When a team led by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman combed through data on thousands of people to discover what factors matter most for success in life, they found that IQ mattered a minuscule 1 or 2 percent. What mattered a whole lot more? In a word, personality. 

Which might sound pretty terrifying to those who worry they don't have the right personality to get ahead in life. But it shouldn't. 

If research is pretty clear that character plays an outsized role in life outcomes, it's also clear that personality can change. Measure what psychologists call the Big 5 personality traits -- extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness -- when someone is 14 and then do it again when they're 75, and the two tests will bear basically no resemblance to each other. What's more, studies show that with a little bit of effort, it's possible to consciously change your personality if you so desire. 

So to sum up, your personality can make or break your chance of success in life, and your personality is, at least to some degree, under your control. And this raises the obvious next question: Which personality traits should you try to influence? 

The 7 biggest personality pitfalls

While that question will always be somewhat personal -- if your definition of success is building a billion-dollar business then you'll presumably need a different personality than if you dream of becoming a beloved local librarian -- but psychology can still help answer it.

In a recent Psychology Today post University of Massachusetts, Amherst professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne explains how psychologists figured out what personality traits hold people back from success. While diagnostic checklists have long existed for various clinical mental health problems, up until recently no test or inventory claimed to be able to tell you whether you had a "maladaptive" personality that was likely to keep you from fulfilling your dreams. So a team led by researcher Michael Boudreaux set out to create one. 

Whitbourne's post lays out their approach in detail, but the important takeaway for the layperson is that they claim to have succeeded. Sifting through the data the team homed in on seven clusters of problematic personality traits that were consistently associated with lower life satisfaction, worse social functioning, and other problematic behaviors like drug and alcohol use. Here they are: 

  1. Emotion dysregulation (difficulty managing stress and intolerant of frustration)
  2. Internalizing (sadness and self criticism)
  3. Will to achieve (lack of direction and distractibility)
  4. Externalizing (acting out in risky behavior)
  5. Scrupulousness (rigidity and perfectionism)
  6. Fantasy proneness (getting lost in fantasies) 
  7. Apathy (lack of enthusiasm or strong emotions)

Reading this list, one or more of these areas might immediately pop out at you as something you struggle with, but if not, Whitbourne offers a simple 26-question assessment to help you decide if any of these personality problems apply to you. Shining a spotlight on your personality flaws might not sound fun, but as the article points out, facing up to your weaknesses can actually be empowering. 

"Gaining insight into your tendencies to thwart your own chances of success is an important first step in short-circuiting a self-defeating vicious cycle. You may never be able to solve all your intrapersonal problems, but gaining insight into their effect on your life can help you be that much more likely to gain long-term fulfillment," Whitbourne concludes. 

Be bold enough to take a clear eyed look at how your personality is holding you back and you'll be much better placed to overcome any shortcomings and actually achieve your dreams.