When I was just out of college and working as a staff writer at a weekly paper, the whole company had to report early one day for a corporate bonding exercise. A facilitator, let’s call her Judy, sat us down with catered coffee, number two pencils and a bubble test.
I remember thinking hard about the following question: Would you prefer an evening out at the theater, or an evening out at a party? There was no nuance. Was it a Thursday party or a Saturday party? A fancy dance party or a beer-and-Fritos party? Royal Shakespeare or community theater Godspell? No way to know. I chose the party.
Judy then brought us all into the big conference room and gave us our “personality types.” The Myers Briggs personality test is based on binary oppositions: Extrovert vs. Introvert, Sensing vs. Intuition, Thinking vs. Feeling and Judging vs. Perceiving. You get one letter for each category.
There were probably about a hundred people in the room. Judy lined us up in a semi-circle, with the very most Extroverted Thinkers—the ones with the very very highest Extrovert Thinking scores—on one end, and then organized the rest in descending order, down to the most Introverted, Intuitive types.
The most Extroverted, the most Thinking, the most Judging, the most Type-A testosterone-filled person was—of course—Mike from ad sales. Mike basically was the ad sales department. He was tall with short blond hair and big biceps that you could just kind of sense, flexing there, under his crisp white shirts. He was a jock, a charmer, a talker. He convinced a lot of people to buy a lot of ads. He grinned and strutted over to his slot.
Relevant tangent: A year and a half later I moved to another alternative weekly newspaper in Boston, and the head of ad sales there was also named Mike, was also tall and was also a jock and a charmer. His hair was slightly more reddish. But he wore the same shirts. Mike B and I had a vaguely flirtatious, vaguely “aren’t you curious, you alien life form!” vibe, but otherwise, he was just like Mike A. They are a type.
Back at the Myers Briggs test, the line progressed like this:
Mike from ad sales.
The rest of the guys in ad sales.
Publishing and circulation and design all mixed in.
The rest of editorial—all my editors and colleagues, over there at the other end of the room, where the introverted scores started going up. They were all pointing and laughing at me.
Let me repeat that: After Mike from ad sales, came me.
My problem with this began with the fact that Mike and I were from different planets. He was a dude and a jock and a charmer. I was… not. I was analytic, sometimes, sure. But I was bookish! I used to read under the table while my parents ate dinner in restaurants! I had a kind of failed goth phase! I sucked at team sports! I sometimes found jocks fascinating, almost exotic, but (Mike B perhaps excepted) they rarely found me fascinating. It may sound disingenuous to say that I didn’t want to be extroverted or rational, but I was, in that moment, deeply embarrassed. I had never thought about how I might score on such a scale. Was I not intuitive? Not thoughtful? Being told that I was, in some archetypal personality way, like Mike from ad sales was like being told that when I opened my mouth, all anyone heard was elephant noises.
I looked over at the cohesive clump of people I looked up to, the ones I had worked hard to join professionally. I felt like I was going a little bit crazy. It was like someone had put a Chia Pet down on the conference table and said, “Hey! This is a cherry pie!” and then everyone else had just started eating it. I didn’t understand.
It got worse. Judy called me and Mike out into the middle of the room for a demonstration. She then called over my editor, a woman I deeply admire, a gentle mentor for me at at time when I suspect I wasn’t easy to mentor. C. is funny and insightful, but also seems to have an inner calm. She is very much the kind of person you might describe as “intuitive.” I wanted very badly to be told that I could go back with her to her side of the room.
Judy asked us to answer a question in front of the group:
Imagine that you are the coach of a Little League team. There is not enough money to take everyone on the team to the final game at the end of the season. Do you take the set of players more likely to win, or the set of players who deserve to be rewarded for their effort over the course of the season?
Mike chose the winning team.
C. chose the deserving team.
I began arguing with Judy, forcefully, in front of the entire company, about the implications of the question.
The Myers Briggs test scored the “winning team” answer as fundamentally rational: You got Thinking and Judging points for choosing it. But, as I pointed out to Judy, this is a Little League team we’re talking about. If you are a coach for a grown-up team, if there are careers or money on the table, then yes, of course, the only rational choice is to say nice try and take your strongest players. But… if your children play sports, isn’t the idea to have them learn things beyond hand-eye coordination? Like maybe sportsmanship? The rewards of hard work? Are those not the pedagogical points of Little League? It is perfectly rational to take the deserving team when the players are eight. The choice relies on a different set of values, but it is reasoned. The Myers Briggs test categorizes certain values as “irrational.” And of course, the values being implicitly labelled “irrational” were also stereotypically feminine values…
I was, as they say, on a tear.
Somewhere around the point were I started demanding to see how my own score had been determined, C. gently pointed out that while the test might be flawed, as far as being Extroverted and Thinking and Judging goes… Well, I was the one challenging the authority of the test-giver, and the logic of the test, in front of the whole company.
Later in my life, someone gave me another definition of what it means to be extroverted. The idea is that most people like parties and being around other people, at times. But an introvert is the person who, at the end of a rough day, really needs time alone. An extrovert is the person who really needs to be with other people. By this definition, at my core, I am in fact quite extroverted. I maintain that there is no way I could sell ads like Mike. But at the end of a rough day, I want to be around people. I need time alone to work, and having a kid has truly taught me the value of solitude. But when the path is rocky, please, give me human contact. I mean, preferably, that contact is good friends bearing cocktails. But still. Company.
It has been a strange week for a number of people in my life, and I have been thinking about moments when we are forced to look at ourselves from the outside. Pain is not mitigated by the fact that it can be a learning experience, but it can be a learning experience. Extremity, and sometimes Judy and ESTJ, can force you to take a step back and recognize a difficult pattern or habit of your own mind. Character is action. Oh, now I know. This is what I do when that happens.