Summon a mental picture of a Type A personality: aggressive, rude, abrupt and impatient. The picture may conjure a boss, a relative or perhaps even a spouse. And yet, that seemingly toxic personality has some enviable qualities that can translate into success personally and professionally.
Perhaps the greatest exemplars of achievement for a Type A personality were the originators of the phrase, Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray H. Rosenman. In the 1950s, the two cardiologists described two distinct personality types, A and B, theorizing that Type A people were more prone to heart attacks than Type B people.
The traits that propelled the two doctors to tackle their 9-year study—in addition to maintaining their busy practices—are the same qualities that help Type A people achieve many of their goals in life: a drive to win, a need to control, a desire for perfection and a keen awareness of time. But, recognizing negative characteristics of Type A personalities in themselves, Drs. Friedman and Rosenman worked to adopt some of the traits of the more laid-back Type B personality: a flexible approach to schedules, an appreciation for the contributions of others and a willingness to be part of a team.
Dr. Barton Sparagon, medical director of the Meyer Friedman Institute at the time of Dr. Friedman’s death, said Dr. Friedman had himself suffered two coronary bypass operations and two heart attacks. Certainly Dr. Friedman recognized the need to moderate his aggressive Type A with the relaxed qualities of Type B, eventually, according to Dr. Sparagon, making “time his best friend.”
Drs. Friedman and Rosenman’s study in the 1950s and their 1974 book, “Type A Behavior and Your Heart,” have helped to spread the notion that some people’s personalities make them more susceptible to coronary disease. Their work relegated Type A personalities to little more than punch lines, the phrase serving as a short-hand insult for anyone who seems angry, jumpy, or aggressive.
Take a look at a list of descriptors of Type A personality and a theme appears over and over—and over: overworked; overscheduled; over planning their supposed downtime; over-anxious; overwrought; over-using alcohol, stimulants, tobacco and fatty foods. Type A folks are oversupplied with overly negative qualities.
But the Type A personality also has qualities that benefit individuals and society. The impatient, instantly angry man in line at the slow-moving grocery checkout could also be the person who shows the confidence and courage to take control of a company awash in red ink and lead it back into the black. The road rage poster child screaming at an oblivious driver may be the emergency room nurse who effortlessly works 12 hours at a stretch saving countless lives. Learning to appreciate some of the exemplary traits of a Type A personality can help everyone, including that Type A person who just rubbed the fabric off the armchair in a waiting room.
The Type A personality strives to outdo, outpace, and outscore opponents. Such a person does not need the continual reassurance or coaching that a meeker person may need. The Type A is driven to succeed, needing only occasional redirection or reining in. Always intent on overachieving, the Type A person will deliver more than promised, ahead of schedule.
Where would a Type A personality fit in professionally? Sales people, entrepreneurs, inventors, company leaders, and managers are often Type A. Intent on taking control, moving forward and mindful of the value of time, these are people who expect to get things done.
Small companies in need of quick turnaround are good spots for the Type A personality. With few social interactions, tight budgets, and narrow time constraints, small organizations can benefit from someone willing to forge ahead against odds, simply for the satisfaction of succeeding. The Type A employee may not be the best choice for a lunch companion, but such a worker is a great asset when deadlines loom.
Stand back, I can fix this
Type A people are practical problem solvers. Presented with a serious health issue brought on by negative Type A behaviors, the Type A individual can rationally and methodically resolve it. Such was the case with Frank Feraco, president of RoboToolz and a self-confessed overachiever. Feraco’s health challenges led him to change some aspects of his life, but not the Type A traits that landed him his success.
In an article for the University of Chicago Medicine, Feraco reveals that he went about changing his health problems in the same way he led his business career: identify the issue, fix the issue, and move on. “I knew that I needed medications for blood pressure and cholesterol. But I also was very motivated to change what I could control on my own,” Feraco said. “Cutting out all my Diet Cokes and changing the times of day that I exercised …would go a long way to correcting my health problems.”
Feraco shed 17 pounds, sleeps better, and felt better. Problem solved. Feraco never sacrificed his need for control, turned his desire to overachieve inward, and set things right. He gained by giving up, a hallmark of Type A personalities: they measure gain and loss constantly, ensuring that they will come out on top.
Not until it’s perfect
Type A traits that seem antisocial actually serve certain professions well. Type A people are perfectionists. Surgeons and professional athletes benefit from striving to improve, to control, and to perfect their work. Hours or even years of practice and drill seem not to matter when the goal is absolute mastery of the operation or the game.
We admire the doctor whose new technique or risky procedure leads to many lives saved, without considering the number of subordinates who quit in quiet frustration over dealing with the strong personality. The Type A combination of ego and perfectionism can be off-putting, but few expect to see a sub-par performance in the operating room or on the court. Television screens routinely show us the temper-tantrum tennis player and the chair-tossing coach whose drive to win makes them almost frenzied with the need to dominate their field, and these same individuals are rewarded with fame and wealth.
Dr. Friedman first realized that many of his patients were Type A personalities because they valued time so greatly that they rubbed his waiting room furniture bare by simply having to sit and wait. The arms and seats of his chairs needed reupholstering often, something his upholsterer puzzled over and brought to the good doctor’s attention. But, Dr. Friedman being a Type A himself, he dismissed the concerns until a few years later, when he was studying the characteristics of Type A more closely and recognized the warning sign. Time is often the Type A’s enemy—there’s too little, others are wasting it, there’s more to be done. But time need not be the enemy, and the chairs need not suffer.
Sure, the time-conscious Type A personality may not be an ideal companion on a quiet fishing trip, but consider how useful such a person can be in sticking to an agenda, moving a meeting along, or squeezing six cities into a five-day tour. In time sensitive tasks, that Type A colleague’s contributions can be vital. Working to deadline is routine for Type A personalities, something they willingly bring on themselves. Jobs where deadlines are frequent and demanding attract Type A workers. Type A people can find success as copy editors, journalists, flight controllers and emergency service workers. Moderating the instinct to pull words from another’s mouth because they speak too slowly, Type A personalities can make time their friend, just as Dr. Friedman did.
Despite the contributions Drs. Friedman and Rosenman gave to the field, their idea that Type A personalities are walking incipient heart attacks may be off base. Numerous studies that included women (Drs. Friedman and Rosenman studied only men) have shown little or no connection between hostile behavior, stress, and cardiac incidents, even while other studies suggest links. The issue is more complex than delineating someone as either Type A or Type B and dismissing Type A traits as inevitably heart risky.
“Stress” is so broadly applied to various situations in a person’s life that more careful examination is needed. Is the stress from work, or home? Is it chronic stress (from poverty for example), or acute stress (from, say, a recent tragedy)? Does the patient view stress as unwanted stress, or engaging competition? Some research shows no relation between various types of stress and cardiac issues, while other studies point specifically to work-related stress and heart risk. For people of all types, definite health benefits exist for giving up cigarettes, reducing alcohol consumption, and exercising regularly.
Let it go
In most studies, genuine hostility does adversely affect a Type A person’s health, while yielding almost no benefit. Capitalizing on the strengths of time management, attention to detail, and a drive to succeed, the Type A person can at the same time recognize that hostility harms. Whether too quick to anger, too eager to argue, or too prone to pounce, Type A personalities should see that their hostile behavior wounds those around them, both at home and at work. Just as Dr. Friedman acknowledged his own flaws and worked to improve himself by adopting traits of Type B personality, so too the perpetually hostile Type A person can let go of the anger. Type A personalities can gain by giving up anger while still embracing their rush to be first, their drive for success, solve the puzzle and beat the clock.