Can Low trait Conscientiousness people be effective?

“You’re smart and high in openness, but low in conscientiousness,” Jordan said, “really low. In the study we ran at a startup incubator no one below 30th percentile Conscientiousness had run a successful business. You’re 3rd percentile. So that’s going to be something for you to overcome.”

We were both visiting my uncle in California at the time. Our dinner table conversations had turned to mythology then personality type. He had suggested I take his test. I had and these were the results. The results hit pretty hard. Especially as an entrepreneur. And it was surprising, too. I keep my house fairly neat, keep a calendar and if there are dishes in the sink I usually wash them, even if they aren’t mine. I wasn’t really sure what to do with that information. Or if it was correct. Of course when I talked to my mom about the Big 5 test results she thought surely that can’t be right. And Jordan didn’t give me any ideas about how to deal with low Conscientiousness.

For a bit of background, Conscientiousness is one of the 5 personality dimensions of the state of the art personality test, Big 5. You may have heard of Myers-Briggs — well, this is more accurate than that. As far as cognitive ability goes, IQ is supposed to be the best predictor of lifetime success and Conscientiousness is the second best predictor. Naturally, I was worried about what low Conscientiousness meant for me and my life.

An increase in 1 standard deviation of Conscientiousness raises lifetime earnings for men about $750,000. And that looks pretty bad for me ;-) Women aren’t as impacted.

So I looked around online to see how other people low in Conscientiousness navigated the world. How can low Conscientiousness people still be effective in life? What are the benefits of being low in Conscientiousness? There must be some benefits otherwise we would be weeded out of the gene pool. Can I increase my Conscientiousness over time if I set my mind to it?

Unfortunately, I found next to nothing, except these reddit threads:

These were actually pretty useful, if incomplete. Maybe people low in Conscientiousness don’t publish very much. That would make a lot of sense ;-) A lot of the advice on the Reddit threads is to come up with structure for your life and daily habits. I did that for about 6 months, but by the end I felt like it was killing my soul. It’s just not me to have a structure for more than two weeks. It’s not who I am. I do like Checklists and To Do lists, but not routine.

Conscientiousness highly correlated with Income and Job Satisfaction, at a high confidence interval.

So I’m writing this to start a conversation, share what I’ve learned and maybe you will share what you have learned. Treat this as a draft of a draft. Maybe something good will come of it.

My full Big 5 Personality Type is High in Openness to Experience, Very Low in Conscientiousness, Above average in Extraversion, Below Average in Agreeableness, and Below Average in Neuroticism. You can take the big 5 personality test on Jordan’s site Understand Myself.

I write this from a lake in Honduras where I have stopped to share these thoughts. I’m on a motorcycle trip from San Francisco to Colombia. I co-run a few Airbnbs in Utila, Honduras to pay for our lifestyle. That was an accident. We went to Utila for 5 days and got side-tracked for 6 months. I’m pretty happy and much happier than when I worked in San Francisco in an office or when I had 20 employees in Nairobi, Kenya. Eventually, the San Francisco job sent me as a traveling salesman in Asia, which I really liked. Nowadays I work 60 hours a week, but I can work as little as 4.

View from where I am writing this.

For some period of my motorcycle trip I felt depressed. This seemed to happen for two reasons: When I didn’t have any fulfilling work to do and when the work I had to do gave me too much responsibility. I wonder how other people with low Conscientiousness find meaning and deal with depression.

Here are some of the strategies I use. Perhaps these are to combat my low Conscientiousness. I’ll let you be the judge…

I try to be minimalist. Minimize things, minimize rules, even minimize friends, to some extent. Minimize employees, minimize responsibilities (running a business with employees who depended on me to feed their families was really hard for me. I didn’t want that kind of responsibility.) To minimize things I’ve tried to get rid of as many things as possible, giving away clothing I haven’t worn. If I won’t use it in the next 6 months and I haven’t used it in the last 6 months that’s a good reason to get rid of it. Right now just about everything I own fits on my motorcycle (in one backpack, two saddlebags and the sissy bar for sleeping bag and tent).The way I can fit all my clothes in very little space is by having very few clothes and living in a warm climate. I have wool underwear, socks and shirt, which can be worn 3+ times between washing so I only need two pairs of boxers. That’s not TMI, right? 😉

Everything important to be me fits on a motorcycle.

Despite having so few things I still manage to lose a lot of things. So far I’ve lost two pairs of glasses, sleeping bag, tent, chargers, bracelet, import documents, a key (I brought a second key ’cause I knew I was going to lose one:-).

My wallet is just a broccoli rubber band wrapped around my credit cards and my money folded in half, Dollars on one side of the credit cards, Honduran Lempiras on the other side. For Christmas, my girlfriend got me a new wallet — a fresh broccoli band!

