When I was 21 I was living in Thailand and thinking about my future. I thought,
I could be the barefoot hippie running in the woods.
And that seemed like a viable path for my life. I also thought,
I could be the shiny-shoed salesman working in a big city.
And that seemed viable too. While these types exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, there were things that appealed to me about both. The carefree, freewheeling attitude of the hippie with his connection to nature, and the conventional “success”, sense of responsibility, and societal worthiness of the office employee.
I’ve since ended up somewhere in the middle – not completely off the deep end but probably a little further out than most.
Recently it’s become clear(er) why – at least through one explanatory lens. I tend to score relatively highly (mid-80s-90s) for trait openness and trait conscientiousness on Big Five personality tests.
What does that mean? Here are two quick definitions from Wikipedia:
Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. High openness can be perceived as unpredictability or lack of focus. Moreover, individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences.
Conversely, those with low openness seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret and contextualize the openness factor.
Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubbornness and obsession. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.
Although these traits both have clear positive aspects, to the extent that they create contradictory desires and tendencies it can be problematic to be high in both. Reconciling the pull towards freedom and spontaneity with a desire for strict order is a difficult balancing act. At its worst, I’ve found, this can cause perpetual dissatisfaction in almost any situation, unless the balance is exactly right.
It can also just be confusing (and confusing to the point of paralysis), hence my younger self’s sense of somehow being OK with literally either extreme end of a 1960’s cultural stereotype spectrum.
To be fair though, this is probably a relatively good problem to have, especially as compared to high openness and low conscientiousness. That likely describes some not-insignificant portion of you reading and, despite the genetic component of Big Five traits (~50%), I would emphasize that you can absolutely increase your conscientiousness through habit formation, scheduling and developing self discipline.
In any case, what I have found works best for managing high openness and high conscientiousness is very consciously cordoning off time to allow for total freedom and spontaneity, within a broader orderly structure. Compartmentalize the openness in such a way that it feels completely free and boundless while you are in it, but that if you zoom out a little it’s still clearly integrated into a broader system.
In the day to day this can be as simple (not easy, unfortunately) as blocking off some number of hours to do creative work. No distractions, no other demands on your time, no obligations – just open and creative space… until that time’s up and you go back to the rest of your life.
Another example on a more macro scale is something like a music festival. You can go to a music festival for a weekend or a number of days and compartmentalize that time such that anything goes – it’s total freedom and spontaneity – again, until you go back to your life when it’s over. If you can get this into your head beforehand, your conscientious side will have a much easier time “letting go”.
A final example is a psychedelic trip. A psychedelic experience is often best done cordoned off from the rest of life and may take an entire day. This is a time within which just about any loose, gooey, abstract, creative and open thing can happen. Then the next day (or the next) you’re back to the routine of your life.
One way this high openness and high conscientiousness combination can work quite well, I think, is in planning for the future and especially the far future. When imagining the future you can let your openness run wild and conjure up all sorts of fantastical possibilities for yourself without, for the time being at least, worrying about how you’ll actually get there.
You can then “bet” on your conscientiousness as being a good enough tool to work at it enough to work it out along the way. With high conscientiousness (whether innate or acquired) you can have confidence in your ability to reach long term goals. This, when it works out, is quite nice.
So there you have it – some suggestions for managing high openness and high conscientiousness. I hope that’s helpful. Good luck!