean literally a ton — we weighed them. And, together with the books, nearly a ton of book shelving as well.

After shifting box after box of books, you sometimes get to that point where you think you cannot lift another box.

So what did wedo? Take a course at the gym and then when we were fitter and stronger get back to book-box moving? Of course not, the boxes needed to be moved. If a box was just too heavy we might decant it into smaller boxes, or lift boxes between us. However, we also had a sack barrow and would use that.

Similarly if there is a rock in the garden that is hard to shift, I might use a wrecking bar to lever it out. If I want to dig a hole I might hire one of those mini-diggers (I wish, one day …).

These are physical prostheses, things that allow you to achieve what you want given who you are physically.

Photo: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0, 2013), https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecogh/8545279556

Maybe you bought something online on Black Friday. It can be hard weighing up the various offers: 20% off one item, maybe a discount if you buy two things together that are each individually cheaper elsewhere. Which is the best offer? Sometimes it gets too much for your mental arithmetic to manage.

What do you do?

Do you sign up for night classes to improve your mathematics?

Of course not, by the time you have done this Black Friday is over and you missed all the bargains!

Instead you grab a calculator or type the figures into a spreadsheet.

Similarly, even if you can do Black Friday sums, do you recall all of your contacts telephone numbers? No, you will use an address book or simply trust your phone to remember.

These are cognitive prostheses: things that allow you to achieve what you want given your mental and cognitive capacity and skills.

Photo: Pexels (CC0), https://www.pexels.com/photo/money-calculator-cents-coins-34502/

In each case you might, of course, increase your exercise, start workouts at the gym, sign up for the maths evening classes, or memorise a few critical emergency numbers. You might even say, “if only I was fitter”. However, you do not wait until you have changed, but use tools and aids to help you get on with the things you need to do now.

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We are pragmatic when it comes to our physical and cognitive capabilities, but when we come to issues of personality we immediately fall into moral language.

I learnt this lesson at an early age. I was seven years old in the first year of Roath Park Junior School in Cardiff.

One afternoon the teacher had written a paragraph of text on the blackboard. We were asked to copy this into our books … thinking back — copying — what possible educational reason is there for copying text from a blackboard? Anyway, this is what we had to do. We got to the end of the allotted time and she asked if anyone hadn’t finished. I was a very slow writer, and so my hand went up. “I’ll leave it on the board”, she said, “finish it off in any spare time”.

So, during the next day, in every spare moment, I kept copying, until it came to the following afternoon and she wanted to clear the board to write more. But I still hadn’t finished. She came over to look in my book. Not only was I still only three quarters of the way through, but my page was a mess. My normal poor handwriting was made worse because we were using nib-pens and the pressure of my hand had bent the nib so that the pages were covered with ink blots near obliterating my spidery writing.

She dragged me, and I use the phrase with care, to the head’s room to be chastised. For what? For not being able to write tidily. Because, of course, anyone can be tidy, to fail to do so is to be a bad child, a moral failure.

Roath Park School. Photo: Alan Dix (2004)

We fall so easily into language that paints facets of our personality as signs of moral turpitude.

And yet our personality is largely fixed: impossible or, at very least, slow to change. We may be able to change habits, but even that is slow. If we wait for our personality to change before we do things, we will wait a long time.

… and anyway, do you want to change who you are?

Personality is the raw material with which we live our lives.

If you are a religious person, then I’ll rephrase that for you — personality is the God-given raw material with which we live our lives … let that sink in

Never apologise for who you are.

Apologise for what you do, but never apologise for who you are.

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The first step is to accept who you are.

Note I am not saying natural is right. There are negative things: impulses that need to be curbed, biases that need to be challenged, desires that need to be channelled to make them positive.

Our personalities are the raw material, not the finished product!

They are the things on which we build.

Imagine an episode of “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”. Rain is coming and so the team have been given branches and leaves from the jungle with which to construct a shelter.

Now I’m sure some of them would moan and say, “if only we had canvas and tent poles”, or, “if only we had corrugated iron to make a roof”. However, they would not stop there and simply stand holding wooden poles while the rain fell. Instead they would get to work and construct the most effective shelter they could given the materials to hand.

Never apologise for who you are.

Apologise for what you do with who you are.

Alan Walks Wales, near Forden, 7th May 2013, http://alanwalks.wales/2013/05/07/day-20-fordon-to-porth-y-waen/

So, how do we build using the personality characteristics we have?

Physical and cognitive prostheses allow us to achieve things given who we are, with all our physical and cognitive capabilities and linitations.

In a similar way, we can surround ourselves with structures and aids, props and processes, tools and techniques that help us build upon our personality: things that enable you to achieve what you want to given who you arepersonality prostheses.

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The danger of being an academic is that you too easily reach for abstract and theoretical explanations and solutions. This sounds OK in theory, but what about in practice?

Let’s see some examples.

I have a colleague who, every time we meet, talks through a numbered list of topics, questions or requests. He seems almost obsessively organised, not uncommon amongst computer scientists. In fact, he explained to me, people assume he is very organised both because of his numbered lists and because he is German, whereas, in reality, the opposite is true. Intrinsically, he is a very disorganised person, but precisely because of that, he creates lists and processes that help him to cope.

