Do truly gifted people have similar personalities? No, research shows. But they do share one fascinating character trait: They're measurably more open to new experiences than everyone else.
That's the result of a new meta-analysis by researchers Uzeyir Ogurlu and Adnan Ozbey at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point School of Education. We tend to think of a genius personality in terms of, say, Albert Einstein--odd, somewhat reclusive, and horribly bad at relating to other humans. To learn whether there is any truth to this perception, Ogurlu and Ozbey conducted a deep analysis of 13 studies, covering a total of 7,976 participants. The studies compared people who had been assessed as gifted with non-gifted people using the widely accepted Big Five personality model that measures five character traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.
After accounting for variables related to gender, age, and cultural background, the researchers found no difference between the two groups in most of these traits. "The findings of this study debunked the misconception that gifted students have a maladaptive personality or social difficulties," the researchers wrote. On the other hand, they found a definite correlation between giftedness and openness to experience. As any researcher will tell you, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. So it's impossible to tell from these findings whether being gifted makes you open to new experiences, or being open to new experiences makes you gifted.
In a way, it doesn't really matter. No matter who you are or what you do, being open to new experiences is a huge advantage in work and in life, especially for entrepreneurs. So openness to new experiences as a character trait is definitely something you should look for in your employees and in yourself. But if you want to be more open to new experiences, can you learn to be? Is openness a character trait that you can acquire or enhance?
"Research suggests that it is possible to change personality in desired directions," writes psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner in Psychology Today. "Can adults choose to broaden horizons or opt to keep a narrow view, or is this choice itself in the first place a function of openness?"
The answer to that second question is certainly yes. The mere fact of wanting to be more open to new experiences shows that you're willing to expand your horizons and change the way you interact with the world, and that's a very good first step. But if you want to become more open to new experiences, how do you make that happen? Here are some things that can help.
1. Take baby steps.
When I was in college, a friend of mine arranged to spend the entire winter break in her dorm instead of going home.She was trying to force herself to get over her fear of being alone. It was an unpleasant experience that didn't help her very much. A better approach is to try new experiences--especially frightening ones--a tiny bit at a time. If your ambition is to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail and you're not an experienced hiker, start with a 15-minute stroll in the woods and go from there. The key is to expand your comfort zone gradually, making each each step outside of it as unthreatening as you can.
2. Don't stand still.
Experts say that if you never step outside your comfort zone, it will get smaller and smaller and the places and situations that make you feel uncomfortable will slowly grow until you're stuck in a constantly shrinking safety zone. Don't let this happen. Challenge yourself to take a small step outside your comfort zone on a regular basis, ideally, every day. The opposite works too: The more often you reach outside your comfort zone, the bigger it will grow, allowing you to feel confident and secure in more and more situations.
3. Reward yourself.
If something makes us feel good, we tend to repeat it. If something makes us feel bad, we tend to avoid it--that's the way the human brain is wired. So increase your chances of success by giving yourself a reward and celebrating every small step you take. Even if it's just a quick high-five to yourself or "Yay, me!" That will make it easier next time you think about trying something new or doing something slightly frightening to go ahead and do it. Pretty soon you'll find you're more open to new experiences than before. And who knows? Maybe more gifted too.