Brian Little


Dr. Brian R. Little ist für mich der „Godfather of Personal Projects“. Seit den 1960er Jahren forscht er an Personal Projects und wie diese mit unserem Wohlbefinden zusammenhängen. Er ist aber nicht nur ein verdienstvoller Forscher in diesem Gebiet, sondern auch ein international ausgezeichneter Professor und Speaker im Bereich der Persönlichkeitspsychologie. Er hat an den Universitäten in Oxford, Harvard, McGill und Carleton unterrichtet und lehrt immer noch an den Universitäten in Cambridge und Ottawa, wo er auch lebt.

Ich habe Brian Little Anfang März 2018 in Cambridge zu einem Interview getroffen. Ich habe mir damit nicht nur einen Herzenswunsch erfüllt, sondern auch einen überaus herzlichen und offenen Menschen kennengelernt. Und nicht zuletzt bin ich mit vielen Ideen und Inspirationen für meine nächsten Podcast-Folgen heimgekehrt.

In diesem Interview spannen wir den Bogen von den Anfängen seiner Personal Projects Forschung über die größten Herausforderungen der Personal Projects der Gegenwart bis hin zu seinen Visionen fürPersonal Projects in der Zukunft.

Hier kannst du das Interview als Podcast nachhören:

  • Interview Teil 1 – Hier geht es um…
    • die Anfänge seiner Personal Projects Forschung
    • ob sich Personal Projects seither durch Facebook & Co. verändert haben
    • wie das Personal Project „Schwangerschaft” am besten gelingt
    • ob „faule“ Menschen auch Personal Projects haben
  • Interview Teil 2 – Hier geht es um…
    • unsere Core Projects (Herzensprojekte) und wie wir sie erkennen
    • den Grund, warum wir am Morgen aufstehen (ground projects)
    • seine Vision für Personal Projects in der Zukunft
    • was einen exzellenten (introvertierten) Lehrer ausmacht

Und für alle, die lieber Deutsch als Englisch lesen: Hier geht’s zur deutschen Übersetzung des Interviews.

Das Interview

Günter Schmatzberger (GS): I am sitting here in a lovely hotel in Cambridge, England. Right next to me is Professor Brian Little. My listeners know about Professor Little already. He has a fan community in Austria already because he is the inventor or the Godfather of Personal Projects. Welcome to the show, Brian!

Brian Little (BL): Thank you, Günter, very much. I am delighted to be here and really interested in what you are doing in this podcast.

GS: Brian, you have been studying Personal Projects for most of your professional life, right? But how did this all come about? Where did you discover Personal Projects, or where did they discover you?

BL: Well the latter is probably better! I was thinking of tracing back the origin of my project about projects. And a pivotal point was when I was still an undergraduate and I was in the field of neuropsychology. I was all set to go to Berkeley to do a study oh the brains of small rodents. I was looking for an atlas of the brain, which I needed for some analysis I was doing. I reached up in the college library and instead of the stereotaxic atlas of the brain what came down was a misplaced copy of a book by George Kelly called „The Psychology of Personal Constructs”.

George Kelly’s work, which I spent a bit of time on in „Ich, die anderen und wir”, looks at how our lives are channeled by the personal constructs, which are goggles through which we see the world. Some people see the world in terms of „I got power”, „He doesn’t have power”, „I am tall, he’s short”. Others look at „nice”, „warm”… and we constrain ourselves by the way we mount and deploy our personal constructs.

So I began reading – it wasn’t what I had gone to the library for at all – and I sat down at the floor, and about seven hours later I got up and I said „I don’t want to study rat brains. I want to study human personality through the goggles of personal construct theory.“ So when I got to Berkeley I changed from neuropsychology into personality psychology.

I actually had a chance to visit with George Kelly at Stanford, which is just down the peninsula from Berkeley. He challenged me. I said „I am really a Kellyan” and he said „Well don’t be a Kellyan, be a Kelly!”, which I thought was a really interesting way of looking at it. So he challenged me to come up with something like Personal Constructs.

