Forget about Nature versus Nature: You Are your Projects!

Quick, don’t overthink this: Make a list of your current projects, large and small. These could be anything from planning your daughter’s birthday party to making that trek to Big Bend you’ve long promised yourself. From organizing the next book club meeting to cleaning out the storage shed. Designing a spiritual “place of creative incubation,” to borrow Joseph Campbell’s words, to writing the great American novel. (Re that last one, don’t bother. Steinbeck’s already written it.)

OK, start writing. I’ll just wait while you make your list. Go ahead.

Got it? OK, now put that aside for a few words on personality. In a nutshell, each of us–you and me and all 7.7 billion of us–is a unique mixture of our inherited genetic code and all the familial, social, and cultural influences that have affected us through the years, particularly, but certainly not limited to, early childhood. That’s the nature and nurture we’ve heard so much about. But there’s more: We are also the values that have become central to our lives and are manifested daily through the projects we choose to engage in. Nature plus nurture plus the projects through which we live out our values. 

Cool, huh?

Thanks for this novel look at the old but still true nature/nurture question goes to Cambridge University professor Brian Little, whom I encountered through his TED talk and fascinating book, Me, Myself, and Us. Professor Little’s relatively short and user-friendly treatise on the psychology of personality encouraged me to look at the projects I engage in and, as a result, at my personal values, which appear to include going back to school for another degree at least once per decade and making lists of things. All kinds of things. Books I need to buy. Things I need to remind myself, on a daily basis, to take with me to work (old age has its gifts, but a sharpened memory isn’t one of them). Various trivia like the distance measured by a light year, the current population of planet Earth, the various Homo species who wandered the planet before Homo sapiens. The four elements of successful borderline personality therapy. John Wesley’s “quadrilateral of authority.” Bryan Stevenson’s “five recommendations for racial healing.” I am not kidding. And I am not particularly proud of that. I’m sure there’s a mental disorder related to compulsive list-making somewhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but I have no intention of looking it up. (But if I ever do, I will surely make a list of the symptoms.)

All of which serves as yet another reminder that I really need to get a life. But at least I’m more clear about my values, which no doubt include education and the collection of facts that no one else cares about. 

So, who are you? Go back to your list now and read what you’ve written. And ask yourself, what values underlie these projects? What do they say about you? Household projects might suggest the value of creating a welcoming home environment for family and friends. Book club projects might signal the value of getting together on a regular basis with good friends and, of course, a love for learning. Planning that child’s birthday party might suggest the importance of creating family rituals and traditions or simply the joy of providing pleasant memories for those you love.

Our projects reveal our values, and our values point to who we are at our deepest selves. That is to say, they point to who we are at the soul level. Which of the projects on your list most reveal your true values and your personality? Are there any on your list that are getting in the way of what you most want to value? Is there a personal value that you’ve neglected and need to help make manifest through a project?

You are your projects. Engage them proudly, intentionally, and conscientiously.