The first time I’d heard about the Myers-Briggs personality assessment was from a friend at work. We were joking about how, despite how different our work behaviors were, we were such good friends. She was your stereotypical ‘A-type’ personality: religiously organized, zealous with deadlines, a strong believer in rules, politely argumentative, but only because she was so sure she was correct. Me? I got the work done, always, but I was less streamlined about it. A creative type, I vacillated between waves of energetic output and what I liked to refer to as ‘recharging’ (i.e., not working). I gave my opinion in meetings but did not enjoy confrontation.
She and I would often point out each other’s differences and smile about them. We appreciated them, in other words. And in fact, because we were so close, it helped us work better together. I gave her documentation from meetings that I found unnecessary, but I knew she wanted. She stopped sending me reminders about deadlines because she learned I didn’t need them—the deliverable would still be submitted, on time, without them. “Magic!” she’d say, and I’d laugh. It was not magic. It was just me.
Eventually our small nonprofit staff hired a consultant to work with us on a team-building seminar in an effort to better adapt to one another’s work styles. We all had to take the Myers-Briggs test in advance. We were giggly about wanting to know what each person was, but we’d been given strong directives not to share until the seminar. After learning what I typed as—INFP, on the I/E border—I was preoccupied with guessing what my coworker’s results would be. In the end, I was more surprised than anything else. Some of them were right on the money. Some of them shocked me. And then I realized—it’s as much about how others perceive you as it is about how you perceive yourself.
Answering those questions was both fun and challenging. Personally, I had the hardest time with the ones trying to get at whether I was an introvert or an extrovert. Yes, I craved time alone, but I also craved time with people. I got energy from social interactions, but also usually needed solitude to ‘recover’. I wasn’t fitting perfectly into the categories. But then again, who really does? That’s one reasons why there are percentages with each of the eight functions…..
As the years went on I started seeing those familiar combinations of letters (E/I, N/S, F/T, J/P) pop up in unfamiliar places, like social media and dating sites. My best friend noticed they were showing up more and more in Grindr profiles—with a limited number of characters allotted, it’s an easy way to somewhat sum up your personality—and he used them to weed out types he was unlikely to get along with. Not a perfect method, but a method nonetheless.
Still, I questioned him on it. “You’re dismissing social types,” I said, which he countered by saying that he was more of a quiet type. Then I’d remind him that his past dating history included as many social, partier types as quiet, introverted types. “You’re right!” he said, his eyes widening.
We’d both had plenty of conversations about what kind of people we were attracted to, and whether the whole idea of someone’s “type” was even valid. He thought it was. I was unconvinced. So it’s fitting that this very question was a catalyst for the Myers-Briggs test in the first place.
The test was co-created by a mother and daughter team, which is fabulous in and of itself. And it’s even more inspiring to know that despite neither having any formal sociology or research training (though their family history was steeped in academics and a focus on education), they pursued—and were granted—some ground-breaking opportunities. The first being to test their model on school children as well as medical students. So how did the test come to be?
Both mother (Katharine Briggs) and daughter (Isabel Briggs-Myers) claim that the test was born out of a curiosity about personality types based on one event: when Isabel brought her future husband home for the first time. Though they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their marriage, Katharine noticed that he had a ‘different way of seeing the world.’
Isabel has also remarked on the personality differences between her and her husband being the initial motivation for what turned out to be a life-long pursuit in documenting personality types, thus emerging as a pioneer of this kind of research. Around the time of World War II, the team became even more determined to discover a method for people to better understand and relate to each other amidst conflict.
Looking back, one could easily distill their motivations to two major polarizing concepts: love and war. Love was arguably what spurred what’s now known as the Myers-Briggs test; war heightened the importance of it. Now, it’s the world’s most popular personality assessment and is taken by more than two million people every year, for reasons ranging from workplace development to relationship counseling to identity awareness.
While it may be the world’s foremost personality determination tool, the only way to judge how accurate it really is to look inside yourself—something we struggle with as it is; something we take the test for in the first place. Any tool that can help us be more self-aware will indeed help us better engage others. But it’s the hardest part—though also the best part—to better engage ourselves.