As I was driving home I realized the route that I was on – I was heading back to where I was living in Berkeley – was the way our lives often are: there are highways and off-ramps, and it’s not the constructs, it’s the project that I was engaged in that was really important. So it was on that road where I first started thinking about „extended acts of personally salient conduct in context”, the definition of Personal Projects. That’s how – along with a bunch of other influences, but some of which are purely chimerical. They bounce out at you. As you say – projects choose you sometimes.

GS: Right. Now let’s fast forward into the year 2018. What we know about Personal Projects has changed. It has certainly evolved what we know about ourselves, about how brains work, about how personalities interact with Personal Projects. But how have Personal Projects themselves evolved? Are they different than when you first started looking at Personal Projects? Do people nowadays deal with different projects? Do young people concern themselves with different things than they used to do?

BL: That’s a really interesting question. The short answer is: No, I don’t see many [differences]. What’s the song… „The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” And so the categories like interpersonal projects, health/body projects, academic or work projects are as frequently listed now – suggesting that there is a kind of fundamental unity to the kinds of projects we pursue. Which are of course influenced by our stage in the life cycle.

So for university students, which we often study (though not exclusively), there are several kinds of personal projects Nancy Cantor calls „life tasks”, which we need to carry out as part of our social expectations. A university student wants to get independent of parents, wants do do well academically, wants to make friends, wants to clarify their own personal aspirations. Every year you see the same projects emerge and trying to claim the time and resources of the individual who is pursuing them.

But if you start looking at the appraisals of the projects, then you begin to get some interesting possibilities. I haven’t actually looked at this yet but I am sure we’re going to discover it, which is that the visibility of your projects, which used to vary quite a bit on an average score of about 6 out of 10. I bet now these projects that people list in the matrix are far more visible to others – because of Facebook!

So it would be really interesting to see if this means that people now have more support for their projects, which you know is one of the factors of „connection with others“ that we think is important, one of the Big Five factors within project pursuit. So the content remains roughly the same, but the appraisals may change over time – at least on some of the dimensions. But most of the dimensions even there… One of my doctoral students actually looked at the similarities in the appraisals over time. Visibility hadn’t changed up until 1990. But boy, after 1990 or after Facebook, which is what, 2005 or something? That would be a fascinating study to run as to see if things have changed there.

GS: So Facebook is kind of like a photo album of Personal Projects, right? Would you say we learn more about people by seeing more about their Personal Projects on Facebook?

BL: That’s an interesting question. We will learn more about their daily activities. The meanings behind those activities, the appraisals of them, I think require further probing. We have such limited ways of expressing ourselves ironically on Facebook. Looking for example at the equivalent of the project dimension that we use, such as „How much control do you have?”, „How visible are they to other people?”, „How enjoyable are they? How much joy do you experience in this project?”. These are things that often are not accessed in Facebook status updates.

Just say „I’m going to the gym.” How do you feel about that? Terrible! Or awesome! Or „I’m picking up my daughter at school.” How do you feel about that? Bored. Or elated, I can’t wait to see her. I think that the combination of the content of the project and the appraisal you give of it is really crucial.

There are really marked individual differences in how we appraise those similar things we all list on Facebook. So I think there is more to it. We need to go beyond Facebook validity.

GS: But this would explain why some people show photos of their meals because they see a sense of meaning in that while other people don’t?

