The foibles of the analytic personality

In a recent post, I blogged briefly about the analytic personality and what things a person of this inclination must be aware of when dealing with others. In many ways, there are some caveats that one should take care to avoid that are simple matters of how the analytical mind works.

The biggest problem with any trait is the tendency to take things to the natural extremes. Moderation is always key; the assertive personality must take care not to be assertive in ways that take advantage of others, for instance, while still keeping the basis of that assertive nature. In the same way, one of the biggest problems for the analytic can be overanalyzing things, especially things that are best viewed as a whole.

I first became aware of this tendency after reading Mark Twain’s short essay, sometimes called “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” from his Life on the Mississippi (see here for an interesting rhetorical analysis – and yes, I am aware of the irony). Here, Twain has described his various journeys on Mississippi steamboats, learning the trade (where he picked up his pseudonym), and he laments the loss of something deep: the beauty of the river. In the acquisition of the trade skills that a steamboat pilot must have, Twain began to see the river as nothing more than a conglomeration of “trifling feature[s].” Near the end of this section, he opines, “All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”

I observed this very thing in myself when I was a senior in high school taking physics. I was learning a great deal about natural phenomena, and it was after a discussion of light, the spectrum of visible light, and the phenomena of the sunset that I realized that I was doing the same. You see, I started noticing the color of sunsets and remarking to myself, “That purplish sunset is the atmosphere trapping the shortest frequencies,” and I was losing a sense of the simple beauty that a sunset represents. It was an awakening in me that I have not forgotten: Never let attention to detail overshadow the bigger themes. (In fact, I have written a short story about a man whose primary fault is just that and another whose fault is the opposite: an inability to remember specifics.)

In some personal reading, I came across a passage by Steinbeck that gives a further implication of this problem:

And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates; and the length of the fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land. [John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 11 (taken from Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D, 6th ed., p.1902)]

We must always remember, as we deal with others, that if we see people only as their traits, not as individuals worthy of basic human respect and dignity, then we will never be home among them. Overanalyzing people – even ourselves! – can make us lose the beauty (however bittersweet) of humanity. Fortunately, it is not a permanent loss, and we can always start seeing people as valuable, intrinsically so and not just for their usefulness.

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2 Responses to The foibles of the analytic personality

  1. Jenny says:

    Thanks for this post… I think you have put the spot light on the cause of frustration in my life..

    I live as an over analyzing person who wants to see the beauty of things as they are… If you see the danger of loosing the beauty in its totality.. would it be wise to remove oneself from such analysis .. or any suggetions on how to hold onto the beauty of things as they present themselves whilst robustly engaging in analysis?

    I do feel like without analysis though, you can never appreciate things for what they are..

  2. Brody says:

    Oh, I absolutely agree that critical analysis has its place. There’s sort of a balance that has to occur between seeing things holistically and atomically, where you are capable of digging under the surface and examining any given thing but yet can step back and see the thing as a whole. Essentially, it’s just a matter of understanding that there are indeed thirteen ways to see a blackbird (sorry, gratuitous Wallace Stevens reference) – that there are other perspectives that ought to be considered when we examine anything. It also might be a matter of understanding when it’s more appropriate to try and see any given thing as a whole rather than by its parts, like viewing a sunset as a beautiful display of nature rather than as an example of light refraction.

    Of course, this isn’t always easy for those of us for whom analytical thought comes somewhat naturally, but it’s a worthwhile goal.

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