(Oprah.com) -- If at first you don't succeed ... ask yourself, Am I an otter? A squirrel? A mouse? The answer could spell the difference between things going swimmingly and squeaking to a halt. Find your own winning style.
It was a problem I'd never anticipated: My brainy daughter was having trouble in school. Katie began teaching herself to read at 15 months and tested at a "post-high school" level in almost every subject by fourth grade. Yet her middle-school grades were dropping like a lead balloon, and her morale along with them. I cared more about the morale than the grades.
Does your style resemble an otter, mole, squirrel or a mouse?
I knew Katie was quickly losing something educational psychologists call her sense of self-efficacy -- her belief that she could succeed at specific tasks and life in general.
People who lack this trait tend to stop trying because they expect to fail. Then, of course, they do fail, feel even worse, shut down even more, and carry on to catastrophe.
It took years of confidence-battering struggle -- for both Katie and me -- before I finally got the information I needed. It came from a no-nonsense bundle of kindly energy named Kathy Kolbe, a specialist on the instinctive patterns that shape human action.
Kathy's father pioneered many standardized intelligence tests, but Kathy was born with severe dyslexia, which meant that this obviously bright little girl didn't learn in a typical way. She grew up determined to understand and defend the different ways in which people go about solving problems.
The day Katie and I met her, Kathy was wearing a T-shirt that said "do nothing when nothing works", a motto that typifies her approach. On her desk were the results from the tests (the Kolbe A and Y Indexes) that my daughter and I had just taken to evaluate our personal "conative styles," or typical action patterns.
"Martha, you go about problem-solving in a different way from Katie," Kathy said. "There are four basic action modes, and you're what I call a Quick Start. When you want to learn, you just jump in and start messing around." Bull's-eye. I cannot count the times I've been defeated, humiliated, or physically injured immediately after saying the words, "Hey, how hard can it be?" But that never seems to stop me from saying them again.
"Now," Kathy went on, "Katie's not a Quick Start. She's a Fact Finder. Before she starts a task, she needs to know all about it. She needs to go through the instructions and analyze them for flaws, then get more information to fill in the gaps."
To my amazement, my daughter nodded vigorously. I've never understood why some people hesitate before diving into unfamiliar tasks or activities. I couldn't imagine wanting more instructions about anything.
"There are two other typical patterns," Kathy explained. "The people I call Implementors -- like Thomas Edison, for example -- need physical objects to work with. They figure out things by building models or doing concrete tasks. Then there are the Follow Thrus. They set up orderly systems, like the Dewey decimal system or a school curriculum."
"And that, Katie," she said, "is why you're having trouble. The school system was created mainly by people who are natural Follow Thrus. It works best for students with the same profile. Your teachers want you to fit into the system, but you have a hard time seeing how it works. If you question the instructions -- which you absolutely need to do -- they think you're being sassy."
Katie nodded so hard I feared for her cervical vertebrae. I was stunned. I'd spent years trying to understand my daughter, and a veritable stranger had just nailed the problem in ways I'd never even conceptualized.
Thanks to Kathy's work (and centuries of psychological work on conation), I've stopped asking others to match my instinctive style. I no longer expect squirrels to swim and otters to climb trees. As a result, I'm better able to support myself, my children, and everyone else I know. Here's a quick primer on how you can do the same:
Your style of action
Accept that you have an inborn, instinctive style of action. Just learning that there are four distinct patterns of action was a huge Aha! for me. When Katie and I accepted that we simply had different ways of doing things, our relationship and her confidence began to improve immediately.
To identify your own action-mode profile, you can take a formal online test (the Kolbe Index at kolbe.com; there is a charge), or just observe your own approach to getting something done. To give you an example, people with different profiles might respond to a challenge -- let's say, learning to crochet -- in the following ways:
• Quick Start: If you're a Quick Start who wants to crochet, you'll probably buy some yarn and a hook, get a few tips from an experienced crochetmeister, and jump right into trial and error.
• Fact Finder: You'll spend hours reading, watching, asking questions, and learning about crocheting before actually beginning to use the tools.
• Implementor: You pay less attention to words than to concrete objects, so you might draw a pattern of a crochet stitch or even create a large model using thick rope, before you go near a needle.
• Follow Thru: You'll likely schedule a lesson with a crochet teacher or buy a book that proceeds through a yarn curriculum, learning new stitches in order of difficulty.
None of these approaches is right or wrong. They can all succeed brilliantly. But someone who's programmed to use one style will feel awkward and discouraged trying to follow another. We can all master each style if we have to, the way a mole can swim or an otter can climb trees, but it's not a best-case scenario.
Once you know your instinctive style, brainstorm ways to make it work for you, not against you. For starters, choose fields of endeavor where you feel comfortable and competent. If you love systematic structure, don't become a freelancer. If you are crazy about physical models, don't force yourself to crunch financial statistics for a living.
Play to your strengths
To really boost your sense of self-efficacy, think of ways you could modify your usual tasks to suit your personal style. For example, Kathy suggested that Katie might ask for permission to do detailed research reports in place of other school assignments. I nearly threw up at the very thought, but to my astonishment Katie agreed enthusiastically.
Of course, you'll inevitably interact with people whose instinctive patterns are different from yours. Otter, Mole, Squirrel, and Mouse may all show up in the same family, workplace, or book club. Occasionally, it's fine to conform, using styles of action that don't come naturally -- but do it consciously and for a limited time, or your sense of self-efficacy will suffer.
And finally, team up with unlike others. As long as Otter, Mole, Squirrel, and Mouse are forced to race in the same terrain, at least three of them will be out of their element, looking and feeling like failures. But think what they could do if they pooled their skills. They could access resources from the water, earth, trees, and fields, combining them in ways none of the animals could achieve alone. They could rule the world! (Or at least the backyard.)
This is the very best way to leverage an understanding of conative style -- to create useful, complementary strategies instead of disheartening, competitive ones. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to be what we're not, feeling lousy about ourselves when we fail and sometimes even when we succeed. We hide our differences when, by accepting and celebrating them, we could collaborate to make every effort more exciting, productive, enjoyable, and powerful. Personally, I think we should start right now. I mean, hey, how hard can it be?
Martha Beck from "O, The Oprah Magazine," January 2006. E-mail to a friend
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Martha Beck is the author of "Leaving the Saints," "The Joy Diet," "Finding Your Own North Star," and "Expecting Adam."
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