BL: Well I lurk on a Facebook account that my daughter set up for me. I never use it. I use Linkedin and  I use Twitter a lot but Facebook, no. I have yet to post a picture of my dinner or brushing my teeth or anything like that at all. But if I did it would be accompanied by some whimsical phrase I’m sure, because otherwise it’s dead boring. *laughs*

GS: You said that the fundamental things have not changed much over the years, over the decades, maybe not even over the centuries…

BL: That’s right, yeah. I think that there are some fundamental things that do apply. That we need to form relations with others, that we are a deeply social animal. Connection to others through joint projects is critical. We found that one of the best predictors of a long-term relationship being sustainable is the emotional support in your projects by the other person. And sharing projects! Many think „Well, I need to have my space and my partner needs his or her space.”. That’s true to a certain extent, but if you are really just two separate project systems never intersecting and enjoying  each other’s convivial delight, then that’s something that can lead to problems.

GS: Okay, so the fundamental things do not change, and one thing you said that is important with family, with partnerships, with romantic relationships is we need to have common projects and shared projects, not only our separate personal projects. What do you think are the most challenging aspects of those shared projects in a relationship, in a family?

BL: There actually is some research on this. One of them is a stream of research that shows that the emotional support of one’s partner is really crucial. We studied this with pregnant women – pregnancy as a project. We looked at what are the factors within the projects that lead to a successful pregnancy? We defined both subjective and objective indicators such as the health of the baby at birth, the Apgar-Scores [i.e. the very first test given to a newborn, done right after birth in the delivery or birthing room], and the subjective feelings of the mother. The best predictor of successful outcome of pregnancy among the project dimensions was the emotional support of your partner.

A few years after that we were studying entrepreneurs. We were trying to find out what is the best predictor for their success after their first year – again using a mixture of hard indicators, financial indicators and also subjective experience of „Yeah, this is really a worthwhile venture!”. And the best predictor was the emotional support of the partner! We thought „Boy, this is sort of intriguing!” Because when entrepreneurs say „This is my baby.”, maybe it’s not just a loose metaphor. Maybe it’s very symbolic of the sense of „Boy, this is tough, and it’s great to have your support.”

Now some of these partners in the entrepreneurial ventures were their romantic partners. Others were not, they were just business partners and emotionally important. Not necessarily materially but  just having that emotional support „We’re in this together.”

GS: That actually leads me to two things. One thing is that my wife is pregnant at the moment so I am hoping that I am giving that emotional support to have a successful project. And the other thing is that one of my listeners sent me a question. He is an entrepreneur. He said that he did the project dump. He’s written down all of his projects and he came up within a few minutes, within fifteen or twenty minutes, with over one hundred personal projects. He asked me „Can this actually be? What’s wrong with me to have such a huge amount of Personal Projects, and how can I actually realistically manage this huge amount of Personal Projects?”

BL:  Yeah, it’s a really interesting issue. I have had people who have generated over a hundred as well. I have generated over a hundred myself. I still have a few hundred, and I am extremely old. *laughs* I’ve had some kids who weren’t really sure if they had any projects, but once you give them some examples they say „Ah, okay!”. And very old people, at least very early on when we were studying this, they would say „You mean like: Fixing the shed?”. They do not have to be do-it-yourself-projects. They can be things like  „Checking in with my son” or things like that. Once you are able to explain that personal projects are not necessarily tasks, they are just what you are engaged in – extended sets of activity over time in context – then they tend to generate about fifteen projects in ten minutes. We analyse only ten of them, and some of my Scandinavian colleagues only look at the two most important projects in your system. So the research literature set a fair bit of that variability how many we select to examine in greater detail.

For those who list a great deal I think – certainly for an entrepreneur – that’s terrific. Because it does suggest a kind of openness and engagement with a thousand things I could be pursuing, I am planning on pursuing or get to at some day. Actually it’s a little bit like giving birth, if I can continue on our maternity metaphor here. There is a phrase which George Kelly used which talked about the dilation of your constructs. I think you have dilated project systems where you are open wide to a whole bunch of possibilities. But if you want to get anything delivered you’ve got to push at some stage. This is a gynaecological metaphor, I have no right appropriating as male I have to say. But by that I mean you have to winnow down and make a selection amongst them. Curtain those off you haven’t pursued and put them on hold for a rainy day or for later in your life or when that person enters your life or you feel more ready for that project. But unless you winnow down after you have developed a whole bunch of possible You’s that are embedded in your projects, you won’t get anything done. And that can be dispiriting.