That is the lists allow him to achieve what he wants to achieve given who he is — personality prostheses.

Some years ago I walked all around Wales: over a thousand miles, starting in Cardiff, walking east through Newport to Chepstow, then up the Welsh-English border, and around the coast until I got back to Cardiff on my birthday.

One of the goals of the walk was to talk to people on the way. Now, I can talk the hind leg off a donkey; indeed it is hard to stop me once I start. Put me behind a lectern or on a stage and I can talk to hundreds of students or conference delegates, at a TEDx event — I am in my element. However, put me in a party, at lunch breaks in a conference, or a pub in mid-Wales and I am lost. I can talk incessantly, but walking up to someone to start a conversation, no way.

Partly because of this I had a vinyl banner printed that I wore strapped to the back of my rucksack. It said, “Alan Walks Wales — one thousand miles of poetry, technology and community”.

Alan Walks Wales, setting off from Cardiff, 18th April 2013, Photo: Fiona Dix, http://alanwalks.wales/2013/04/18/day-1-cardiff-to-newport/

My second night was spent at Aust services on the English bank of the River Severn. This was for personal reasons recalling my first trip across the (then new, now old) Severn Bridge as a child. The evening before I’d walked the two mile crossing in the fading light, an experience that was one of the high spots of the whole walk. Now, the morning after, I was walking back across, east to west, on the footway beside the main carriageway. A cyclist passed me and shouted, “hi Alan”, as he passed. For a moment I was taken aback, did I know him? I then realised, he had simply read the banner on my back.

Wherever I went it was on my back; if I stopped at a bench, café or pub bar, I always put the rucksack so that the banner was visible. People came up to me and started conversations.

The banner was a prop that enabled me to achieve things, to have the conversations I needed to fulfil my walk goals, given who I ampersonality prosthesis.

Alan Walks Wales, view from old Severn Crossing, 19th April 2013, http://alanwalks.wales/2013/04/19/day-2-nash-to-severn-bridge/

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We need to accept who we are, but also to work from this, not limited by the ‘kind of person’ you are.

When I was walking people kept talking to me as if I were the ‘kind of person who does things’. This felt strange. I know people like that, the ‘kind of person who does things’. Some are entrepreneurs, or set off round the world with 30p in their pocket, or start neighbourhood recycling schemes. But that was not how I saw myself.

They were right — I was doing something. Not earth shattering, but out of the ordinary. I didn’t feel like the ‘kind of person who does things’, but here I was doing something.

How did I achieve this? Well early on when I thought that doing the walk was something I’d like to do I started telling people about it. I created an external social responsibility to do it. I know myself well enough that if I want to do something myself it doesn’t happen, but if have a responsibility to someone else to do it, I get it done.

This is personality prosthesis again. Here it is a social rather than a physical prop, but the result is the same. By understanding my own personality, achieving what I wanted to given who I am

When we are labelled, or when we label ourselves the ‘kind of person’ the shutters come down. When we see ourselves as raw material with which to build, we can break free of the shackles of the ‘kind of person’.

There are, of course, limits. I am in my fifties, somewhat overweight, and spend my life sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car. I will never be an Olympic sprinter. However, I have walked a thousand miles round Wales, and three times run the thirty-five mile Tiree Ultra Marathon. There are limits, but boy can you achieve more then you ever thought possible.

Alan finishes Tiree Ultramarathon, Photo: Fiona Dix (2017)

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Even though I know all this, it can still be hard to do these things oneself. The habits die hard! I am still working on not starting every email with the word ‘sorry’! But at least now I notice and I am making progress.

I often find it easier to help others with this, both individually, but also creating more generic tools for personality prosthesis.

One area is in creativity, especially technical creativity — and this is certainly a topic where people feel they are not the ‘kind of person’ who is creative!

Mostly I work with computer scientists and engineers, often people you associate with straight-line thinking. For them I ask them to think of ‘bad ideas’. No matter how often people say during a brainstorming session “it is non-judgemental’, we never believe it and so stick to small variants of things we know already work. However, once asked to have a ‘bad idea’ or a ‘silly idea’, even the most straight-laced becomes expansive thinking, not just outside the box, but almost using the cardboard packaging to make wings.

For those who naturally think of lots of ideas, but find it harder to focus, I have prompt questions that help them take their wild ideas and use them to explore the area and transform them into concepts that are out-of-the-ordinary and yet practical.

In fact each type of person benefits from both techniques, but especially from the ones that complement (not curb) their natural tendencies.

Again these are personality prostheses: helping them to achieve things creatively, given who they are.

And wow, they achieve amazing things, having new ideas for topics they have struggled with previously, finding creativity when they thought they had none.

Bad Ideas? a chocolate teapot. Photo: Stanley Meanswell (CC BY 2.0, 2008), https://www.flickr.com/photos/revstan/3805288148

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Never apologise for who you are. Celebrate who you are.

We are each unique, with different skills and abilities, faults and weaknesses, quirks and oddities.

You are capable of amazing achievements not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are

Celebrate who you are, because you are so very, very special

Alan Walks Wales, arriving back at Cardiff, 28th July 2013, Photo: Andrew Morgam, http://alanwalks.wales/2013/07/28/day-102-penarth-to-cardiff/