What do an ENFP, INFP, ENFJ and INFJ have in common? According to Keirsey, they’re all Idealists. Sure, they each have their own unique styles, but deep down, they share the same core motivations: the pursuit of authentic self-expression, and the opportunity to inspire others to do the same.       

Though Idealists only make up approximately 15% of the population, I can’t help but feel that they’re overrepresented in career coaching. I’ve done hundreds of personality type interpretations over the years, and I’m never surprised to see an Intuitive Feeling result. The course I teach for undecided first-year students is filled with eager, and sometimes daunted, Idealists trying to choose a major and career that authentically reflects their interests. They are not only determined to find the ideal path, but they come ready to fully engage with the process. The future is mine to create, they seem to say, and I’m going to do it right.           

Though the word “Idealist” implies a dreamy romantic, often wandering and rarely satisfied, Keirsey provides a clear picture of what we can expect from Intuitive Feeling types. They are imaginative, relationship-oriented, enthusiastic and generous. They bring empathy and diplomacy to their work and relationships, along with high ethical standards. They believe in harmony, and often make decisions based on intuition and faith, if not spiritual certainty. Most importantly, they are champions of authenticity and the power of human potential.

This is a compelling profile, and though it matches my experience working with Idealists, I wondered to what extent the students I work with would corroborate Keirsey’s ideas.

The Research

In the fall of 2018, I taught a mandatory course to support first-year University of Cincinnati students as they prepared to choose a career path. I collected information throughout the semester about 116 of these students’ personality types, strengths and beliefs about their careers. In order to learn more about those who identified as ENFPs, INFPs, ENFJs or INFJs (Idealists), I compared these responses to the responses of students who did not identify as Idealists; in other words, everyone else.

As I dug through the data, I began to see how Idealists’ responses diverged along personality lines. The patterns were subtle, but they came together to produce a few powerful conclusions.

Idealists Are All About Potential, and They Know We’re In This Together

I asked students to report their results on a popular strengths assessment called CliftonStrengths, which provides each user with their top 5 individual strengths, selected from a list of 34. This list includes strengths related to productivity, strategic thinking, relationship-building and influencing others, and the assessment itself has more than 20 million users worldwide. I compared Idealist students’ strengths to the rest of the sample.

The major standout was the strength Developer, the ability to recognize the potential in people and to challenge them to grow and pursue success. If that sounds like something right out of Keirsey’s description, that’s because it is. Working with people to develop their potential is the Idealist trademark. Keirsey points out that many are drawn to careers in teaching, counseling, social services and the ministry for this very reason. This is consistent with my experience working with Idealist students. I’ve rarely met one who didn’t express interest in some or all of these fields.

In my sample of student strengths, Idealist students were nearly 8 times more likely to have the Developer strength in their top five. This was by far the most significant difference in the data. It was so pronounced, I checked the numbers three times. 6.2% of Idealist students had the developer strength in their top five, compared to only 0.8% of the rest of the sample.

Idealists were slightly more likely to have a number of other predictable strengths, such as Empathy, Individualization, Harmony, and Ideation. This is consistent with Keirsey’s depiction of Idealists as warm, sensitive, imaginative and concerned with keeping the peace and building consensus.

The second most powerful difference in Idealist students’ results was the significant presence of a strength called Connectedness. This is the tendency to believe that things happen for a reason and that we are all connected by the human experience. Idealists were 3.5 times more likely to have the strength of Connectedness (2.8% compared to 0.8%). This sensitivity to the bigger picture likely reinforces Idealists’ commitment to helping others. If we are all connected, then supporting each other contributes to our collective wellbeing.

Idealists were four time less likely to have the strength Competition in their top five, reinforcing this preference for collaboration over competition.

Idealists Crave Meaningful (and Often Creative) Work

Not only was Connectedness apparent in Idealist students’ strengths, they were more likely to have a strength called Belief. CliftonStrengths says this about users who possess Belief: “…success is more than money and prestige…Your work must be meaningful. It must matter to you.” Idealists may be in search of a meaningful cause to inspire them above and beyond work for its own sake, or strictly for the sake of compensation.

You may therefore wonder if Idealists are more likely to pursue careers in the arts or in public service since these fields often provide appealing social and creative rewards. I looked at students’ intended career paths to see if this was true. The results were mixed. Idealist students were much more likely to indicate interest in creative careers. Nearly a third of Idealist students fell into this category (30%), more than twice the percentage of non-Idealist students interested in these careers (12%).

