A Journey into Personality Self-Discovery, Vol. 1


February 15, 2011


by Marshall Goldsmith

For the typical career professional, daily pursuits mean much more than just having a job and paying the bills. Remember the adage about whether you “eat to live or live to eat”? We could easily compose a similar challenge about work: “Do you work to live or live to work?” Based on the sheer number of hours we spend at work, it matters.

Assuming an eight-hour day at the office, we spend approximately one-third of our day at work. For many professionals, especially physicians, the work time probably totals closer to one-half their day. Either way, that’s a huge chunk of your life. This puts into perspective the significant impact our career choices can have on how we view our lives.

Our language often betrays us. Notice that in the opening paragraph I used the word “spend,” as in “the time I spend at work.” This is how many people describe their work, and it doesn’t sound like a highly satisfying pursuit.


This observation led me to create and conduct an exercise whereby leaders examined how they view their jobs. Each participant receives three choices for assessing the content of his or her work. Please try this yourself. As I describe each of the three categories, estimate the percentage of your job that falls into each one.

The first category is “play.” This is the fun job content, that which you would tend to do regardless of whether you earned money for it. We have all seen people readily agree to do a task beyond their job description. Why? Because they viewed the task as an outlet for untapped creativity or a channel for self-actualization. If I tell myself, “I’m going to play,” there is no resistance or creative avoidance. We all like to play.

The second category is “work.” This is job content not consisting of play. It’s activity that, although not fun, you would agree to do for reasonable compensation.

Illustration: My father was a mechanic and ran a DX gas station in Valley Station, Ky. He lived during a time when people might barter for goods if they didn’t have the money to pay for them. If a man said to my father, “I need my car repaired. Do you want to do it?” My father might reply, “No, I don’t want to do it. I don’t have any fun repairing cars. However, I will do it for reasonable compensation—say, 100 pounds of potatoes from your garden.”

In other words, he could tell himself, “I’m going to work,” and have a reasonably high level of commitment to follow through with this objective.


The third category is “misery.” No compensation imaginable could make this job content pleasurable. When I tell myself, “I’m about to do something that I don’t want to do and I’ll be miserable doing it,” I will be wonderfully creative in finding every reason to avoid that activity.

How do you see the composition of your professional experience? Typical survey results among professionals break down as follows:

• 15% play

• 75% work

• 10% misery

Life should be rampant with fun. You should make it your goal to move yourself into more fun activities and away from miserable ones. Heading toward fun means identifying those activities that constitute “play.” To do so, first clarify your natural tendencies for interacting with your world in order to make better life choices.

You can use personal assessments to promote this aspect of self-discovery. For example, completing the self-paced Extended DISC—dominance, influence, steadiness, conscientiousness—assessment can aid you in making better life and career choices as well as increasing your effectiveness in current roles. Such an assessment can help you understand your intrinsic personality traits and behavioral tendencies that coalesce in the following categories:

1. Results-oriented, take charge, make-it-happen

2. People-focused, extroverted

3. Loyal, task-focused, team-player

4. Quality-focused, detail-oriented, organizer


Certain specialties may call for different aspects of these four personality dimensions. For example, an accountant may require more of the task/quality focus and attention to detail and procedure, whereas a salesperson would have more success in the people-focus and extroverted category. A person who has differing natural tendencies may need to moderate behavior in order to work effectively in this specialty. This is not to suggest that someone with differing natural tendencies couldn’t succeed in that role—only that achieving professional effectiveness and personal satisfaction may necessitate some adaptation.

When you have to adapt yourself to fit a role, you may not feel miserable, but it will likely take hard work. For this reason, I recommend choosing roles that match your personality and behavioral styles.

When you find yourself in a role that has some mismatches, plan for some conscious moderation to enhance working relationships and performance. In the upcoming, second part of this post, we’ll look at how understanding your mojo can affect your energy and performance.