When G‑d created the world, He used four basic building blocks: Fire, air, water and earth.1 Some have postulated that these building blocks correspond to the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and pure energy. Others hypothesize that these refer to four types of elementary particles: positive, negative, matter and antimatter.2

In the first chapter of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes the human personality as made up of these four elements. Of course, human beings in all their dazzling diversity cannot be broken down into a mere four categories. We are each a composite of these four elements, and the exact proportion of each that we possess will determine our natural disposition; however, we can generally recognize within ourselves one element that predominates.

While most of our struggles are common to the human condition, we each have a natural susceptibility towards particular foibles. We may feel challenged by things that come easily to other people and vice versa. When we learn to understand our nature, we can develop our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses. These qualities can be good when channeled in the right direction, but damaging and harmful when uncontrolled.

1. The Fire Personality

The nature of fire is that it rises upward. The aish personality is energetic, passionate and dynamic. Our leaders and bold visionaries are “fire” types. But the downside of fire is power without restraint: anger, arrogance, aggression, cruelty.

2. The Air Personality

The ruach persona is loads of fun! They’re natural entertainers who spread joy wherever they go with their zany, adventurous energy. On the flip side, airy types can lack substance and make light of serious matters. People in whom the air element predominates may have difficulty focusing and applying themselves. They love to poke fun, but their jokes can end up hurting others.

3. The Water Personality

The nature of water is that it flows downward. Mayim types tend to be calm and placid, and don’t seek to dominate. They’re natural peacemakers: welcoming, soothing and comforting. Mayim personalities have an eye for beauty, and their taste is impeccable. What’s the downside of water? They can be a little too attached to their comfort zone. They may “go with the flow” and follow the path of least resistance. Standing up to the crowd or going against the grain doesn’t come easily to a mayim type. The trait of water is associated with pleasure-seeking and self-indulgence.

4. The Earth Personality

Afar people excel at tasks requiring focus and concentration. Their tastes are simple, and they have little interest in aesthetics. Our scholars, researchers and bookworms are “earth” personalities. They shine in the classroom, but tend to dislike sports and social events. The downside is that afar types can come across as too heavy or serious. Being too earthen can lead to dullness, depression and apathy. Afar personalities may struggle with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Earth doesn’t rise like fire or soar like air. But with earth, you can climb; with earth, you can build. Whatever the afar type achieves comes through difficult, painstaking effort.

What Type Am I?

The best way to figure out your particular type is to think back to a time when you felt “in your element.” When do you feel most utterly yourself? Is it relaxing near a gently flowing stream? You may be a mayim. Skydiving or bungee jumping? Definitely a ruach. Delivering a fiery speech? Sounds like an aish. Is it with your nose buried in a book? That’s afar. Of course, all of us contain a blend of all four types, so you may recognize aspects of yourself in each; still, there’s usually one that you can relate to as your primary element.

When making decisions about what path to take in life, knowing your element is important. Embrace the strengths of your element and don’t feel insecure if you can’t master the strengths of the other types. For example, afar types are generally shy and introverted, and don’t feel comfortable in public-facing roles. That’s not a failing, just a personality difference.

Knowing our primary element doesn’t mean that we are limited to acting, thinking or feeling according to that description. It means having a better understanding of why certain tasks are more challenging or why certain roles are less suited for us than others. But when the need arises, we always have the option of extending ourselves beyond the boundaries of our natural personality. For example, mayim types are natural hosts and party planners. They know how to get the aesthetics just right and see to everyone’s comfort. But all of us can learn to extend ourselves to others and anticipate their needs.

Knowing your element also means having a better understanding of others. The person you don’t get along with isn’t necessarily hostile to you; they may just be so different elementally that you have a hard time relating. Understanding their element may help you find common ground (or air, water or fire) with others. Achieving greater self-acceptance and acceptance of others allows all of us to shine in our G‑d-given roles and work together as one to prepare ourselves and the world for the ultimate Redemption.