Neuroticism gets a bad rap, with its tendencies toward anxiety, depression, and mood swings. But being neurotic can sometimes be an asset.
One of the Big 5 personality traits, neuroticism is on the opposite end of the spectrum from emotional stability. It’s usually defined as a predilection toward being fearful or worried.
Much of the research on neuroticism has focused on the negative. Neurotic people are more likely to detect threats in their environments, which can lead to difficulty in relationships, mood swings, and rumination over what could go wrong. They have been found to be more easily distracted, less self confident, and to have lower salaries than their more stable peers.
However, neurotic tendencies can be incredibly helpful in the right context.
Daniel Nettle, author of “
Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are,” reports that people who score highly on tests for neuroticism tend to be strivers. They will work incredibly hard even without a promised external reward in order to prevent any dangers they see ahead of them.
Additionally, Nettle says that neuroticism “unleashes the power of rumination.” When you ruminate, you ceaselessly go over the smallest details of a scenario. This is a depressive pattern in many cases — obsessing over the contents of your last breakup might not be helpful to your wellbeing — but can be incredibly useful for people whose job it is to anticipate problems or deeply understand a subject.
Rumination is “undoubtedly toxic in the wrong circumstances,” Nettle says, “but it is also the greatest tool of the scholar.”
In an academic’s case, focused rumination might come in handy when modelling an equation or meditating on Renaissance Italy. For an entrepreneur, that energy may be channeled into thinking through a software interface, marketing strategy, or pitch deck, in the same way a screenwriter could use it to envision every detail of a scene.
Interestingly, while research suggests that neurotic people tend to have lower career attainment in most industries — often due to stress-related illness — they do well in occupations reliant on so-called “knowledge work.” What’s more, neuroticism predicts academic performance among undergrads, Nettle reports, “at least for those with the self-discipline to convert their worry into work.”
That goes along with a study that found that neurotic people can actually be healthier than other folks — so long as they’re also conscientious. In other words, neuroticism can be an asset, but only if your worries are channeled into your work.
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