GS: But what about „lazy” people? Are there lazy people who do not have any Personal Projects or do they just have different Personal Projects?

BL: I think often lazy people have their projects, but they are not projects that are valued by others. You know the video game culture, prototypically with younger males, the stereotype is in their parents’ basement and so on. I think it’s a little bit unfair to depict them as only lazy. They may have had very few options to pursue other projects in their life. Typically you’ll find that kids can get absorbed in projects in which they feel efficacious. Efficacy – that is the sense that your projects will turn out fine – is a very important motivator. Without a sense of efficacy in our lives it’s pretty hard to keep going. If your external environment, your social ecology as we call it, does not provide you those outlets in which you can get a sense of efficacy, then sometimes you turn inward. You can turn inward to the computer, to the game you not only gain great efficacy in, you continue to get better and better and better at it.

It’s easy to mock it and say „Get a life!”. But in a way that sense of efficacy is giving him something to hang on to. I think we need to be a little more understanding that that isn’t just a kind of throwaway life. It’s a life that has great potential if you can engage with projects outside. I think if you’re in the basement playing video games forever… that’s not a viable life. First of all it’s cutting you off from genuine encounters with other people. Secondly it’s shortening your likelihood of getting into sustainable projects.

To me the whole issue of human flourishing is the sustainable pursuit of core projects in your life. And I bet you’ll ask me now what a core project is…

Part 2

GS: Exactly. Core projects are a very interesting topic. I think that many people are struggling with the distinction between what is a „normal” personal project and what makes a core project special.

BL: It’s an important question. A core project has several features. One is that it is typically adjacent to a core value that you have in your life. So we ask individuals to list their projects, and then in one of the modules, which is in the more technical aspect of project assessment, we ask individuals to do two kinds of ladders. One asks, off to the right hand side of their projects, „How are you going to engage in these project?” Once they give that answer „How are you going to do THAT?”, „How are you going to do THAT?” until you get down to what we call a „scheduleable act”.  Let’s say in roughly fifteen minutes or so. Some projects can’t even be done that way. Like „Be more sensitive to my wife’s needs”, it may be hard to give a kind of long-step progression. But you can ask them to provide some examples of when will they next communicate that, and so on.

But then after they do that, they go to the left hand side and they answer to the question „Why are you engaged in that project?”, „Why are you doing this particular project?”. You may say „Because it will make my mum feel better.” „And why do you want to do that?” „To get back at my father.” Now, some of these answers we don’t have access to. They are deeply held aspects of the person. It adds the „personal” to the personal project, unlike let’s say formal project management in business.

So, a core project is one that is more adjacent or very closely linked to a core value or „terminal value” in the person’s life. The second aspect of core projects: It is something that we assess by looking at how each of your projects interrelates with all your others. We ask the question „If this project were to change, which of the other projects would change?” You can do that in a kind of symmetrical matrix: Project A may influence Project B, but Project B has little influence on Project A. A core project is a project which if you change it, changes everything else in your life. And if you’re unsuccessful in that, then it is as though the whole project system is at risk for collapsing.

Consequently, a third feature of core projects is that we are very resistant to changing it. A core project is what gives a sense of architectonic structure to your life. Bernard Williams, a philosopher, has actually used a similar term „ground project” – „Grunden Projekt”, is that right?

