A few years ago, I found myself at a professional crossroads. I had been on the wrong path, fit-wise, for a while, and it was starting to take a serious toll on my mental health.
I knew was an Introvert in a field made for Extraverts, but I didn’t know what else was wrong or what kind of career would suit me. So, I took a couple of personality tests.
The first thing I learned was that personality testing is a popular source of career guidance. A quick Google search turns up pages and pages of personality self-tests specifically geared to people trying to match themselves with the right careers. Even CNBC has published a how-to guide focused on using your personality type to choose a career.
I took this obvious popularity as a good sign. Being familiar with the Myers-Briggs system of personality typing, I figured that a few tests would confirm whether I was an INTJ or an ISFP or something else entirely, and what career path I should pursue as a result.
After several tests, I had plenty of confirmation that my energy style is introverted. No surprise there. And I got clarity on another personality dimension, Judging vs. Perceiving, which Myers and Briggs described as your way of making decisions and approaching life. My results showed a definite preference for Judging over Perceiving, an obvious truism. I’ve always been self-disciplined with a need for Plans A, B, and C.
The other two results were less clear. When a test weighs my Thinking vs Feeling preference, I usually come out a Thinker, but not always.
My cognitive style – Sensing vs. Intuition – is the real wild card. Sometimes I swing more than 2/3 over to Intuition, as in the last test I took. Other times it’s the mirror image and fairly clearly Sensing. More often, it’s close to the middle of the scale.
If you’ve ever had contradictory results on a personality test, I don’t have to tell you that it’s unsettling. You wonder if you don’t really know yourself, or maybe there’s something wrong with the test.
Almost all the time, it’s neither. Personality is simply a dynamic entity that can be hard to pin down with a test.
What is personality?
If you’ll humor me, let’s take a quick peek into the science of psychology.
The American Psychological Association – the people who publish the DSM-V, which is the standard tool for diagnosing mental illness—refers to personality as “ individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.”
To translate from academic-speak to English, your personality is that undefinable something that makes you a different person from your next-door neighbor or your Uncle Fred. It’s the way you tend to act and respond to different situations.
The only way to test personality is to ask you what your patterns tend to be. The challenge is that your behaviors and responses aren’t just determined by your personality traits. Your mood, what kind of a day you’ve had… all of it contributes. It’s natural and normal that your responses to personality questions will vary from day to day.
Your personality is still stable. Life, however, isn’t.
When personality tests are inconclusive
Does all of this mean that personality testing isn’t helpful? Absolutely not. It just means you have to embrace the gray areas.
When your tendencies don’t swing to one side of the scale or another, as with Sensing and Intuition in my case, it means you have strengths in both areas. As for me, I’m fairly certain by now that I tend more toward Intuition, but I definitely have moments when my Sensing capacity is stronger.
That doesn’t mean that my personality type fundamentally changes, it just means that different aspects of my Sensing or Intuition are stronger at different times.
Let’s look at how this breaks down with the Sensing-Intuition dimension.
People with strong Sensing tendencies:
- Focus on things that are concrete – objects, not abstractions
- Are practical and pragmatic
- Appreciate detail and realism
- Prefer a methodical and linear approach to problems
- Are drawn to tasks with defined procedures and outcomes
People with strong Intuitive tendencies:
- Look for the meaning within the facts
- Prefer thinking about things that are theoretical and abstract
- Live in the possible rather than the here and now
- Prefer innovation to tradition and imagination to routine
Even now, I look at these two categories and wonder how I can be both – and yet, I am. I approach any task methodically, considering what the process will look like and how I’ll get to the outcome before I start. I must be a Sensor, right?
I also get extremely frustrated when people do things “because we’ve always done it this way.” I look at most situations with an eye toward what it could be, rather than what it is. And I always look for connections.
So, I’m an Intuitive.
Except when I’m a Sensor.
This is where I used to get caught up in confusion and what I like to call my mental hamster wheel.
Remember, I’m a Judger, and I need to know what to expect. So, to keep myself from going completely nuts, I had to re-frame the way I look at the Sensing/Intuition scale. I had to use my Intuitive brain and look at it as a spectrum.
The S/N Spectrum and Career Strengths
When you’re trying to figure out your career ambitions, it’s important to welcome ambiguity regarding personality traits. If you try to box yourself into one side or the other of a personality scale, assuming that you can’t be both, you run the risk of turning your back on a valuable talent that could make you a great job candidate.
For example, I am:
- Linear in my approach to tasks – classic Sensor
- Innovative and forward-focused – typical Intuitive
- Compulsively making connections and linking facts that seem disparate – another Intuitive trait
- Wary of ideas that have no basis in reality – definitely a Sensor
All of these traits are potential career strengths. And whether you’re trying to figure out which career you’re best suited to pursue or advance in the one you’ve got, every possible strength matters. Why would I pigeonhole myself as an Intuitive, for example, when I have the detail focus that lets me not just come up with new ideas but also carry them out? Whatever career I decided to pursue, that could be useful.
The More You Know
When it comes to personality and career, knowing is only half the battle. You also have to know when it’s good to be “in the middle” – to be able to balance both sides of a personality style spectrum – and when to emphasize one strength or the other.
Often, it’s about paying attention to setting and workplace culture. If you’re applying for a job that needs an innovator and you’re fairly S/N fluid, you’ll probably want to focus on your Intuition traits. Then, when they know that you’ll be a good culture fit, you can show them your Sensor traits like organization and attention to detail.
Other positions or careers will see your adaptability as your most valuable trait. Start-ups, for example, love people who can stay organized and keep their feet on the ground, yet also come up with groundbreaking new ideas.
The more you understand your traits – all your traits, not just those that fit into one category or the other – the more options you’ll have as a professional.
One Last Word
In today’s workplace, flexibility is key. Companies are looking to be as dynamic as possible so that they can adapt to changes in the marketplace, and they need their people to adapt alongside them.
Are you fluid or in the middle when it comes to trait scales? Are you an Ambivert or a Perceiver/Judger? Comment below, and don’t forget to brag about how it makes you awesome.