A friend posted this great video clip of Viktor Frankl on Facebook. What an extraordinary man he was, and what a treat to see him in action.

Frankl’s analogy of learning to fly and how he learned to aim ‘north’ to arrive at his destination, reminded me of my high school yearbook quote. In the 70s, it was fashionable to put a quote underneath your photo. Most classmates had rock lyrics, like, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but I was captivated by a line from a Robert Browning poem, “Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Frankl and Browning exhort us to expect more from ourselves and others, to reach higher, in order to have a meaningful life. And in this clip, Frankl describes what we now call the self-fulfilling prophecy – the higher we reach, the higher we go. And likewise, the lower we reach, the lower we’ll go.

This leads me to wonder about the current trend in popular psychology, leadership development and coaching of categorizing ourselves based on traits, types and styles. There is a thriving industry of testing in order to discover what kind of leaders, thinkers, and teammates we are. It’s helpful, even comforting to know whether we are left brain or right brain, introverted or extraverted, analytic or relational, visionary or practical. This kind of typologizing allows to talk across differences; it gives us a language and framework for collaborating with others, and for understanding ourselves. It seems to explain so much – our strengths, our weaknesses and challenges, even our choices of friends and partners.

But I am wary of this trend. How much do we limit ourselves by defining ourselves according to traits? At what point does it become a story about ourselves that allows us to settle for what is? Certainly, we can’t excel at everything, so it’s useful to know where our strengths lie. On the other hand, how do we know we’re not missing opportunities for growth, that we’re not creating glass ceilings for ourselves in the guise of traits?

These same thoughts are being pursued in research on how theories of intelligence influence academic achievement. Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, discovered that children who held an “entity” view of intelligence, that intelligence is an unchangeable internal characteristic, were at a higher risk of academic underachievement than children who held an “incremental” theory of intelligence, i.e., that intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort. Her work was predominantly with children, but I wonder about adults as well. The benefit of understanding ourselves based on traits and styles may come at the cost of becoming all that we can be.

I’m looking forward to exploring this topic further on the Gold Coast of Australia in October, when I give my seminar on learning and change, Just Beyond Our Grasp: The Art, Science and Flow of Learning, Performance and Change.