I could sing a German folk song, if you like… *sings*

It makes no sense. It’s from a German text I read in the second year of undergraduate life and I have no idea… I think it means „With red face and moist brow up the mountain I go.” There you go. That’s all the German you get in this interview. *laughs* This has never been done before, no. It’s a project of mine to actually get a recording of German „Lieder”. *laughs*

Now, back to my serious question… Oh yes, ground project. This is terrible because this is such a serious definition. A ground project is one which if you do not have one makes you question wether one should go on at all. That’s a very profound capturing of how a ground or core project is that which makes you get up in the morning. The profound effect that not having a core project – which you may not be able to label yourself – without a ground project you can be bereft of a sense of meaning in your life and you may question what’s worth doing and what’s worth living for.

GS: From your experience, what are people struggling most with when it comes to personal projects, core projects? Is it that the don’t know about their core values at all? From my experience it is very difficult to articulate values, to actually find your terminal values, to actually find your reasons behind all that I’m doing. Is that one of the most pressing challenges?

BL: This is a serious issue. I think that in pre-modern times, and by that I am sort of meaning from the 1800s onward as modern, we used to have more circumscribed lives that were very rule based. We knew our place, and you knew what the meaning of your life was because you had that structure provided to you by religious institutions or tribal custom or other structures and strictures. That meant you didn’t have to decide what you wanted because you knew what you wanted. Certainly even back to the Renaissance but into the 19th, 20th century the rise of freedom and liberty to pursue your own path of life was dizzyingly free but it also lead to a lot of anxiety about „What am I to do?” and „What ought I to pursue?”

I think it goes to the whole question of authenticity in our lives. I talk about three different types of authenticity – in terms of the socio-ecological model, which you may discuss in one of your podcasts. The biogenic influence is  where you do what feels good to you. It just feels „me” to engage in this project. That’s a biogenic authenticity. A sociogenic authenticity is where you do what ought to be done, what is expected of you at this stage of your life or in this culture, in this family. But there’s a third: the ideogenic authenticity, which is „I am acting this way because it is consonant with my core projects in my life. That draws from both the biogenic and the sociogenic but it is shaped by your own aspirations. By your own singular way of looking at the world and the context that you personally have to deal with. I think that it is getting all those balanced – and I even think we need strategic imbalance at times where you have to engage in projects that may throw others in disarray in order to advance your core projects.

So we get into trade-offs. I think probably one of the most frequent problems that people experience is that conflict between projects. Conflict between your own projects, and conflict between your projects and those of your organisation or your loved ones or your kids. Sorting out those projects in terms of remediating the conflicts between those projects while maintaining a sense of authenticity in your life is a real challenge.

GS: You mentioned something interesting I think. There’s a conflict between projects. Let’s take work as an example. My personal projects may not be in alignment with the projects at work. How do we deal with these situations? Is there anything we can do as employees, or is there anything the company could to to enhance the alignment between the organisation’s project and the person’s project?

BL: It’s a really great question. We studied work projects in organisations. My wife, Susan Phillips, and I did an extensive analysis of work projects and non-work projects in Senior Managers and their staff in the private sector, the public sector and the non-profit sector. We found something interesting. This isn’t quite alignment, but it’s something that needs to be taken into account before you can align personal and work project effectively – it was gender difference, or at first we thought it was gender difference.

We found that the one aspect of personal project context that really mattered to men was that they were not impeded by others. It was basically a „get out of my way” framework that they wanted to operate within – and then they’re happy. For women that dimension didn’t predict anything. What mattered for women in this group was a sense of connection with others: Are the projects that I need to work on in this company such that I connect with other people?

Now, we were fully aware that, you know, these are gender stereotypes. We were wondering, maybe this can be explained by another look at it. So we actually looked at the tenure of the people within these companies. It was very interesting that the women just happened in this case to have been there a shorter period of time. So when you’re just going into a new place you want to be on the lookout for people to form bonds with. You’re more sensitive to „How am I connected with others?” than if you have been there for a long period of time. So it may well be that this is not just a gender effect but it may well be a newcomer effect in organisations.

GS: There are two more questions I have. The one I want to start with is: Do you have any hints, tips for people working with their personal projects? Is there anything you’d say „Okay, this is something I’d like to tell the listeners about their personal projects”? A message from the Godfather?

