Monday, September 21, 2009

Touch Typing

I felt like a non-drinker at an AA meeting. One by one, the 37 people in the room introduced themselves, each confessing to a particular stigma.

"My name is Bill and I'm an INTJ," one man said with a note of resignation. "This is third time I've been tested and each time I've been an INTJ. I guess I'll always be an INTJ."

"My name is Phyliss," said a woman. "My strongest preference is my S. Even though I've now moved to a J, I still think I'm an N."

"Hello. My name is Bob," an older man said. "I'm probably more an NF that an ST, but I enjoy using both sides."

I had no idea what these people were talking about. In my search for personal fulfillment, I had signed up for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™ personality inventory. For those "in transition," Myers-Briggs is one of the first arrows drawn from the quivers of career counselors around the country. The information brochure stated that over 50,000,000 people had been through the process. I was not alone.

The inventory was developed by a mother-daughter team. Building on the work of Carl Jung, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers helped bring psychological typing to the masses the way the mother-daughter team of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker helped bring basic cuisine back to the kitchens of America with The Joy of Cooking. Three million people a year now go through the Myers-Briggs process, all trying to figure out how to get along better with bosses, colleagues, spouses, and children.

So on a blustery Saturday morning in January, I returned to my alma mater, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, to learn what my answers to 126 multiple choice questions revealed about my search for happiness.

Before the seminar began I bumped into an old classmate.

"Hey Sid! Good to see you. How've you been?" I asked of this quiet, soft-spoken man I hadn't seen in years.

"Fine, thanks," Sid said. "I used to be a T and now I'm an F. I'm really happy about that."

I felt I was about to join a cult.

Inside, when it was my turn to introduce myself, I wanted to say, "Hi my name is Robert. I like watching sports on television so it's no surprise that I'm an ESPN" but I didn't. The group was keenly intent on understanding its collective life. Humor was not high on the agenda.

As I soon learned, Myers-Briggs (or MBTI™) categorizes people into 16 psychological types through combinations of 8 different personality preferences referred to by 8 different letters. These eight preferences are grouped into 4 pairs of opposed inclinations: Extraversion - Introversion (E-I), Sensing - Intuition (S-N), Thinking - Feeling (T-F), and Judging - Perceiving (J-P). How one answers the Myers-Briggs questions determines the 4 letters that indicate a psychological type.

The characteristics of the 16 psychological types are described in detail in the MBTI™ literature which frequently reminds participants that no one type is better or worse than any other. "They simply produce different kinds of people, interested in different things, drawn to different fields" is how the booklet explained differences among types. Of course, working with some of these types would be like being trapped in a never-ending Dilbert cartoon from hell, but, remember, "there is no right or wrong answer."

Over the years I have participated in a number of career counseling seminars trying to find the road to happiness. Despite many hours of looking up in bewilderment I still do not know what color my parachute is. It was with hardened skepticism that I entered the tiered, semi-circular classroom of the Graduate School of Business hoping to figure out where in the working world I might best fit in.

The woman facilitating the workshop was a perky dynamo. She had so much unbridled energy and enthusiasm that for a moment I thought Kathie Lee Gifford had given up daytime television and gone into career counseling. She introduced us to the panelists each of whom represented a major personality type and had been through a career transition.

The literature said that the results of the MBTI™ "describe valuable differences between normal, healthy people." Yet most of the panelists described lifestyles that included 80 to 100-hour work weeks. I've spent most of my life trying to figure out how to make do on an 80 to 100 hour work month. After more than a decade as a self-employed consultant, I was interested in replacing that uncertainty with a full-time job. All of the panelists, however, had left their full-time jobs and were working as consultants. I began thinking I wasn't in the right place.

Two weeks earlier I had completed the three-part Myers Briggs questionnaire. While reminding me there were no wrong or right answers, it asked me to choose between two differing options, selecting the one that was closest to how I "usually act or feel."

"Would you rather:

a) Stay up late at a party or

b) Get to bed early to be ready for tomorrow's 8 a.m.meeting?"

was not a question on the inventory but could have been.

Another section of the inventory asked me to select the word that most appealed to me from a pair of words. A typical offering asked me to choose between - say "fancy-free" and "regimented." Many of these word choices made me uncomfortable. I wasn't sure what I preferred. I was looking for more obvious choices. More like "alarm clock" versus "sleep in late." Or "minimum wage" versus "golden parachute." Myers Briggs' menu didn't offer those.

At the review seminar I was handed a booklet that showed the results of my preference inventory. I was an ESTP which was summarized as Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking. That sounded like cause for years of therapy so I read the one-page description with keen interest. Basically it said I'm a happy go lucky type willing to let people shoot arrows at apples perched upon my head who enjoys the finer things in life but may have trouble concentrating for long enough to be able to pay for them. Or at least that what I thought it said.

This sounded a bit like me but a large part of me also wanted to be an INTJ - Introverted Intuition with Extraverted Thinking. I wasn't too sure what that meant either but the room was full of INTJs and they all seemed like can-do people who weren't going to let things like feelings stop them from getting the job done.