I’ve become religious about making to-do lists to the occasional frustration of others in my life. If it’s not on the list I tend not to do it. I keep it in Evernote and pay for that subscription. Other than that I try to cancel all other subscriptions and emails I get in my inbox. I have about 5 minutes of patience to go through my email each day so I make sure to get rid of the spam and subscriptions to articles I’ll never read. Keeping a calendar with a push notification 10 minutes before an event has kept me from missing as many meetings as before. Other than messages and calendar, I turn off all notifications because I hate being interrupted, by my phone or by people.

I’ve run a few businesses and I like autonomy in the few jobs I’ve had. I don’t like arbitrary rules, especially when they get in the way of (what I believe) would make me more effective. Maybe that’s immaturity or maybe that’s just being low in Conscientiousness. Or maybe it’s common sense, and everyone else is crazy following arbitrary rules.

I thought a bit about what advantages having low Conscientiousness might have. When I travel I rarely have plans of where to sleep more than 24 hours in advance. Sometimes I don’t even have the right information about what tourist Visa I’ll need in advance when I arrive in a new place. It always works out, though. Even in countries where I don’t speak the language. Like tonight I just found out that a friend of a friend who owns a bar in the next town can host me. Great! I don’t know where I’m going tomorrow. Maybe I’ll stay with the friend of a friend for another night if we hit it off. Making plans for tomorrow seems like such a waste when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

How might low Conscientiousness be an advantage?

When I was in Silicon Valley and thought about starting a company I saw everyone was more committed than I was to doing the company thing. I didn’t think I had any advantages. But when I talked with people about my background, running businesses in rural Africa, people where shocked. “Weren’t you worried? That’s crazy.” And I realized that I had something other people don’t have. The kind of uncertainty that comes with traveling and living in a developing country is something I enjoy whereas many people fear it. They need to have a plan 6 months in advance. I have a 6 month and longer plan, but exactly what I do is not planned out, just my guiding principles. For example, right now I want to start more Airbnbs in the hidden gem towns of Latin America and I want to go to Colombia. Pretty vague but actionable, to me at least.

I don’t see rules — or right and wrong — the way many other people seem to. I don’t see any political party as better than another, much to the annoyance of Facebook friends who generally agree that “Republicans are bad.” I don’t agree with much of conservative policies, but I can see why being patriotic, defending our borders, protecting the family unit and being god-fearing has made the country successful. (As a side note, being low in Conscientiousness and high in Openness makes me predisposed to being Liberal so I was genetically predisposed to being left leaning, while some people are predisposed to being right leaning.)

Conscientiousness and political attitudes are heritable. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Another advantage I have is that I don’t have all my eggs in one basket. Being low in Conscientiousness is an insurance policy, hear me out. For example, if the US system came crashing down, people who spent their whole lives being lawyers would be out of a job and their training might not make them suitable for extant jobs post-crash. School teachers the same. Truck drivers too in a world where all trucks are autonomous. But for me, no matter what situation, I think I’ll do okay, between my experience with sales, management, farming, fixing cars, fixing houses, payment collection, living without structure. So my hypothesis, correct if I’m wrong, is that low Conscientiousness people were selected for by evolution in times of Chaos because they can adapt to any situation. Personality type is quite heritable (42% of Conscientiousness is explained by genetic factors).

Lack of follow through on any one particular thing makes us Jacks of all trades. I have lots of unfinished projects. Sometimes I force myself to finish them. But usually I don’t. There is probably a good reason why I don’t finish them. I used to have a goal of being rich, but I have since realized wealth in and of itself is empty. I’m smart enough and educated enough to probably have enough for what I need in life. And I have found that things I stop working on I’ll pick up again when the time is ripe.

Still to this day I’m not sure if being low in Conscientiousness is real or a fad in the field of psychology. And if I am at a disadvantage. And if I am, as a low Conscientiousness person, I’m not sure how to be successful in the world. I wonder if I had not become aware of my low Conscientiousness score would I be better off? Is there a placebo effect of knowing your personality type like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I can tell is that I do have certain advantages in my adaptability both in lifestyle and in ethical values. And I try not to be someone I’m not. I really admire Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but that’s not me. I like to sell airbnb rooms a few hours a week and meet interesting people who also like to travel.

But I’d like to start a discussion and hear what you learned. Are you low in Conscientiousness? Has it been an issue for you? What have you done to be successful despite Conscientiousness being a major predictor of lifetime success?

PS. I’m getting lots of comments from people who say they feel similarly--they test low in conscientiousness but are pretty good at life. Out of curiosity, how do you test on Myers Briggs test (MBTI)? I’ve always been between a P and a J. How about you?

To see what other outcomes Conscientiousness predicts, check out the wikipedia article which is quite informative.