Personality, personal projects, place and well-being

By Elisabeth Goodman, 28th August 2019

Brian R. Little – Me Myself and Us. The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being

I have been enjoying Brian Little’s “Me , Myself and Us – The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being” over the summer.  It was recommended to me by one of my delegates (unfortunately I can’t remember who), and has proved very insightful.

Here are just some of the themes that particularly stood out for me.

Our personalities are shaped by three influences

Professor Brian Little is a psychologist, scholar, speaker, lecturer, fellow, researcher and more, operating between Cambridge, UK, the US and Canada – so I was particularly interested in his view that our personality is shaped by our:

  • Biogenics – our biological / genetic make-up
  • Sociogenics – the cultural codes, norms and expectations that shape us from childhood and through to adulthood
  • Idiogenics – the personal projects, plans, aspirations, commitments that are imposed upon us and that we choose to pursue (I’ll talk more about the personal projects in the next section)

Little explores a couple of personality tools in his book – primarily MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and OCEAN or The Big Five [see notes] and uses these as the context to discuss our ‘fixed traits’ and our ‘free traits’.

Fixed traits are determined by our biogenics.  They are what come to us most naturally: our preferred way of behaving. Free traits are the ones that we might choose to use and might be described as ‘acting out of character’ in doing so.  They will typically take more effort and active learning and development to perform.

Sociogenics determine the extent to which we are expected to use, or feel comfortable in using our fixed or free traits.

Brian Little references the work of Susan Cain for example, in society’s often frequent expectation for people to conform to extraverted behaviour at school and in the workplace, whereas academic behaviour lends itself more to introverted behaviour.

Patterns of behaviour in our homes might also influence the extent to which we use our fixed or free traits to fit in, or to rebel!

And in ‘idiogenics’ we might choose to pursue personal projects that comfortably sit with our fixed traits, or challenge us in the use of our free traits.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills.  Many of these involve exploring personality tools and traits.

personal projects range from routine tasks to life changing pursuits

Apparently we are typically engaged in up to fifteen personal projects at any point in time.  Some will be fairly small, others will be a major or core part of our lives.

What personal projects have in common is that they are something significant (salient), are more than momentary (are a set of actions), require some level of skill and perseverance (have some context).

They may include some aspect of personal development (intellectual or emotional skills), be health related (exercise or diet), recreational / hobbies, work or academically related.  The web site (a modern version of has some good examples of personal projects and how people motivate themselves or have the support of others to achieve them.

What is interesting about personal projects, from a personality and well-being perspective, is that they may require us to use our free traits more (those that are different from our more natural, fixed or preferred traits) to achieve them.

The right personal projects are therefore potentially a route for learning and development, a source of enjoyment, and a means to achieving well-being.  Typically the ‘right’ projects are those that are self-initiated and are under our control, are meaningful (supporting a cause or values that are important to us), and have some chance of success!

Where the projects require us to use our free traits, act out of character, for some period of time, they could exhort a toll on us physically and / or mentally, so that we will need to make sure that we have the space, time, opportunity to recuperate.

So for example an introvert engaged in a work activity that involves a high level of interaction with others, will need some quiet personal time (or a private niche) to recoup.  Someone with an ‘intuition’ (big picture) preference on the MBTI tool engaged in a hobby requiring close attention to detail, will need opportunities to gaze out into space.  Or somebody with a ‘disagreeable’ preference on The Big Five tool who is required to be sympathetic during a funeral, will need a physical or verbal outlet where they can be combative!

Place also has a high relevance for personality and well-being

Recuperative ‘niches’ can be physical or in cyberspace as well as in time.

We already know that the workplace could be better designed for extraverts as well as introverts (see references to workplace design here:

Brian Little explores this topic further in terms of how well architecture, geographical environments, and even cities can lend themselves to different personality types.  He also explores how cyberspace can work differently for different reasons.

In all these contexts, what makes a place more comfortable for one person than for another is the extent and nature of personal interaction, and the exposure to or sharing of ideas that they lend themselves to.  So they play on several of the personality traits as described by personality tools.


Understanding our fixed and free traits will help us to make conscious decisions about our home and work environments, which of our traits we use for personal development and challenge, and how we ensure that we rest and recuperate and build our well-being.


Brian Little questions the reliability of MBTI (the extent to which people get the same result each time they complete the questionnaire).  He also suggests that its validity (the extent to which it measures what it claims to measure) is adequate but not exceptional.  However he does refer to the insights that we can gain from it at some points in the book.

OCEAN is an acronym for the personality traits that The Big Five evaluates:

  • Openness – the extent to which we are open to new ideas and experiences
  • Conscientiousness – how much we tend to persevere in getting things done and to a certain quality
  • Extraversion (and introversion) – defined in a very similar way to how they are defined in MBTI
  • Agreeableness (and disagreeableness) – our tendency to be mindful and accommodating towards others, their feelings and their points of view
  • Neuroticism – how alert we are to potential dangers and set-backs

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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