Throughout the five-hour seminar, Kathi Lee told us to "validate" the results of the inventory. If our four-letter group didn't feel right, we were encouraged to look at the other groups and see if one of those felt closer to home. I wondered if I wouldn't rather be an "ISTJ" than an "ESTP." Kathi Lee had described "ISTJs" as "dependable and tenacious," characteristics I admire. Of course, they are also the characteristics of Labrador Retrievers.

Even within types, we were told, there is room for significant variation. Depending on how consistently one answers the inventory questions, a personality preference may range in strength from slight to very clear. All my scores were all clustered right in the middle, in the slight to moderate range. I asked Kathie Lee what that meant.

She said that being in the middle was the indication of a well-adjusted, flexible individual who could thrive in many environments with all kinds of people. Obviously something was very wrong. Being in the middle didn't make me feel well-adjusted. It just confirmed what I'd known all along. I was confused.

As the seminar wore on, I learned that Myers-Briggs is not only good for helping identify one's particular characteristics but has other uses as well. We were given a handout indicating what type of diet was best suited for each psychological type. The handout began "If you give an NT diet to an NF, they're going to gain." If Myers-Briggs could help people lose weight and find happiness, I thought "Why not a dating service, too." After all, 50,000,000 soul searchers had taken the test. There had to be some lonely romantics among them.

A typical Myers-Briggs personals ad might look something like this:

"SWINTJJPF, 35, solid N and weak J ISO SWINTPJPM for mutual stimulation of my P. U R 30-40 and enjoy walks in GGNRA. RSPV ASAP."

Throughout the day, many people confessed wanting to be something other than what they were. This group of MBAs included doctors, engineers, marketing types, bankers and salesmen. I found it comforting that people much better qualified and credentialed than I am were even more confused about their place in the world. If Vanna White had suddenly appeared ready to sell Es or Ps or Fs she would have found a hot market among these business hardened, dissatisfied, searching MBAs. As one woman said, "I've been a J all my life, but I've noticed the Ps have more fun."

Many people at the seminar were concerned with getting along better in the work place with types different from their own. A couple of discussions went along lines like this:

"What do you do if you're a strong J working in a company filled with indecisive Ps?" someone would ask.

"What's important," Kathie Lee began, "is to understand the P and to see how the Ps and the Js can get together. Once you understand the P-J relationship, then you can move forward."

I was thinking that once the P-J relationship was clarified a sleep-over party at the office might be called for.

By the end of the day I wasn't sure Myers-Briggs had helped me a great deal. I had learned just about as much about myself at the Postal Museum in Washington, DC, where I punched my age, sex and zip code into a computer and it gave me a scarily accurate description of myself.

A few days after the seminar I still felt uncomfortable about my "indifferentiated" type. I asked my wife to take the inventory.

“I already took it,” she said. "I'm an 'I-N' something or other."

“I know," I told her. "But now I want you to take it as though you were me.”

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I want you to take the inventory and answer the questions as you think I would," I told her. "I want to see if you think I'm as confused as I think I am."

“No problem,” she said, laughing. “You’re an open book.”

A few days later I called the career counselor friend who agreed to score my wife's inventory.

"I'm wondering if the two of you could use some marriage counseling" were her first words.

According to Myers-Briggs, it turns out my wife thinks I am a very different person than I think I am. On the Sensing-Intuition (S-N) scale my own answers said I was a moderate "S," someone who relies on the five senses to process information from the world around me. Nina said I was a clear "N", someone who would rather depend on the sixth sense of intuition and who can completely disregard the facts as seen by 'S' type people.

We were just as far apart on "Thinking" and "Feeling." I see myself as a logical, objective type and wasn't surprised by my moderate "T." She sees me as a new age sensitive guy and figured me as a moderate "F." Whereas I see myself as a moderate 'E' she had me pegged as "very clear E." "About as strong as you can get," said my counselor friend.

We both agreed that I am a "P," meaning spontaneous and flexible, but she had me out in the nether worlds of "P"-dom, where decisions can always be put off forever, taxes never get done before April 15, and there's no time known as the present.

My wife said her assessment of me as an "ENFP" was a compliment. In her eyes, all types definitely were not equal. But I felt she had me all wrong. Maybe it has to do with her being an "INFP" (at least that what she thinks she is) and that she just wants to make me over in her own image. "It's just that I know you better than you know yourself," she said.

I told her that Myers-Briggs had more likely revealed the superficiality of our relationship and that we really didn't understand each other's essential being after years of marriage.

"You know what your results show?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"They show that you're really a paranoid schizophrenic but you'd like to be Stuart Smalley," she said referring to Al Franken's pandering Saturday Night Live television show character who became famous as "a caring nurturer, a member of several twelve-step programs, but not a licensed therapist."

I undertook Myers-Briggs hoping to find out more about my place in the world, where I might fit in and where I can best make my contribution. I have no clearer idea now than when I began. Maybe it would just be easier to remain self-employed than to worry about trying to get along with other people.

Or maybe the problem is that these days there are too many choices and too much self-introspection. Too many therapies and too many therapists. Maybe we need to revert to a simpler time when there weren't as many options. I pulled out the "Ohio Vocational Interest Survey" I took in 1971 when I was in ninth grade. It said my best bet was to become a farmer. Maybe the row less hoed might still be the right one for me.

That is until someone figures out how to do psychological typing for animals.

A version of this story appeared in the July 12, 1998 edition of the San Francisco Examiner.

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