I originally posted this on my company’s blog, but the website has been under repair. In the meantime, I thought I’d re-post it here.
The original addendum to it I wrote is located here.
We humans go to great lengths in testing our abstract selves. We test our intelligence, our sensitivity, our physical fitness; all traits that are difficult to quantify and easy to fudge. But we do it, I prefer to think, in order that we might know ourselves that much better; that we might make the best possible use of ourselves and each other.
One of the classically popular tools to assess our personality is the Myers-Briggs Temperament Instrument (MBTI). (Please hold all applause and groans.)
Me and Myers-Briggs
I was first exposed to the MBTI in my senior year of high school. Someone showed me a copy of Please Understand Me by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. I took the test and got a clear result. Then I read the type that I tested as. It sounded remarkably accurate. Then I read every other type in the book. My type held. Then I read the book. Twice.
To me, it was beautiful. Not only was it a grand, simple, and seemingly correct concept that helped me to understand all of the endlessly confusing people around me, it was also expressed in the same way, in the same language that I might have expressed it. It treated every type as equal. It was perfect so far as I could see, embracing structure and chaos as components to a whole, plugging every person you could possibly meet into a neat and manageable package.
The MBTI did one more thing for me. It told me that I had a place in the world and showed me what I needed to work on in order to to get there. I didn’t focus much on the core me, on what it meant to be my personality type, but rather on the things about me that I could work on so that the challenges of my type did not limit me. That may sound vague, but consider discovering that what you’ve been sitting on is a couch and then deciding to spend lots of time Scotch-guarding and protecting it rather than spending much time figuring out all of the things that you can do with it.
Over the years, as I grew and developed, I discovered flaws in the MBTI. I realized that if I had only just then been exposed to the MBTI, I might test a little differently than I had the first time. And so I took the test again, this time with an MBTI-certified proctor. Sure enough, there was a subtle drift. I came up with the same type as before but, where as a 19-year-old my traits were crisp and certain, by my late twenties some were a little gray. I had an idea about why this should be, though it took a little time to explain it.
Before delving into my answer, it’s important to note that many other personality assessment systems have been developed and used by many organizations. Some systems are based on colors or shapes. Some utilize a greater or lesser number of attributes. Others proclaim that we are so utterly unique that there can be no underlying system and instead offer a way of finding the unique you. The goal of these systems appears to me to be the resolution of the same problem I ran into with the MBTI. That is, that we are not purely binary organisms.
We are funny beings, we living things. We are part Boolean, part fuzzy; part black and white, and part gray. Much of science attempts to reduce fuzzy components of systems to neat Boolean values. This has had… well… fuzzy results, as one might expect. The MBTI does this to both good and not so good effect, quantifying largely easily identifiable traits in individuals and creating a tool for understanding the interplay of those traits within an individual and within a group. But it does not (since last I checked) engage the fuzzy side, the chaotic side. And I think that is the complaint I have heard the most.
The DISC system makes a good attempt at a solution. I learned about this system from People Styles At Work, a book loaned to me by my boss, Mike Russalessi, when I told him I was writing this blog post. DISC stands for Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. Of late it has come to stand for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. I assume this second set of terms was a way to steer away from some of the terms in the original that might carry social biases (though they would likely be explained as clarification). However, I’ll stick with the first set, as the system since this change has been modified in other ways and presently I am only familiar with the original.
DISC holds up one type as a baseline and measures other types against it. It does this, as it appears to me, by taking the MBTI and converting it from binary to fuzzy, which is good. However, it sets the scale for each trait at a range from 0 to 1, making one end of the scale the defining characteristic of the two. For example, rather than expressing introversion as a viable alternative to extroversion, DISC rather expresses this difference as greater or lesser degrees of extrovert. Otherwise, at least as I have seen it, it is the same utility.
I interpret Extroversion in DISC as Dominance. This is not based on the colloquial understanding of the word, but on the definition proffered by the system’s authors.
If you perform this same comparison for all four characteristics, the word DiSC…
…could be replaced with an out-of-order ESFJ (EFSJ)…
…an individual well-established at positive, supportive social interaction; a boon to any team and a stabilizing force in any organization. This instrument, as I see it, determines how similar an individual is to this type of person.
