Posted by: Ben | August 28, 2009

Fascination with Personality

I barely ever read fiction.  My general take on that has been that there’s so much interesting out in the world, past and present, that I’m always trying to catch up and learn more just to keep my pulse on things.  While the internet (and heavy computing) has made the present much more accessible and tangible to us, it has also unlocked the past and given us better predictive tools of the future.  But the past and future still remain a blend of fiction and non-fiction, since what is history is often both myth and fact, and what is future is often speculative even if it’s predicted with extrapolated trends.

One comparison I think about is Plato versus Aristotle in the School of Athens painting by Raphael.  Plato points up, to the heavens, while Aristotle points outward, towards the world.

There have been some touchstones in my life that have led me to believe that what my career will end up being.  My suspicion is that I want to make a name for myself studying personalities, biographies, reputation, and identity (both formation and maintenance).

Last year, when I attended the Achievement Summit in Hawai’i, I got to listen to A. Scott Berg speak about his life as a biographer.  He’s written a biography about Charles Lindbergh and is working currently on one for Woodrow Wilson.   I remember being taken by his speech moreso than some others, and I think this quote sums it up well as to why:

“I did tell myself early on: I think it would be interesting, perhaps, to spend a career writing a half-dozen biographies of twentieth-century American cultural figures—each one, as I often use as my metaphor, a different wedge of the great apple pie.”

As a dotcom kid I grew up with extensive biographies swirling around out of Silicon Valley about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (cults of personality if there ever were any), Jeff Bezos, and later Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams and Richard Branson, et al.

The intelligence services worldwide of course keep elaborate leadership databases that try to figure people out based on their backgrounds in order to predict true intentions, biases, and future political/military/economic decisions.

When I was in the Army and when I went to Australia, I wrote some very vivid descriptions of the people I met — I enjoyed studying their ticks and appreciating them for their unique qualities.  Perhaps one of the only writers I’ve seen who admires subtle things about personalities is F. Scott Fitzgerald — if you read his books, he writes about people as if their tendencies are timeless and universally understood by all people.  For instance, from “Tender is the Night”:

“The mother’s face was of a fading prettiness that would soon be patted with broken veins; her expression was both tranquil and aware in a pleasant way.  However, one’s eyes moved on quickly to her daughter, who had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold bath in the evening.”


“She did not like these people, especially in her immediate comparison of them with those who had interested her at the other end of the beach.  Her mother’s modest but compact social gift got them out of unwelcome situations swiftly and firmly.  But Rosemary had been a celebrity for only six months, and sometimes the French manners of her early adolescence and the democratic manners of America, these latter superimposed, made a certain confusion and let her in for just such things.”

I guess what I’m going for is that biographies have been tools of only the well-educated, to describe the elite (those worth talking about).

What I hope will be is a way to allow anyone to form biographies about themselves and others.  The way I see the world, not only should one treat another as an equal human being, but he should also see every other person as having a unique, interesting story.  After all, no one goes through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and growing old without having interesting stories about how they dealt with certain crises, new experiencies, their first loves, bad break-ups, etc.  Each person is a story.

I would like to get those stories out.  For everyone on Earth.

And maybe become, in that way, the biggest biographer ever. =)


  1. I like your ambition!

    You know, I balked when you said you don’t read fiction – but realized that I don’t either, really. I love to read stories (i.e. well written stuff), but most of it is about real events. Go figure.

    I like the comment about noticing people’s ticks and such; these and microgestures have long fascinated me. I think the only way I survived moving around so much was by finely tuning my “personality radar”.

    The only thing I don’t get is your extrapolation from noticing the minutiae to writing biographies (loosely put): is this really what you hope to do, whether it’s through or otherwise? There’s something romantic about being steeped in other people’s lives, but there is something equally beautiful about being present in yours.

    How to balance? 🙂

  2. With regards to “personality radars”, interesting that you say that since there’ve been some studies that say that certain behaviors like alcohol addiction and childhood trauma can permanently affect someone’s ability to read people accurately… But then there’s the whole question of what “accurately” means, since don’t we all have different perceptions of everyone, including ourselves?

    I agree about having balance with oneself, and what I think drives me about mostly is that it’s a tool I’d want for myself…so if it fails spectacularly, at least I’ll get to enjoy it.

    Thanks for taking the time to write a comment. Let me know how your new job is!

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