The term "Type A" is a medical distinction for high risk cardiovascular disease patients. Psychologists expanded upon it to determine what behaviors or beliefs could also typify this personality. However, it's since been discovered that most of the research on Type A behavior was a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt by tobacco companies to absolve themselves of responsibility and blame smokers' bad health on their personality type (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300816). It should also be noted that for over thirty years psychologists and neuroscientists have generally concluded that even the idea of a personality type is inherently flawed, demonstrably false, and thinking of oneself as a fixed type is detrimental (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-buddha-was-introvert/201404/there-is-no-such-thing-introvert-or-extrovert). The best personality typing assessments out there fail the most basic of scientific requirements: reliable reproducibility (http://fortune.com/2013/05/15/have-we-all-been-duped-by-the-myers-briggs-test/).
Type A, as it's thought of in the zeitgeist, isn't real. It's unscientific. However, there is something which is real, and for which I believe Type A is code language: addiction - specifically, overcommitment to a given activity, like career or the workplace. This is, after all, the hallmark Type A humble brag: I'm a work-a-holic. Quite obviously this isn't a brag at all. It's a fairly depressing commentary on one's inability to have depth of character, breadth of expertise, balance in life and the cultivation of meaningful relationships or the wherewithal to maintain them. Identifying as a Type A is a real problem.
The people who live the healthiest, happiest, longest lives do have some common traits, and none of them are what we typically think of as Type A. According to the Blue Zones (the National Geographic study of the healthiest, happiest, longest lived people), family first, sense of community and purpose, along with stress management and physical activity all feature heavily. Totally absent from the list is upward career trajectory or amassing a fortune. And that's why thinking you're a Type A is not good for you in the broad idea or abstract. But let's talk about it on the individual concrete level.
In the past fourteen years I've encountered tens of thousands of fitness club members and would-be customers, and thousands of clients, and I hired and developed hundreds of employees. Sometimes people use the term "Type A" just to mean driven or passionate. Great. That's very helpful. However, among those who meant "Type A" as overcommitted to work, I can't think of a single time they succeeded at the majority of their stated goals with any staying power. And I'm not just talking about fitness. They're woefully depressed and depressing people, having yoked their self-worth to a single job, which itself may or may not be of any real value. Their internal integrity is worthless, because every time they say they are going to do something, a workplace demand will trump their own word. This is a slippery slope. Once someone learns not to listen to himself, he's become very skillful at letting himself and others down with regularity.
To illustrate, consider the following. Several years ago a young woman who considered herself Type A came to me for coaching. She was a new mom with a one-year old. The woman couldn't stop calling herself a "classic Type A," proudly mentioning her attainment of a high level executive position at a Fortune 500 company. I didn't burst her bubble by telling her that I have lots of clients who are as or more professionally successful. I just let her have her moment. She was intense and high energy. As she began to outline for me a typical day, week and month, I realized that there was no way adding workout time to her schedule was going to be beneficial at this point in her life. She had just described a workday wherein she maybe spends 30 minutes with her baby at the end of the day. I told her my concern. But she assured me that she was now operating at a high enough level in her career that she could set the work hours, the meeting times and travel schedule more or less. In order to make it work, she required our appointments be at a specific morning time where I already had dependable regulars. Normally, I'd point someone like this elsewhere. My hope got the better of me, and I shuffled the calendar around for her.
Our first movement assessment raised more red flags. She couldn't solidly perform a basic squat. This is no big deal. I see it all the time. But based on the way she had described herself beforehand, it was a little puzzling, given that she wanted to perform and claimed she was prepared for advanced workouts. It's a common theme among people who aren't even ready for beginner workouts: just push me. For safety's sake, you have to lay some ground work before the hardcore stuff. Due to recent child-bearing and sedentary lifestyle, pelvic floor musculature and hip stabilizing muscles are sleepy. It's common. I began to describe the path of initial corrective exercise, and she interjected, "but I was just doing hard workouts two years ago!" Within the second week, she was already cancelling and rescheduling due to early morning work meetings. These were the same meetings she promised herself would take a backseat to her new healthy lifestyle.
This is a familiar story. Like most self-identified Type A professionals, she fizzled. My colleagues in the fitness industry know this well. The best clients are driven people who are capable of leaving work on time, setting boundaries, and seeking some sort of human balance. These people keep their word. They work the steps. The worst clients are the alleged high achievers who don't really have anything else in the portfolio. Whatever they say is totally unreliable because it is contingent on their fluctuating perception of workplace demand; and they haven't gained the maturity to control it.
Starting right after that same client's predictable departure, I changed something fundamental in my approach which has been profound. I began telling clients in their first consult that there is no such thing as Type A. You are going to have plateaus, setbacks, sticking points, possibly injuries and illness. All hell is going to break loose at home and at work. You are going to get audited. You are going to have some inexplicable health concern or an elusive ache or pain. You are going to lose a loved one. It's going to be tough. It's going to be challenging. Now what? Now how Type A are you about your fitness program? You're not. You're lost. You're demotivated. You're a quitter. What is going to happen when that inevitable day arrives? What if that day is tomorrow? Don't just hope and pray that day is years away. What if that day is later this afternoon? There are some lucky people who go long periods of time without any real challenge. Luck is not a strategy. What is your strategy for the worst week?
By having this "face reality" talk, I've seen the self-proclaimed Type A clients last ten times longer than they used to. It's akin to the realization in child psychology that we aren't doing kids any favors by calling them smart. Instead, focus on the effort and work that brought about the success. In the same way that children can become increasingly risk-averse and progressively incapable of acquiring new skills by identifying as smart, adults can paint themselves into a corner by identifying as Type A.
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." - Henry Ford
If you want something different, you have to do something different. Thinking you're a Type A is the same thing you've always done. Thinking Type A is good is the same thing you've always done. It's time to do something different.
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