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. 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.
I couldn’t understand what put Katie on this slippery slope. True, some people seem genetically inclined to believe in themselves—or not—but experience powerfully influences our sense of self-efficacy. I knew Katie had been confident as a preschooler, but her current trouble at school was destroying her optimism. I tried to help in every way I could. I created homework-checking systems, communicated with teachers like bosom buddies, doled out penalties and rewards. Mostly, though, I just kept cheering Katie on. I was sure that if she would stop hesitating, believe in herself, and just throw herself into the task at hand, she’d get past the problem.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
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.
“Well,” said Kathy, glancing at a bar graph, “I see you both listen better when you’re drawing.”
Katie and I stared at each other, astonished. Bull’s-eye.
“And you’ve both had a zillion teachers tell you to stop drawing. They said you could do only one thing at a time, but that’s not true for you two, is it? You have a hard time focusing if there’s nothing to occupy your eyes and hands.”
Unexpectedly, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. I’d never realized how frustrated I’d been by the very situation Kathy was describing. Katie sat up a little straighter in her chair.
“But,” Kathy went on, “Martha, you go about problem-solving in a different way from Katie. 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.”
Another 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. Katie wanted more instructions? You could have knocked me down with a feather.
I’ve told this story in detail because since meeting Kathy, studying her work, and seeing how dramatically it affects people and their productivity, I’ve become convinced that many of us feel like failures because we don’t recognize (let alone accept) that our instinctive methods of acting are as varied as our eye color. Our modus operandi shapes the way we do everything: make breakfast, drive, learn math. Not recognizing natural differences in our conative styles—assuming instead that we’re idiots because we do things unconventionally—can destroy that precious sense of self-efficacy.
Imagine a race between four animals: an otter, a mole, a squirrel, and a mouse. They’re headed for a goal several feet away. Which animal will win? Well, it depends. If the goal is underground, my money’s on the mole. If it’s in a tree? Hello, Mr. Squirrel. Underwater, it’s the otter. And if the goal is hidden in tall grass, the mouse will walk away with it. Now, all these animals can swim, dig, climb, and find things in the grass. It’s just that each of them does one of these things better than the others. Putting all four animals in a swimming race, say, would lead to the conclusion that one was better than the others, when the truth is simply that their innate skills are different.
If we’re in an environment (such as school, a job, or a family tradition) that asks us to act against our natural style, we feel uncomfortable at best, tormented at worst. Even if we manage to conform, we don’t get a high sense of self-efficacy because although we’ve managed the efficacy part of the equation, we’ve lost the self. When we fail, we feel like losers; when we succeed, we feel like impostors.
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:
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.
So I finally stopped pressuring Katie to act like her Follow Thru teachers or her Quick Start mother. Instead I helped her find detailed information and gave her time to absorb it. She recently devoured a 1,000-page book on Web site design that I would not read if the alternative were death on the rack. It took her a month to finish the book. The next day, she made a Web site. Spooky.
Play to your strengths
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.
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?