Recently I was reading up on the term “type A personalities“, which I have seen used by academic bloggers to describe themselves. Apparently, type A personalities tend to be impatient, short-fused, efficient, organized, status-oriented, very competitive, quite aggressive, and most of all, workaholics. In this description, I recognized all the bosses that I had during my science career, and many of my peers.
They run to the printer because they are so busy, they throw tantrums, they yell, they want to have everything under control, they are very self-involved, they are very well organized and they put their hearts and souls into their work, and are often angry because they suspect others don’t work as hard as them.
Because I admired my bosses, and maybe because I am prone to pick up emotions from my surrounding, I became more like a type A personality myself in many aspects while I worked in academia. I got more perfectionist, more excitable, more irritable, walked faster, ate faster, thought harder than I had ever before. With every year, I found it harder to do nothing in holidays without becoming very nervous. Also, I started to get increasingly irritated with people I saw as incompetent or even just less ambitious than me. For a while, I was angry at the cleaning crew at the University, because they were so slow, and so without ambition and goals. I knew that this anger was totally over the line, knowing how much privilege I had over them, but I nevertheless felt it. How could they have so little aspiration in life? It pissed me off.
This irrational anger wandered around during all the time where I worked hard and denied myself from going for a walk on that beautiful summer day and denied myself living where I actually wanted to live, because work was more important. I sometimes felt it directed at children in the subway, having sudden fantasies of smacking my hand into their clueless faces. But the most common trigger for my anger was other scientists who I felt were not careful enough, wrote unclearly or pursued useless projects. Although I luckily never attacked anyone directly, I felt this anger very often when going through the preprints, listening to bad talks, hearing about people’s stupid priorities in research, and, towards the end of my time in academia, the anger became almost unstoppable.
This anger is a classic type A personality trait. This is why they often suffer from hypertension and have a high risk of heart attacks.
Of course, there was a lot of projection involved in my anger. I was angry at the slow and unambitious parts I felt inside myself, and I was angry at myself for potentially not being careful enough in science or choosing the wrong projects (and you never really know if those things are the case or not).
Nevertheless, now, after having left academia, I slowly seem to lose some of the type A characteristics that I picked up and which were never really mine. I was impatient as a researcher, but now I am very patient with my students, and I don’t get nervous about slow people in the checkout line anymore.
Maybe picking up traits and people of people around you is typical for HSPs — our surrounding influences us very strongly and we tend to feel other people’s emotion. Although I have always seemed ambitious to others, even as a child, I feel like I am very different from true type A’s. Maybe the difference is the true type A’s love to fight, and love to win, and love to be in the spotlight, while I crave a feeling of security and always hoped the next achievement would make me feel safe, which never happened. I am not interested in status or in being the center of attention, which type A’s usually love.
I guess the massive relief I sometimes feel about having left is to some degree because with academia, I also have left type-A-personality-land. This is not to say I have gotten rid of all type A characteristics I picked up. But at least I have far less other type A’s around me, which is good for me. I still worry a lot, make endless to-do list and constantly have to try to at least limit my perfectionism. But my anger towards children and cleaners has totally dissipated, and I feel like it was never really mine, but a signal that I picked up, a general tendency towards looking down on other people that I many people in academia have, or at least my bosses had. I am glad that I don’t feel like this anymore, not only because the feeling is unsettling to have, but because it is impossible to look down on others without also looking down on yourself.