As for careers in public service, Idealists were about as likely as non-Idealists to indicate interest. My guess is that the specific roles and types of organizations Idealists find themselves in may differ overtime, according to their particular strengths. In their first year of college, with limited or no career experience, these students may not yet know where their careers will ultimately take them.

Interestingly, Idealists were less likely to express interest in criminal justice careers (7%) compared with the rest (12%). This may relate to my earlier finding, the Idealist students’ tendency to have strengths like Developer and Connectedness. They might be inclined to avoid (or simply take less interest in) occupations perceived to be punitive or conflictual. Remember that Idealists as a group are high in empathy and the need for harmony, and tend to believe in the potential for an individual to grow and change.

Idealists Get Excited about Possibility, and Fear Uncertainty Like Everyone Else

When asked what most excites them about their future careers, Idealist students looked a lot like the others. Everyone mentioned things like the opportunity to travel, to help people and make the world a better place, to obtain more freedom and find their passions. In spite of these similarities, there were subtle differences in student responses.

In general, Idealist students were less specific in their answers, often using open and occasionally vague language to describe their hopes. More Idealist students reported that the very openness of their future, the fact that they had options, excited them more than anything else (7%). This happened less frequently (2%) in the rest of the sample.

Though these numbers are small, they were supported by the fact that more Idealist students (8%) than non-Idealist students (4%) answered “I don’t know” when asked about their career plans. They seemed unwilling or unable to choose a direction, whether because they find possibility exciting, or because, as Keirsey might suggest, they want to chart an authentic, meaningful path, and are not yet prepared to do so.

Alright, so we know what Idealists are excited about. But what about their fears? This one got complicated. Both Idealists and everyone else reported a wide range of fears about their careers. The most common responses were things like struggling in a competitive field, not making enough money, the uncertainty of the future, feeling trapped and not enjoying the work itself.

I compared the percentages of both groups, looking at how likely Idealists were to mention a fear of being trapped or a fear of uncertainty. About 6% of Idealist students were afraid of being trapped, and another 21% were afraid of uncertainty. These percentages were 2% and 17%, respectively, for non-Idealists. Given Idealists’ excitement about possibility, it makes sense that these students were more concerned about feeling trapped. And yet, they were equally, if not more, afraid of uncertainty than the rest.

This paradox may partially explain why Idealists are so often motivated to seek career guidance, and why they ultimately make such powerful guides themselves. They can relate to fears about the future, and use their inherent talents for empathizing, developing and ideating, to support others in making authentic decisions.

Idealists Are Inspired by the Notion of an Authentic Call to Serve the World

As our final assessment, I asked students to familiarize themselves with the work of three career satisfaction gurus: Parker Palmer, a prolific scholar, activist and educator who speaks about the spiritual importance of pursuing an authentic life of service to the world; Cal Newport, a critic of the phrase “find your passion,” who encourages us to exchange rare and valuable skills for extraordinary financial and personal rewards; and Emilie Wapnick, an enthusiastic advocate for pursuing multiple career paths based on personal interests. Each of these thinkers represents a unique and compelling approach to career, and each drew their share of student support.

Across the board, Emilie Wapnick’s approach resonated most with students. 65% of  Idealist students and 63% of non-Idealist students favored Wapnick. As for the rest of the class, Idealists were more likely to choose Parker Palmer’s approach (20%) over Cal Newport’s (15%). Non-Idealist students did the reverse; Newport pulled ahead by 6% (a 22% share), compared with Palmer (at 16%).

Idealist students connected more powerfully with Palmer, and had plenty to say about his philosophy. In the words of one Idealist student:

“In reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, I have found a message that explains how I feel about my future…It took me hitting rock bottom with both my mental and physical health to realize what to do with my life. I would rather be happy, helping people and making a difference in this world than wasting my life doing something that didn’t matter.”

This neatly captures what we know about Idealist students, and underscores the value of a relatable framework to validate their worldview. These students respond enthusiastically to guides who share and live out their values.

Final Thoughts

While this was only a quick assessment of college students, these results indicate that Idealists are as complex and diverse a group as any other. They do, however, consistently demonstrate a unique combination of values and talents.

As an Idealist myself, I would love to see more investigation into our personal and professional journeys, so that we can better understand how our eclectic group satisfies the need for authentic and purposeful lives.

Melanie B
Melanie Buford is a writer and professor of career education. She’s an INFJ who loves personality theory and working with people who want their lives on the outside to match what’s inside. You can follow her on Twitter @melanievbuford or find her at melaniebuford.com.