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Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Jack Dorsey Took Personality Tests. Here Are the 3 Traits They All Share


Feb 12, 2023

As management professors, Cosmo editors, and columnists have all discovered, nearly everyone loves a good personality test. These tests can be acts of self-exploration and badges of identity. A few scientifically validated ones can even help you pin down your strengths and weaknesses and set you up for greater success. 

But the most useful tests, at least, are also time-consuming. Which is why it would be pretty remarkable if you could get some of the world's busiest and most successful people to sit down and take one. But that's what Ray Dalio managed for his book Principles: Life and Work

Apparently, when you're a self-made billionaire, you have some pretty impressive names in your phone. So when Dalio wanted to know what made some of the greatest innovators in the world tick, he called up Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Netflix's Reed Hastings and asked them to take some time out from building rockets, fighting climate change, and creating binge-worthy shows to take an in-depth personality assessment. More amazingly, they all agreed. 

What makes a shaper? 

As Dalio explains in the book, his effort to dig into what personality traits path-breaking entrepreneurs share stemmed from his stepping away as CEO of Bridgewater, the hedge fund he founded, in 2011. Without Dalio at the helm, the firm struggled. Dalio chalked this up to a lack of a particular personality type among top employees, one that he described as "a shaper." 

"A shaper is someone who comes up with unique and valuable visions and builds them out beautifully, typically over the doubts and opposition of others," Dalio writes. 

How do you find and hire more of these extremely valuable trailblazers? Dalio, who was already a big fan of personality assessments and who had used them at Bridegwater, had an inspiration. What if you could convince some of the best examples of shapers he knew--the likes of Musk and Gates--to submit to a personality test? 

Clearly, Dalio is a persuasive guy, because according to his book all these business icons agreed. And when Dalio analyzed their results, a clear pattern emerged. Shapers like Musk, Gates, Dorsey, and Hastings all share a handful of key personality traits

They're determined to the point of obnoxiousness  

"At times, [shapers'] extreme determination to achieve their goals can make them appear abrasive or inconsiderate, which was reflected in their test results. Nothing is ever good enough, and they experience the gap between what is and what could be as both a tragedy and a source of unending motivation," Dalio writes. 

This doesn't mean shapers are uncaring. Musk has spoken movingly about his determination to be of service to humanity, while Gates has donated a huge portion of his fortune to charity. It just means that on a day-to-day level they're happy to break a few eggs to make an omelet (even if those metaphorical eggs are the spirits of underperforming employees). 

"In speaking with them and reviewing the questions that led to these ratings, it became clear: When faced with a choice between achieving their goal or pleasing (or not disappointing) others, they would choose achieving their goal every time," Dalio continues. 

They're intensely curious 

"Truth matters to me a lot, really. Pathologically, it matters to me," Elon Musk announced in a recent interview. Apparently, he's not the only shaper who feels an intense compulsion to understand the world deeply and clearly.

"​​I've found that shapers tend to share attributes such as intense curiosity and a compulsive need to make sense of things," Dalio has written, continuing: "Perhaps even more important, they can hold conflicting thoughts simultaneously and look at them from different angles. They typically love to knock things around with other really smart people." 

And when those conversations and investigations reveal that their prior beliefs are wrong or incomplete, shapers are not too proud to update their thinking

"They have very strong mental maps of how things should be done, and at the same time a willingness to test those mental maps in the world of reality and change the ways they do things to make them work better," Dalio claims. 

They toggle between the vision and the details 

You might expect that shapers are dreamers who come up with the big-picture vision and leave the execution of the day-to-day details to others. But that's not what Dalio found. Instead, he says, shapers have an obsessive interest in both the broad goal and the nitty-gritty of executing it. 

"They have a wider range of vision than most people, either because they have that vision themselves or because they know how to get it from others who can see what they can't," claims Dalio. But shapers are also "able to see both big pictures and granular details (and levels in between) and synthesize the perspectives they gain at those different levels, whereas most people just see one or the other." (As an example, Musk in that same recent interview, says that after all his time in Tesla factories, "I can tell you how every damn part in that car is made.") 

Are you a shaper? 

If you're curious if you share these traits with the famous shapers Dalio mentions, you don't have to wonder. Dalio teamed up with Wharton professor Adam Grant to create an assessment that can tell you which "archetypes" most closely align with your own personality. My colleague Minda Zetlin wrote all about it here

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Ray Dalio had retired from his firm and that it had lost momentum. Dalio had stepped away from the CEO role and the firm had struggled. This column has been clarified to note that Dalio had stepped away from the role in 2011.

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