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When we think about some of the strongest personalities in recent history, few can rival the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. Known for his formulaic dress and rigid leadership, Jobs befuddled many. He's known as a visionary, a hard-charging leader, and someone who never let a setback keep him down.

He was also known to be a huge jerk.

It can be tempting to ignore the flaws of someone who is wildly successful. Well that's just the cost of changing the world. As Walter Isaacson, a biographer of many of America’s most innovative male thought-leaders, including Jobs, told the Harvard Business Review, “None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.” While his statement may be true, it also reveals an uncomfortable ease with excusing our faults.

We all have flaws. And sometimes people with big flaws still become wildly successful. But when considering a person’s achievements as compared to the offenses they may have committed along the way, perhaps it's time we stopped shrugging off those uncomfortable downsides.

In Steve Jobs' defense, we give ourselves a free pass all the time. Perhaps you’ve taken the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and felt a bit of relief or affirmation when reading the list of weaknesses? “Oh, it’s just my personality type. Look, a whole swath of the populace is disorganized and late, too!”

It’s tempting to categorize our flaws as a static part of ourselves and move on. When I looked at my list of ENFP (Extroversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perception) traits, I had a hard time accepting them at first. For example, ENFPs are characterized as:

  • Overthinkers
  • Fiercely Individualistic
  • Highly emotional
  • Easily stressed

My reactions to these truths about myself varied from disbelief (Overthinking is bad? Is being too independent even possible?) to excuses (My high emotion during conflict just means I’m passionate and care a lot!) to straight-up denial (I don’t get stressed easily!).

In a world that’s constantly pressuring us to put on a facade of perfection, admitting we could work on our personality a bit is really tough, often painfully so. Take this quote, for instance:

“I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes; I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

The conviction behind the above quote, often attributed to Marilyn Monroe, can feel really good when we’re tired of being held to impossible standards. But self-affirmation without self-criticism can go too far.

No person is an island. We can’t let what may be natural tendencies keep us from bettering ourselves and thinking about how to better relate to those among us. When I stepped back to deeply consider my less-than-stellar ENFP “quirks,” I found that there was some valid criticism to them and room for improvement.

Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Psychology Today: “Often criticism is experienced as a narcissistic injury. We deflect or minimize it as we try our best to maintain our self esteem. . . . Maybe we need to reflect on criticism more thoughtfully with an observing ego and learn from it instead.”

Assuming that our flaws are just a part of who we are and excused as such is not a good look. “Without appropriate corrective feedback, we can’t improve ourselves,” Dr. Plante says. Most importantly, without understanding our flaws, we’re less aware of our real strengths.

Dr. Plante adds, “It is critically important to know the difference between helpful corrective feedback and the more destructive, mean-spirited criticism that aims to hurt. Perhaps when criticized, we need to take a long deep breath, count to ten, and ask ourselves as objectively as possible if there is any truth to the criticism and what can be learned from it.”

It’s imperative to speak up about the flaws and failures of those with massive influence and power. Of Jobs, Isaacson said, “His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.” But that doesn’t make it OK for all the people who stood in the wake of his dark side. We have to acknowledge that our relationship to the people around us can’t be a byproduct of success. We are all born with certain quirks and charms. Our challenge is to make the most of our charms and to prevent the quirks from hurting others or ourselves. Know your personality. Appreciate your temperament. But don’t let it be a crutch for avoiding self-improvement. 

Be gentle with yourself, but be honest.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller