Every couple of years when I was in elementary school in Virginia, my whole class would answer a questionnaire about our skills and interests. Two weeks or so later, we would receive recommendations of careers we would enjoy. Someone told me the test had been developed by the Boy Scouts, and that seemed to make sense, because I had read a few Hardy Boys novels, and it seemed to me that the test had been developed by the Boy Scouts circa 1955.
The options for “interests” included hunting, fishing, black powder shooting, backgammon, animal husbandry, and 20 different sports. Every year, I checked “reading” and shrugged. When the results came back, we all giggled at whoever had been told they’d make a good mortician, which was about 40% of us: I later surmised that the test was a bit of propaganda aimed towards shuffling students into our nation’s underserved occupations. (Do you like the decathalon? You would be an amazing home health aide.)
I couldn’t help but think of this when ordered to take a Myers-Briggs personality test. (Have you heard people talking about being an ENTP or something and wondered what club you had not been initiated into? Yep, here we are.) It costs about $30 to take a real Myers-Briggs Personality Test online (you can Google it and bargain shop), but you can take a short free quiz based on the Myers-Briggs here.
I got my results and looked up a bit more information (try this site). I laughed when I read, “When it comes to their own areas of expertise — and INTJs can have several — they will be able to tell you almost immediately whether or not they can help you, and if so, how. INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don’t know.” (I have written numerous times about how saying “I don’t know” builds credibility for the things on which you are an expert). Also: “Anyone considered to be ‘slacking,’ including superiors, will lose their respect — and will generally be made aware of this.” (My thoughts on lateness are a matter of public record).
But then I kept reading, and realized that I was just enjoying being flattered. For instance, “Many INTJs also find it useful to learn to simulate some degree of surface conformism in order to mask their inherent unconventionality.” I find this accurate (wouldn’t anyone?), but I also find it flattering. Lots of people like to think they’re more special than they are, even when their corporate drone facade pretty much is their real self. It’s very Revolutionary Road. And if I have trouble in my romantic relationships, it’s because I unrealistically expect other people to be reasonable? I get to be Spock and all my ex-boyfriends are screaming banshees? That’s a lovely whitewash, although I’m sure all my ex-boyfriends’ personality-type profiles say equally lovely things about them. And then I realized:
These are just horoscopes for WASPs.
While many employees are made to take the Myers-Briggs as part of their jobs — so we can all learn the strengths of our individual differences and the glorious rainbow of humanity that makes us human like a diversity-rainbow of individual strengths that are diverse like a rainbow — many researchers have pointed out that the test is flawed in that it doesn’t account for lying (there are other tests that do) and relies on individuals’ self-assessment, which is fine for questions like, “I like being in crowds” and not so good for questions like, “I am good at seeing the long-term consequences of my actions.” Few people with poor perception can, um … perceive that they have poor perception.
More importantly, though, Myers-Briggs results are not falsifiable. Much like the belief that God causes everything that happens and that it’s all for the best. (“Then why did this child have to die?” God was teaching the rest of us to love each other more. “Then what if the child had lived?” God would have been giving us a miracle!) When every possible result can be interpreted in support of a theory, that theory lacks falsifiability, which doesn’t so much bother some religious people, but is a serious problem for a psychological test. Much as we do with horoscopes, people tend to focus on the parts of their Myers-Briggs reports that they like, and most of us can see a part of ourselves even in the bits that don’t give us goosebumps.
Finally, because I teach test prep, I know that many, many people really don’t understand the difference between these two questions:
Should society be governed based more on justice or on mercy?
Which makes you feel fuzzier inside right now, justice or mercy?
So, I think personality test results have some serious problems. (And in the end, isn’t it a little tautological if I ask you if you like to be alone, and you say yes, and then I say, “Amazingly, you’re an introvert!” and then you say “OMG! How uncanny!”?)
But another thought I had while taking the test was: there are plenty of things here that I could improve on, or have already improved on — for instance, the very first true/false question is “You are almost never late for your appointments.” (See the column for more thoughts on why you might want to work on that, even if you don’t think it’s a problem). Here are some other questions from the short-form test that I think sound more like to-do list items than some probing into an eternal, central soul-nugget deep in your being:
* You feel involved when watching TV soaps. Why soaps? Why not comic books? Isn’t this question introducing some gender and class bias into the mix? Anyway, I do feel involved when watching TV soaps, which is why I know not to start watching, which is also basically the reason I’ve never tried coke: because I would never, ever stop. So, to-do list item: stay away from things that “involve” even though you don’t really enjoy them all that much.
