Core Project

Professor Brian Little argued that people are more than just a bunch of traits. There may be many people out there who have the exact same personality traits as you (maybe all of you tested as INTP in your MBTI personality test) but there is something about you that makes you unique (from the rest of other INTPs), regardless.

In psychiatry, we have many trait theories and of course my personal favourite is the MBTI personality theory. I always tested as either INTP or INTJ. 

But we also have other personality theories/tests. The common and easy one we usually learn in our Part A Psychiatry exam is the OCEAN personality theory.

O stands for Openness to Experience (how open are you about exploring new interests – being creative/flexible/ curious and adventurous. Personally, I rate my openness to experience as moderate. I am not creative and I am not that flexible. Once I have perfected my point of view and my principles, I rarely change my mind. But I am very curious in nature and that’s why I read on many genres and on various issues. And I am quite adventurous especially when it comes to outdoor activities. I like to travel and learn about new cultures. So, I think I am pretty open in certain things.)

C stands for conscientiousness (how organized, how thorough, how much planning you put in your work. How hardworking you are. I also feel I am moderate in this. I must care ENOUGH in order to give a good effort. I care about my studies and my work, so I am organized when it comes to those sort of things. But I can give up easily when it comes to doing things that I am just not interested in.)

E stands for extraversion. (Extroverts are those who are recharged by having social interaction. The more they interact, the more energy they have. Whereas, introverts are those who are recharged by having some alone time. The more they interact, the lower their energy level becomes. Introverts do enjoy social interaction with people they know well, but even so, they NEED some time alone in order to recharge before they can come back to interact some more. I am very, very introverted. Outside office hours, I really just want to be by myself and do my thing.)

A stands for agreeableness (how kind, how ‘nice’, how affectionate you are. I am not that agreeable. I am not universally nice. I am only selectively nice. If you do something that I feel is very irresponsible or cross a certain principle, I won’t mince words in how I let you know that you are a slacker and you better buck up now and meet the standard! But I think I am nice to my friends and my family….. but still…if they do something that I think is unacceptable, I will let them know….eventually.)

N stands for neuroticism (how tense/moody/ anxious you are. I think I can be quite neurotic… but again, only about things I really care about. Like exams. Hahha. Or when I am planning for something important, I get a bit tense…. ehem, or a lot tense. When things go awry or opposite to what I want, I cannot even hide my displeasure and it would show on my face… or show through my words. I guess I am moderate to high in neuroticism).

But remember, Brian Little said that we are more than our traits. What makes us unique, he said, is what we have undertaken as a core project in our life.

Brian Little used himself as an example when he said that we are more complex than just our traits. He said, that he is an extreme introvert. But because he is a professor and his personal project is TO PROFESS, therefore he has to act in an extrovert manner when he is teaching his students, be more jovial and more animated, so that his students will be interested in what he has to profess.

In his TED talk ‘Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality’, he said,

“How about the idiosyncratic you? As Elizabeth or as George… you may BOTH share your extraversion or your neuroticism. But are there some distinctively Elizabethan features of your behaviour or Georgian of your behaviour…. that makes us understand you better than just a bunch of traits… that makes us… love you. Not just because you are a certain type of person….. So what is it that makes us different? It’s the DOINGS that we have in our life. The personal projects. You may have a personal project right now, but nobody may know it.”

He continued to say that the personal project can be anything. It might be your mom. You might be an agreeable person. But you act disagreeably in order to remove the administrative barrier that keep your mom from getting the kind of treatment she needs at the hospital, for example.

He termed this ‘out of character’ event as adopting a ‘free trait’.


Take myself as an example: I am an introvert. I am not universally friendly and very slow to warm up to strangers. But if I am suddenly being placed in the position of asking for a sponsorship in order to organize a non-profit event, won’t I have to adopt a ‘free trait’ (out of character traits) and act like an extrovert with people I have never met before just because I need their sponsorship? Yes, right? That’s what I have to do, isn’t it?


I will have to smile when I don’t really feel like it, and act like I don’t mind when you are not on time or when you don’t deliver your sponsorship on the day you said you would. I would have to be so conscientious in following up on things I never really care before. Normally, I won’t ask people for their help and I won’t bother to follow up on whether or not they can help if they can’t immediately say yes to my request. Because usually, I can always find other ways to accomplish the same thing without having to ask for help multiple times. But because I have to run a state-level event, I will have to act like asking people for money and sponsorship, and keep on messaging them to find out their answers are something I don’t feel embarrassed about. Like it is something I don’t hate doing. Like I do things like this all the time and I am not stressed about it.

When you are running an event, you have to be patient in dealing with many people. Person A complains to you about Person B. Then Person B complains to you about Person A. Then Person C complains to you about Person A and Person B. Or your boss tells you to change something (multiple times!) in the Program Booklet, so you then have to go to the booklet designer and apologize to him for troubling him again but can he please, please, please do the changes again, you beg. Or you are stuck in a war between 2 committees; BOTH insist that the job does not belong to their committee. So, you resist the temptation to be your usual character and say “I will do it myself lah kalau dah susah sangat” (you resist saying that because you know you can’t do it yourself, this time) and be patient and listen to their problems, ‘pujuk-pujuk’ /cajoling them with soft words, in order to get things done.

So in the above example, I adopt a ‘free trait’ (that of extraversion and agreeableness) in order to advance a personal project. Because I care about my work (and unfortunately sometimes it involves organizing events), I have to adopt ‘out of character’ trait to advance a personal project that I care about.

And I am not the only one who does this. Everyone behaves outside their character because of their personal project. And Brian Little said, that’s what makes you unique… that’s what makes you MORE than just a bunch of traits that you share with many people. It’s the things we DO and the core projects that we embark on (that necessitate us to behave in a counter-dispositional manner) that make us different from one another.

That’s why at the end of the day, our traits are our traits (something we in our own self know about ourself if we are self-aware) BUT where it counts most (in reality, when things must get done), we are what we repeatedly do. Or rather, we BECOME what we repeatedly do, even as we know that it is against our biogenic trait.

I guess, that is the basis of attending occupational therapy and training,right? Why train if we can never change?


However!!! He also said, even though adopting ‘out of character’ free traits may enhance well-being when we become successful at the project we pursue, it can also COMPROMISE well-being because it challenges your autonomic nervous system (The fight or flight or freeze reaction! With me…. I tend to fight than flight or freeze.)

Indeed! Behaving out of character is stressful. Pretending to enjoy excessive social interaction is stressful. Forcing yourself to be okay about asking for help, managing conflicts between people, dealing with people you cannot stand, dealing with sudden multiple changes because there are too many heads and different ideas to follow…. are stressful. Prolonged excessive environmental stimuli is stressful to an introvert.

See? There is an EMOTIONAL COST to adopting ‘free traits’ behaviour when it is done in a prolonged and excessive manner. Continuous ‘free-traited’ behaviour means dealing with chronic stress. In which case, I suggest you find a different core project that most of the time complement your real personality.

Choose your core project wisely. Make the cost worth it.



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