Discovering Your Niche: Are You a Fish Trying to Climb a Tree?

Suppose you’re about to assemble a new piece of equipment. It’s the first time you’re ever going to do it and there’s a big box of equipment parts before you, waiting to be joined together to create something functional. How do you approach the task?

  1. You fish out the instruction manual from the box, sit down, and take the time to read it cover to cover from start to finish before doing anything with the equipment parts.
  2. You immediately dive into assembling whatever parts you get your hands on and connecting those that seem to go together, disregarding the instruction manual and going through the task by trial and error.
  3. You first take the parts out of the box and evaluate each of them for craftsmanship, checking and counting all the nuts, bolts and screws to make sure you have the complete materials.
  4. You group together similar parts and mentally organize a system of how you’re going to do the task, then proceed to assemble the parts in a methodical manner.

 

People differ in the way they think, feel, and act. Your response to the question above gives a clue with regard to your “acting” part, or your particular “conative style.” Your conative style is your instinctive way of interacting with your environment or your natural method of taking action. Simply put, it’s how you do things. It is derived from the concept of “conation” which, along with cognition and affect, comprise the three parts of the mind identified by the early philosophers. If you’re like most people, you may be more familiar with cognition (the thinking part) and affect (the feeling part), but not conation (the acting or doing part). The term conation somehow fell out of use over the years, so it’s the least known of the three parts of the mind. However, there has been a recent revival in the interest and study of conation, especially in relation to areas such as learning and task performance.

Kathy Kolbe is a leading expert in the modern study of conation and conative styles. Proposing that there are four instinctual manners by which people learn, tackle a task, or carry out problem-solving, she identified the four action modes people have when it comes to learning new things or accomplishing a particular task: Fact Finder, Quick Start, Implementor and Follow Thru. While you are capable of operating through any of the four action modes, you are bound to have one or two which you feel most natural operating under, and at least one which will feel somehow unnatural or awkward to you. Try to see which of the four action modes sound most like you:

1. Fact Finder

Fact Finders operate under the Probing Instinct. As such, they prefer investigating every nook and cranny of a situation, lesson, or task before jumping in or actually doing anything. Detail-oriented, thorough, and precise, they love gathering information, collecting facts, probing details, and refining information. They need to know all there is to know about a task before starting it, so in the question raised earlier, Fact Finders are most likely to choose option A as their answer—these are the types of people who will painstakingly go through the instruction manual and possibly even Google additional details if they find gaps in information. As lovers of facts, detail, and complexity, they would most excel in areas such as research or any other field which requires a lot of probing, deliberating, defining, and evaluating.

2. Quick Start

Quick Starts are powered by the Innovating Instinct. Spontaneous and with a tendency to be impatient, they jump straight into a task without much ado, learning best by the process of trial and error. When faced with an unfamiliar task, they’re the kind of people who will just “wing it” and figure things out as they go along instead of asking for more time to prepare or attacking an instruction manual for direction. In the question raised earlier, Quick Starts most probably chose option B as their answer (or possibly even skipped the above paragraphs to go straight into the interpretation part of their response). Fluent with ideas, stimulated by nearing deadlines, and risk-taking, they can comfortably ad lib their way through an impromptu presentation and would perform best in tasks which require inventiveness, brainstorming, and improvisation.

3. Implementor

Implementors are driven by the Demonstrating Instinct. For them, ideas can be best understood by converting them into concrete form, and stories are best told by acting them out using objects or their own hands. Building and constructing are two of the words that sound most appealing to the Implementors, as they feel a strong need to create, prefer to work directly with physical objects, and have strong instincts relating to handling space and tangibles. They value good workmanship and quality materials, so Implementors are most likely to choose option C in the initial question raised earlier. Masters of hands-on tasks and gifted at envisioning 3D forms, they would be most comfortable and stand out in areas such as engineering, architecture, carpentry, handicrafts, and artistic work.