* You prefer to act immediately rather than speculate various options. Hmmn, how about instead of looking at what we do now and calling it a day, we do some research — for instance, about what your boss wants, or how successful your fast vs. slow decisions have been in the past, or about what actually works (for instance, there have been studies showing that excellent athletes have to make decisions literally faster than it is possible to think, which is one reason that intelligence tests have not been helpful in predicting who will play well for the NFL). In other words, who cares what you do, when you are in control of what you could do that will get you ahead?
* You know how to put every minute of your time to good purpose. This is a skill, not some essential kernel of selfhood. No one has this skill when they’re six. Some people develop it, some don’t. This is like saying “You are good at public relations.” You could learn, if you wanted. See Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans.
* You readily help people while asking nothing in return. That’s a nice goal. You could change this about yourself at any time. I’ve previously suggested emailing compliments to people — pick one person a day and just say something nice. Takes 30 seconds. After a year, 365 people will like you. In How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings, I suggested using the downtime of unemployment in similar ways.
* You often do jobs in a hurry. This often has a lot to do with whether you’re struggling financially. If I were a struggling freelancer, I’d probably rush through some things in a half-assed way in order to pay the bills. Since I’m not, I don’t. A little bit of success breeds more. That’s why I’m (hopefully) here to help.
* You do your best to complete a task on time. Who among us shouldn’t work on this?
I don’t mean to imply that personality test results are completely inaccurate; it’s not hard for a test to sort the introverts from the extroverts, for instance. And one friend pointed out that the Myers-Briggs was a good way for people to receive a summed-up, easy-to-understand synopsis of a bunch of smaller, disconnected things they already knew about themselves. Fair enough.
But, just as studies have found that only about 50% of people remain the same personality type after six months, there is some serious fuzz in the system regarding what personality test is really measuring, and why your job might make you take one. Allow me to digress for a moment: I don’t believe in IQ tests for adults. Oh, I do believe that it is possible to test mental performance, much as some standardized tests do. But I believe that what you are testing is indeed “performance” — not some inner kernel of intellectual potential completely unrelated to how much you’ve developed your mind (or not) over the last couple of decades. What would it mean to give a test of “athletic potential” to Michael Phelps? Nothing. There is no test that would give Michael Phelps the same “potential” rating regardless of whether he had bothered to learn to swim. We can only measure performance. Surely potential had something to do with that performance, but we can’t sort it out: we’re grownups, and a lot of stuff has happened to us.
So, while it’s cute to be told that I have the same personality type as Susan B. Anthony, Katie Couric, Hannibal, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet (fiction – WTF?), you can determine some substantial part of your own personality type, just as you can determine some substantial part of your mental or athletic performance. A lot of us might “naturally” have the sort of personality type that lends itself to knitting all day and having many cats. There are no jobs that are like that; it’s very unlikely you could even support yourself selling handmade goods on Etsy to people who aren’t allergic to dander. And if your personality type makes you naturally a great artist, you’re going to have to stretch to also develop the personality qualities needed to market and sell that art. You don’t get anywhere by staying in your comfort zone.
If you didn’t stop reading towards the beginning of this column to go take the free quiz, sure, do it now. It’s fun. And then make a note of the questions you wish you could have answered otherwise, and hope to be able to honestly answer otherwise in the future.
Not to get all existentialist on anyone’s ass, but you can mold and shape your personality, bonsai-style. You can cultivate parts and kill off others. I was a bitter, miserable, sarcastic child. Later — much too much later — I realized that sarcasm doesn’t much help anyone, at least when directed at individuals (it can be quite enjoyable when directed at otherwise unbearable developments in the news). I was also simply being made miserable by the institution of childhood itself, just as all of us would possess somewhat different personalities under crushing poverty, for instance. No one who knew me way back when would ever have guessed that I’d be a pretty ridiculously happy adult who enjoys helping people for a living. But I am! Because it’s just better that way.