McAdams Theory of Personality

You can learn about Professor McAdams here.
You can also download his papers here.

Among his papers, the one that most clearly state his Theory of Personality is: A new Big Five: Fundamental Principles for an Integrative Science of Personality.

Prof. Dan P. McAdams

I love his theory because it offers a good framework for thinking about personality and about change.
I love it because it is science. I love it because it talks about “integration”. It sure helped me integrate my knowledge and my experience about personality and change. I can see people have traits. I find the Big Five Questionnaire very useful in my work. At the same time I see people change. Being a coach means being a change agent, and my coachee demonstrate their ability to change, in impressive ways, day in and day out.

I encourage you to read the paper.
However, here it is in a nutshell.
Personality is conceived as:

  1. an individual’s unique variation on the general evolutionary design for human nature
    Mc Adams’ framework is based on evolutionary psychology. He makes it very clear that evolutionary psychology is not just another theory. In his words: “most of the grand theories are faith-based systems whose first principles are untested and untestable (Mendelsohn, 1993). In contrast, we contend that an integrative science of persons should be built around a first principle that enjoys the imprimatur of the biological sciences”.
  2. expressed as a developing patterns of dispositional traits
    After the attacks launched on the concept of traits in the 70s, “not only did the concept of the trait survive the attacks, it emerged stronger than ever before”. Personality trait scores do predict observed behavioral trends across situations and over time. They do predict important life outcomes. Traits show long-term stability. They have strong heritability quotients (about 50%). Links between certain traits and the functioning of the brain are emerging. The Big 5 itself has proven to be a useful and coherent framework for organizing traits, maintaining its validity across cultures.
  3. characteristic adaptations
    Plans, strategies, cognitive styles. Beliefs, values. Goals and motivational concerns. All these are characteristic adaptations. Characteristic because they are ways in which the character is expressed. Adaptations because they are unique to the individual, they are contextualized in time and space, they are triggered by specific roles and social demands.
    This is one level where change happens. This is the level where we operate as coaches, therapists and change agents.
  4. and self-defining life narratives
    These are the stories individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world.
    Each one of us has a life story. The more it matches our traits and our characteristic adaptations, the more it is healthy. This is another level where change happens. Coaching can be seen as a joint venture between the coach and the coachee to edit, reframe and construct empowering self-narratives.
  5. complexly and differentially situated in culture and social context.
    Culture. It provides context for expressing traits and characteristic adaptations. Extraverts in Kyoto express their sociability differently from their equally extraverted middle class Americans in, say, Cleveland. Culture. It provides a menu for life narratives. No person is ever exposed to the same menu. Each person chooses from the menu.

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Deliberate Practice

My friend Coert Visser mentioned the book “Talent is Overrated” in one of his interesting postings (here).
I’ve just finished reading that book, and there are quite a few noteworthy concepts in there.

First, though, my critique.
My main complaint about the book is that, as Coert again succinctly put it in a personal note, it should have been titled “Deliberate Practice”.
The author, in an attempt to give more relevance to the concept of “deliberate practice”, sets out by criticizing the notion of talent as an explanation of expert performance.
Granted, the author does a good job in highlighting the limits of talent-based explanations; however, the most one can say about these explanations is that they are incomplete – not that they are not valid.
His overall attack is based on a handful of studies and falls flat: all he achieves to do, in my opinion, is to note that the concept of talent still needs to be worked out in the details and that it is still debated among researchers.
It kind of reminds me of the creationists’ attacks on evolution: since biologists are still arguing about the details of evolution (e.g., punctuated equilibrium), then evolution is false.
The author, moreover, in an attempt to convince readers of the vital importance of skill-development and expert performance, dedicates a full chapter to explain that because companies and banks are awash in cash and money is everywhere, the only area where businesses can build a competitive edge is in the development of human resources.
That chapter written in 2007 before the current financial meltdown can either make you cry or make you laugh out loud.

Having said that, the core of the book is pretty good.
The main idea is that the way to excellence is practice. Deliberate practice.
Deliberate means that:
– it is designed specifically to improve performance
– it can be repeated a lot
– feedback is continuously available
– it is highly demanding mentally
– it isn’t fun
Jogging 5 times a week, same route, same amount of time–that is practice.
It is maintaining an acceptable level of performance.
Running 3 or 4 times a week, alternating between long runs, speedwork, tempo runs and different routes, following a program, monitored by a coach—that is deliberate practice!!
It is about stretching the limits.
In this process, a key role is given to the COACH.

As the author points out:
– an expert coach can observe you in ways that you cannot see yourself
– an expert coach can design a program that fits your needs, based on the body of knowledge on how performance is developed in that field
– an expert coach can tell which specific elements are needed for a specific performance and need to be developed by working intently on them.
Therefore, starting out on a path of deliberate practice is “extremely difficult to do without the help of a teacher or coach“.

The author illustrates these points by using some interesting examples: a study done in then West Berlin on talented violinists; studies done on chess players; stories about football star players.
He also distinguishes between different models of deliberate practice: the music model, the chess model and the sports model.

Interestingly enough, the advantage of practice is cumulative.
I remember reading a book written by a SAS member (Special Air Service, the elite British Army unit) on his experiences with that outfit. He said that the motto of the SAS should be changed from “who dares wins” to “practice, practice, practice”, because of the mind-numbing, continuos rehearsals. Yet that is the very key to their successes: they could not have dared, let alone won, without all that practice!!

The book “Talent is Overrated” reminded me of how much we as coaches need deliberate practice too.
That is why I loved Solutionsurfers advanced brief coaching training program, more specifically the “live coaching days”: 3 days of live coaching with real clients.
Intense; a lot of practice; real time feedback; stretching the limits.
I learned more in those 3 days than in hour after hour of “regular” coaching.
I am looking forward to the next “live coaching days” in April 2009!
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