Arnold Kling has a followup post to his earlier speculation that Ayn Rand’s enduring appeal owes to her being a kind of “ellaborate justification for low agreeableness,” about which I posted some thoughts. In it, he offers advice based on his own experience on how to get by as what I term an “anagreeable.” His sugggestions are useful, as are two of the ones currently posted in the comments. I’ll let you click through for Kling’s advice – it’s the two in the comments that interest me here.
The first is from someone awesomely named Joshua.
Once a decision is made, even if it’s not the one you would prefer, let it go and do your best to implement it (if that’s your job) or ignore it (if it’s not part of your job). One thing that people who are low on Agreeableness seem to have trouble with is dredging up old arguments and disagreements over and over again.
And how. I’m extremely bad about this. I find it very hard to go along with decisions I disagree with – and that cuts right to Kling’s point about Rand, actually. I’m certain that one of the reasons I like her books is that she offers me an escapist world where people are maximally allowed to make their own decisions. Everyone hates groupwork, right? But I’m the kid who makes it work. Which is to say, I’m the kid who would rather just do the whole damn project himself and let other people claim part of the credit than have to sit and discuss things in committee. Joshua’s hit on the main source of problems for anagreeables, I think, and this is very good advice. The first thing any of us should learn is how to move on once decisions are final. With regard to Kling’s point – this gets right to the heart of it. I guess it’s a chicken and egg problem to say whether anagreeables cause Libertarianism or the other way round, but the high instance of anagreeables among Libertarian ranks certainly accounts for our bullheadedness about matters of principle. Libertarians are worse than people of most other political backgrounds at compromising and working with what we have. It’s sad but true: in talking to a Libertarian about policy, you are more likely to get a lecture about where things went wrong historically than what we can do about them tomorrow. There’s definitely a lot of focus on going back to a point in time before some choice bad decision was made and undoing that decision.
The second is from someone who calls himself Horation (no one is ACTUALLY named Horatio, of course!). And his is twofold: learning to accept criticism and learning to praise others.
The first part is interesting to me because I’ve noticed in my own life that I can be quite good at accepting criticism – a champion actually – IFF I’ve been working at it. It really is like exercise. Do a little bit of exposing myself to criticism, and I rapidly get very very good at taking it unemotionally. But if I take a month or two off, it’s like I forget how to control my reactions, and even minor slights make me angry. And I think people around me know this – because I get this weird mixture of willingness to criticise but walking on eggshells when they do it – as if they’re never sure whether they’re dealing with Dr. Jekyll, who will be receptive and actually try to take their advice to heart, or Mr. Hyde, who’s just going to sulk for hours afterward. I can think of a couple of times in my life when I was particularly good at taking criticism. One was learning Swedish, and the other was learning Tai Chi. In both cases I had teachers with complex feelings about whether they wanted me to be learning the subject at all – in both cases because I was a foreigner. And so in both cases I took some pretty brutal criticism until something snapped, and I just decided that I didn’t want positive feedback from these people at all, and I was going to listen to what they said and practice in my spare time until I got it right, even according to the frankly ridiculous standards that were being set for me. I even got to enjoy it in a perverse way, in a “that which does not kill me…” way, as an opportunity to assert control over my emotions and make something positive out of a negative situation. And it worked! Not just at those tasks, but in general. But the effect eventually wore off in both cases too. Moral being – it really is something you have to work at constantly, or you lose it.
The second part is related to the first, I think. I’m very bad at giving praise. Just can’t quite bring myself to do it in most cases, even when I understand that it’s socially expected. And I think that’s because of the strategy that I adopt to dealing with my inability to take criticism. I guess the truth is that there are few, if any, people who enjoy taking criticism, and there are in general two strategies for dealing with this. You can either try to affect your environment, or try to remake yourself. People who heap excessive praise are generally following the first strategy. They’re hoping to make people like them, and hoping that their own readiness to praise will be reflected back at them, providing ballast for what bits of criticism they do have to take. They’re trying to set up a situation where praise is the norm – sugar to coat the eventual pill. These people are a problem for those of us who take the second strategy, because they use praise like a social currency. Our unwillingness to reciprocate gets magnified in their eyes, because they’ve gotten so good at giving praise that they’ve forgotten that it takes effort for the rest of us, especially when we’re asked to give praise that is less than perfectly sincere. For those of us taking the second strategy, since it’s very self-directed – something that we have to work at – I think we get worried about a free rider problem in praise. We’ve made an effort to actively shape our own perceptions of what people say to us, why can’t they? It’s a classic conflict, of course, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that people who adopt the second strategy are overrepresented amongst conservatives and libertarians, and people who adopt the first amongst socialists and liberals. We face the same problem – how to deal with criticism – and it really is the difference between “we all help each other (socialist)” (=”praising others is a moral imperative”) and “we all help ourselves (capitalist)” (=”learning to take a beating is a moral imperative”).
Anyway, fascinating discussion – as are all discussions that I can related to my own character, I admit it! – and I hope to hear some other useful bits of advice from other commenters as the day goes on.