BL: Yeah, thanks for this opportunity. Here is what I really see in the future. I’ve got students that are starting to work on this now, but I would really like to encourage others, like yourself, to get involved. One of the problems of doing personal projects is that they are pretty complex compared to a simple questionnaire. You can access it on my website, there is a full PPA [Personal Project Analysis], an international encyclopaedia to behavioural and social sciences, has an example of completed PPA modules.

But what I really want to get done is to render these multimedia so that you get visual representations of your projects on the screen. So this little blip here is your project to lose weight. This project is represented by a larger circle, which is „Keep relationships with my wife manageable”. And then to activate them in a time sense. Say, let’s project into the future. Let’s color them with valence colours so that good projects are green and difficult projects are red. You know, and make it much more online, web-friendly, interactive.

I even have some crazy older students who are now Godfathers and Godmothers in their own right, who have even more audacious ideas such as setting up virtual environments where you can have a holodeck. Where you can see your projects played out symbolically. And then, if you’re having difficulties with your project system you can bring in holographic representations of, say, Aristotle, who would advise you with respect to your project. The technology is actually there to do it. I mean, you’re not actually bringing Aristotle – as far as I can tell, but they are pretty audacious guys. But you try to make it a more immersive experience than just filling out a piece of paper and so on. That’s where I would really like to see things going.

GS: These are amazing ideas! There is a lot that modern computer science can do I think. Okay, there’s one final question, which is very personal to me. The two of us share two similarities. We’re both introverts, and we’re both teachers. So I want to ask you: What makes a great teacher, compared to a good teacher? And more specifically: What makes a great introverted teacher?

BL: I think that teaching for me is a passion. It’s a core project. And core projects often enjoin you to create pressure on you to act out of character – depending on the way you want to carry out that teaching project. For me it’s students at eight o’clock in the morning, I can’t wait to tell them about something exciting that excites me. If I have to stand on my head to get their attention and to sing German songs to keep somebody listening to this podcast, I’ll do it – even if I make a bleeding idiot out of myself. But that’s okay. I don’t mind it. I’m teaching. I’m teaching in my own way.

But that means you have to act out of character through what I call free traits. Free traits are engaging in behaviour that is consistent with your core projects but runs against your natural biogenic personality. So I am very biogenically introverted. But because my passionate core project entails being on a stage with a lot of students I act out of character and I suspect you do as well.

It brings a great deal of meaning, but it also brings a fair degree of challenge to not overloading so much that you are not able to keep things going. I like to take little beaks if I’ve got a three hour lecture. At the break I go off by myself and hide. I don’t want to talk to anybody at the break. After the lecture is over I am happy to talk to them. But between the first and second half of the lectures I like to disappear and walk by a river or something like that, to lower my level of arousal.

An extravert would not need to do that. At the break an extravert would talk with people because that gets them energised and ready to do well in the second half. So you need to be strategic in how you handle what I like to call the „social ecology” of your traits.

When it comes to great teaching… I am a believer that professors and teachers are a bit like wine. There are a whole bunch of different varietals. I guess in one sense, now to mix my metaphors, I think that the job of a professor is to profess, and that means to throw out sparks to highly combustible students. If you have combustible students, which I certainly had at Harvard and now here at Cambridge, it’s easy go get flames going. But if you have to increase your showmanship in order to get that flame struck… Fine, you do it! But you need to take care that you don’t burn yourself out, and that can be the problem.

GS: Well, thank you Brian. Thank you for this amazing interview. Thank you for taking the time, for meeting here in Cambridge. It was a great pleasure for me, and I think it will be something interesting for my listeners as well.

BL: Dankeschön! It’s been a pleasure to do this. I love the project you are engaged in. Much luck on it, and I hope that your listeners get something from this. It’s a great worthy project. Thank you.

GS: Thank you Brian.

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