Here’s my conversion factor to MBTI:
D = E/I
I = F/T
S = S/N
C = J/P
A way to interpret this is that, as a tool for helping people work as part of a team, the ideal team member is the ESFJ and the… let’s say more challenging team member is the INTP. I am, as it turns out, an INTP. But I don’t take offense. I actually am (well… was) terrible at all of that social mumbo-jumbo. I’m a little better at it now, but I still make mistakes.
The authors of the People Styles At Work make it very clear that there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ style. I point out the contrast here to show that, in the context of workplace harmony, there are more and less naturally gifted individuals. Distal or proximal relationship to those types could easily be misunderstood to be ‘bad’ or ‘good.’
If DISC or any other system helps you understand yourself, I recommend that you use it. Only you really know what you need. Only you really know who you are and what works for you. Personally, I like the MBTI. Until something that suits my pallet better comes along, I’ll stick with it.
I realized that the MBTI, at its core (setting aside some inherent problems with the test) was reliable. What was needed (in software terms) was not a new program, but a patch. So I thought of a patch.
I call it Temperament Drift (or Personality Sudoku). You begin life with a type that is set. It is binary and never changes. It is the seed of who you are and how you respond to your environment. There are others of your type in the world. Nature sets the stage.
If you don’t know what type you are, you can take a test here or you can read through summary descriptions here. They’re at the bottom of the page. I think that’s more useful. It is important to be honest with yourself about who you are at the core, not just who you think you are (for better or worse). What you are trying to get is your base type, the person you are when you’re doing what you do with confidence and when no one is judging you.
Got it? Good. Here’s the worksheet. You don’t have to print this. Just doodle it on a scrap of paper. Should take you a minute and a half.
Fill out your base type in the middle. Next, for each other set, flip the letter connected by a line and keep the others. You’re done. This is where your personality can go.
As you progress through life, you may choose to temporarily flip one of your binary character traits. Today you’re going to be more extroverted. Tomorrow you’ll be more rational. In that temporary exchange, you wear the hat of a different type. Donning that type’s hat comes with certain benefits and certain costs that you weigh against each other, consciously or otherwise. The longer or more often you wear that particular hat or the more intense your time in that hat, the more it affects your net personality. This is what makes you absolutely unique. Nurture tells the story.
Here’s my chart.
What this graphic shows are the personality types that are adjacent to my personality. By stepping outside of my own type in one characteristic, I can assimilate that type. As I do this more and more, this has a greater impact on my personality, to the degree that I might actually test as a different temperament.
You can show the degree of this drift using the coordinate system for a unit circle. Just get rid of the negative values.
This simple graph shows the degree to which you’ve explored your adjacent types. It is a relative graph, in that it sets your type as the origin (0,0) and values of 1 as completely in the skin of the adjacent type. I’m fairly certain I’ve met people who never went outside of their own type. I’m pretty certain I’ve met other people who somehow managed to spread outside of their type even more than I did, to the degree that they spent little or no time as themselves.
Though I’m not sure (as I have met exceedingly few), I would suspect that most INTPs drift toward the INTJ and INFP types. Thanks to the Marine Corps, I embraced ENTP and ISTP, though later a little bit of the INFP. Since college I’ve been highly INTJ and have almost entirely put down the ENTP and ISTP. Here’s what I think my graph might look like:
I derived this (in fractions of ¼ and never 1) from my degree of drift (read “shift” or “fuzziness”) from the type that was once quite clear. This drift, this fuzziness, is the part that is difficult to express in a resume and almost impossible to quantify in an evaluation.
This patch can be used to explain several things. For example, why 50% of the population tests as Feeler or Thinker, but only 33% of women test as Thinkers and only 33% of men test as Feelers. Or why different cultures tend to elevate specific types over others and what effect that has on adjacent types and the culture as a whole. I’ll let you think about those.
My advice: Try on other types. First, because it’s fun. Secondly, so that it won’t feel so alien when you absolutely need to, like when you need to be calm in the face of someone being irrational or more sensitive if that’s what the situation calls for. It is highly improbable (contrary to what movies and television may teach us) that your base type is the solution for every one of the challenges in your life. For me, drifting has resulted in better socialization, a better understanding of people with whom I disagree, and generally more joy in and out of the workplace. It has also taught me to better appreciate and develop my base type, the real me. And that has taken me here, where I am endlessly happy.
So go on, try on someone else’ mask. Not by accident, but with deliberate intent. Because it’s good for you and for the people around you and for the great things that you will do. Then tell me how it went for you.
Thanks for reading.