Book Review
Title: "Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional"
Author: Dr. Dale Archer
Publisher: Crown Archetype, 2012: 256 pages; $25

Recently, I asked some people in my circle what they most want to change in their lives. One young real estate agent expressed the following:

"I tend to think people see me as weak when I am strong, dumb when I am smart, hard when I am soft (or vice versa). I find myself thinking that people see me as a ‘little girl’ in the big world of business, so I fear I am not always taken seriously."

We had a one-on-one exchange in which we talked about our respective experiences with the temptation to act like someone or something else in an effort to be taken more seriously. I’d certainly gone through that as a very young attorney and real estate broker. And part of what I told her was this:

"Acting older got me taken seriously, when I was very young. But once I was, I gradually began to grow more and more comfortable being myself, being real about what I love to do (and not so much) and what I’m particularly great at (and less so), and it turned out that that got me way further in business and in life. It helped me connect with and move people in a way I couldn’t when I felt pressured to play a role."

And this same battle with who we are takes place outside of the workplace as well. I’ve even seen real estate buyers and sellers across the spectrum. Some plain old catered to their own learning styles and decision-making quirks to great effect. And others chose to pose as having more negotiating savvy or a better understanding of the process than they really did, and paid the price.

In his new book, "Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional," Dr. Dale Archer, a board-certified psychiatrist, makes the case that owning and leaning into your quirks — rather than resisting or trying to "cure" them — can be a strategy for achieving excellence in every realm of your life. Here are a few of Archer’s suggestions for taking advantage of our natural personality traits and harnessing them to the best possible effect, in every area of our lives:

1. Stop stigmatizing your normal human qualities. Archer argues that the traits that have been given psychomedical diagnostic labels, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and bipolar disorder, exist in every one of us, to a greater or lesser degree. He points out that these diagnoses used to be applied only to cases in which people were severely debilitated by their extremes of these traits, and expresses his concern with the trend for pathologizing, diagnosing and medicating people who may have some dominant traits that cause them some challenges, but fail to truly reach the level of a mental health disorder.

Archer makes the case that instead of looking at these traits as either present or not, on or off, we should understand where our own personalities tend to fall along these spectrums and figure out whether there might actually be some advantages to our dominant traits that we can harness to live our best lives.

2. Turn your trait around. Or at least turn around how you think of it. Archer offers a framework for understanding eight dominant traits that are frequently incorrectly pathologized from the angle of the opportunities and strengths each trait creates. For each, he offers a way to rethink and redefine the trait, being careful to caution that people at the extreme of each trait’s spectrum may actually have a legitimate mental health problem that requires treatment. He then provides a list of ascendant, possibly overlooked strengths the trait often accompanies, and provides some life guidelines for selecting a career and managing your personal life optimally if you have the dominant trait.

For example, people halfway on the spectrum that ends in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are highly energetic, playful, nonconformists who think independently and have adventurous spirits, in Archer’s taxonomy. By the same token, people who have mood and focus swings of a lesser degree but on the same spectrum as bipolar disorder are sometimes called hypomanic; if harnessed and managed appropriately, this trait can translate to a high-energy life.

3. Design your life around your dominant traits. Archer’s most useful insight in "Better Than Normal" is that harnessing the strengths of our sometimes-troubling dominant traits may require us to do more than just looking at them differently. For each trait spectrum, Archer offers recommendations for how to make relationship, lifestyle and career choices that will work well with your dominant traits.

To wit, people who have dominant traits on the ADHD continuum may find them to be a liability in rigorous hierarchies or corporate jobs, and more of a strength in entrepreneurial or self-directed career paths. On the other hand, people with traits on the generalized anxiety disorder continuum can harness their traits to be impeccable at complex planning and troubleshooting, perform well under pressure, and meet the deadlines of a fast-paced, high-stakes career.

People with hypomanic swings — from energetic to restful — may do well if they can focus their energy bursts into productive careers as writers and inventors.

Some might find this book to oversimplify complex mental health issues, but I found Archer’s approach to be educated and respectful of legitimate disorders while calling out the medical establishment and our cultural zeitgeist of overdiagnosis and overmedication. Many readers will find themselves described in one or more of Archer’s dominant trait categories, and will find his rethinking of what they might have always seen as their weaknesses to be an empowering and refreshing new approach to improving their lives.

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