Brian Little has had a distinguished career, teaching at Harvard, Oxford and McGill. Still, he loves what he calls “professing” so much that his postretirement gig lecturing at Cambridge University isn’t enough. He continues to take his classroom on the road, offering researched-based, animated and really quite funny discussions about personality to audiences across the globe. The Canadian-born Little will be in town Saturday as one of the visiting scholars in the One Day University event.
We talked to the self-professed introvert about BuzzFeed quizzes, the traps of personality typing, the search for happiness and how acting out of character can be professional, loving — and a bit dangerous.
Q: We gobble up personality quizzes in print (thanks, Cosmo) and online. Most of us know if we’re an S (sensing) or an N (intuition) (thanks, Myers-Briggs). Why do we care so much about personality?
A: It gives us a lens through which to reflect on our lives. It helps us understand ourselves and the people around us. And it connects us to questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my meaning?”
Q: All that from a BuzzFeed quiz?
A: No, I’m a bit dismissive of most personality quizzes, even standardized tests. They’re used to affix some relatively stable trait to us, but they can be constraining. One of the reasons I wrote my book [“Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being”] was to help wean us from labels.
Q: But you label yourself an introvert.
A. The reason I focus on extrovert/introvert is that this personality trait is very well-researched. We know the biology behind it. Also, this trait is especially important when it comes to well-being.
Q: You don’t sound like an introvert.
A: I’ve been using myself as an example for 30 years. I’m biologically an introvert. But as a professor who loves professing, I’ll act out of my character when I’m in the classroom.
It’s not phony. I call it engaging in “free traits.” We act out of character for professionalism. We act out of character for love.
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: Here’s one: Alice is an introvert, but she’s putting on a party for her daughter and she wants it to be a success. So Alice will act like an extrovert — she’ll initiate conversation, be lively, laugh and talk — until everyone leaves. Then she’ll retreat to the kitchen to be alone.
Q: Is acting out of character good, then?
A: If we always stay in character, in our comfort zone, we can miss some of the richness of life. If we protractedly act out of character, we burn out. We have to have restorative niches.
Q: You mean places where we go to Zen out?
A: Not necessarily. An introvert who’s been acting out of character might need a quiet place to go recharge. (I’ve been known to hide in the washroom after a lecture.) But an extrovert who’s been button-down might need to cut loose and act wild.
Q: I’ve read that you’re not an advocate of searching for happiness.
A: In America, the pursuit of happiness is not only enshrined in the Constitution, it’s an assumption that the goal of life is to be happy. But trying to enhance our happiness can be self-defeating.
It’s not the pursuit of happiness that matters, but the happiness of pursuit. Instead of asking “Am I happy?” look for a source of meaning — a task well-formulated, an obligation fulfilled.
Q: You “retired” in 2000. But you’re still pursuing your “parallel career” of giving lectures and speaking. Why?
A: I can never stop teaching. I love it. I’ve been professing outside of the university since the 1970s. Courses like One Day University are a great way to engage with students, but I don’t have to give them examinations or write letters of recommendation.