Your Personality is Temporally Mismatched

Why does it sometimes feel so hard to pay your dues? We all know you can’t start your career out as the leader of a big organization. You have to build up some credibility and experience, then you might get to make the decisions that really matter.

So you start off doing lower-level, routine work. This might feel tedious at times, but it feels tedious to everyone, and someone has to do it, right?

Well, not exactly. How amenable someone is to routine and dutiful work is actually a component of a well-validated and measurable personality trait: conscientiousness.[1]

That this sort of behavior is temperamental might not be surprising, we likely all know someone who’s just always been reliable, punctual, organized, and dutiful.

What you may not realize though, is that this trait trends up as you age. You may have experienced this yourself, by slowly learning to value and cultivate the boring habits that make you effective.

What this means is that an older version of you is actually likely better suited for routine work than you are now. But is that just because you’ve just gotten “better” overall? Are you just better at everything with age and experience?

Openness to Experience

Conscientiousness isn’t the only thing that changes as you get older, trait Openness to Experience does too. To some extent the stereotype is true unfortunately, people do on average become less Open with age.

However, it’s a double-edged sword:

It was found that Openness to Experience showed a positive relationship with performance in high-complexity jobs and a negative relationship with performance in low-complexity jobs. (Mohan & Mulla, 2013)

So in regards to these traits at least,[2] you’re likely to be comparatively worse at early-career-type work when you’re young, and worse at late-career-type work when you’re old!

Trait Levelling

What can be done about this mismatch? A few possibilities:

When you’re younger:

  1. Automate or delegate routine tasks by learning scripting, how to use GPT, and how to hire and manage low-cost freelancers.
  2. Arrange routine tasks so they won’t bottleneck your productivity. For example, do them right after you’ve had some coffee when you’re best able to accept the tedium.

When you’re older:

  1. Hang onto interesting ideas from when you were younger. You’re less likely to either generate or respond to new ideas now, but because of the IKEA effect, you disproportionately value your own ideas. Ideas that you came up with when you were younger you might end up implementing when you’re older.[3]
  2. Recognize this likely change and use an "Openness Brain Trust" to try to mitigate it.
  3. Hang on to your Openness: It's is correlated with general cognitive ability, which we don’t know how to increase, but do know how to preserve. The usual prescriptions abound (diet, exercise, mental activity etc.) but a lesser-known intervention: protect your hearing.
  4. Increase Openness? I’ve seen studies that claim to do this via brain training or psychedelics, but my understanding is that the findings don’t replicate. (Anecdotally, I think psychedelics do often increase Openness, often a bit too well.)

  1. Here my co-author remarks on his own lack of this trait. ↩︎

  2. However other personality changes like higher extraversion when you’re younger and lower neuroticism when you’re older might be appropriately time-matched. ↩︎

  3. This is what I did this with this project. ↩︎

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