4. Follow Thru

Follow Thrus are motivated by the Patterning Instinct. This instinct drives them to seek a sense of order in whatever they do, leading them to set up structured systems, focus on establishing protocols, and devote time to planning, organizing and drafting schedules and timelines.  Oriented to planning, organizing, and implementing what they have planned, they would most select option D when asked the question raised earlier. As the methodical, systematic and efficient type, Follow Thrus will invent systems when there is no preexisting one to follow, and may feel the urge to reform environments which are disorganized or lacking a sense of predictability and order. As such, they are best suited in fields and positions which need them to create structure, coordinate and organize, draft well-thought-out plans, and bring efficiency to systems.

So there you have it—the Fact Finder, the Quick Start, the Implementor, and the Follow Thru. While the situational question raised at the beginning of this article may have granted a clue as to which action mode you favor, that alone is not enough to determine which conative style you tend to adhere to across a variety of situations and aspects in life. Taking a research-based test that evaluates conative style is still the most reliable way to discover your own action mode profile. While for cognition or the thinking part of the mind, assessments are made through IQ tests, and for affect or the feeling domain, measures are evaluated through personality tests, for conation or the doing part, Kolbe devised the Kolbe Indexes. These indexes help you identify your instinctive action patterns based on your responses to a set of multiple-choice questions. You can take the formal Kolbe Index tests online (kolbe.com) for a charge, and the results delivered to you come with a personalized interpretation by Kolbe, along with advice on how to make your natural methods of acting work best for you.

Taking the Kolbe Index tests would be a great way to discover your personal conative style and learn how to make the most out of it, but one doesn’t need to actually take the tests to see the powerful implications and significance of this concept. Just discovering the concept of conative styles and differences in instinctive ways of acting can radically change your life for the better in at least two major ways.

First, with regard to how you deal with other people. When you’re trying to work with others—as part of a team, for instance, or as a parent helping your child with his homework, it’s easy to get frustrated with how others approach tasks when you’re incompatible in terms of conative styles. When there’s a new piece of equipment you need to assemble at the office, you may get annoyed if a Quick Start immediately begins jamming parts together while you as a Fact Finder insist that you need to read the instruction manual first before touching anything. As a parent, you may have the impression your child is fussy or a slow learner if he needs to thoroughly review the instructions or ask a ton of questions first before starting on a project, but the truth is that you may just be expecting him to approach the task like you as a Quick Start when he is, in fact, a Fact Finder. So you see, recognizing that each person differs in his or her way of going about a task can save you from a lot of frustration and from the tendency to undervalue other people’s capacities.

The ability to be perceptive and understand differences in the instinctive ways people learn and operate best therefore has major influences when it comes to playing your role as a parent, a teacher, a part of a team, or a manager. The fact that we differ in terms of our preferences in how we operate does not imply that we should devise systems that seek to standardize how we learn or do things. Instead, this concept points us to work towards creating a system that banks on—not suppresses—the innate strengths and inherent aptitudes of each person, whether in school, at home, or at the workplace. As Einstein nicely puts it, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Second, the concept of conative styles is significant in regard to achieving a sense of “being in your element” and maximizing your potentials as a person. You first need to accept that you have an instinctive style of doing things, and you have to believe that you have a natural aptitude for something. As mentioned earlier, you have the capacity to operate under all four modes of doing, and you’re bound to face situations when you’ll need to act in a way that’s unnatural to you. But while you can learn to get by with other styles, operating under the conative style that’s most natural to you is what will truly grant you the highest chances of succeeding with the least bloodshed and struggle on your part.

Still in keeping with the analogy used by Einstein in the quote above, if you’re a fish, don’t expect you can win in a contest of climbing trees—it’s primarily a contest for squirrels, not for fish. In the same way, squirrels, even though by some form of miracle they be granted the ability to breathe underwater, can never win against you in a contest which involves plunging in the depths of the ocean. The waters, after all, are your territory as a fish; it’s where you were created to thrive and where you’re most suited in. The key to unlocking the genius in you is to identify the inherent capacity you have and work to strengthen it, instead of struggling against it in an attempt to conform to how other people do it. Actively seek out environments which allow you to play your strengths and to which you feel you can contribute most. In so doing, you will not only avoid feeling like a fish out of water, but also rise to be a big fish in the field you do pursue. ♦

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