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How the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory changed my life

by Adrian Segar

No, this is not a song of praise for the most widely administered “personality assessment tool” (over two million taken every year-get yours now!), the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Rather, it’s a story about how the MBTI helped me understand something important about my life.

I first took the MBTI 10 years ago at the start of Jerry Weinberg’s transformative Problem Solving Leadership Workshop. I filled out a paper multiple-choice questionnaire, self-scored it, and ended up with the four letters of my MBTI “type”. For those of you who haven’t taken the test, I should explain that the MBTI looks at eight “personality preferences” organized into four opposite pairs. The test is so designed that everyone who takes it ends up ends up with one of the 16 possible combinations of the four pairs, but what is rarely emphasized is that the scores also provide information on the strength of the preference towards one or other opposites of each pair.

In my case, the test told me that I was a strong NF (intuitive feeler preference) and weak on the introversion-extroversion and judgment-perception axes. For what it’s worth, I’ve taken the test multiple times since, and these results have stayed consistent, apart from a slight drift from weak introvert to weak extrovert over the years.

One way of looking at the MBTI preferences is to group them into temperament pairs (SJ guardians, SP artisans, NF idealists, and NT rationals). Strong NFs are “catalysts, spokespeople, energizers“, they “persuade people about values and inspirations“, to do their best work they need “personal meaning and congruence with who they are“, they are acknowledged for contributing “something unique or a special vision of possibilities“. [All quotes taken from "Introduction to Type in Organizations", Krebs Hirsh et al.]

When I learned that I was a strong NF it gave me an important insight on my career path over the previous thirty years. I started as an elementary particle physicist, gave up academia to form a solar manufacturing business, and then taught computer science and consulted on information technology issues until my mid 50′s. The whole time I felt a need to organize and run conferences around these topics, and I didn’t really understand why.

Suddenly the arc of my professional life made sense. I had been continuously moving away from the T-focused (Thinking) work that I was good at and had been told I should pursue and towards the people-oriented/inspirational/consensus-seeking work I strongly preferred. My thirty years of organizing conferences had been about facilitating connections between people, a preference of mine that I had always been drawn to but never acknowledged.

Jerry’s workshop started me on a more conscious journey that led to my deciding seven years ago to retire from information technology consulting and write a book about what I had learned about designing, organizing, and facilitating participant-driven conferences. And here I am.

Perhaps the most common error made about the MBTI is to think that it’s about ability. If you misinterpret the test in this way it becomes limiting: I can’t do that because I’m not the right type. When you realize it’s a tool to explore preferences, these limits fall away. I can still use my thinking ability in everything I do, but knowing that my preferences and hence my mission are for NF type activities helps me understand who I am and what I might want to do in the present and future.

There is a classic MBTI exercise that divides a group into the four temperaments and asks each group to decide on and then share what their ideal organization would look like. Try it if you ever get the chance! Each group finds it easy to agree internally, and yet each group’s answer is so amusingly and utterly different from the others’ that it’s hard to maintain that the MBTI doesn’t provide at least some interesting insight into personal preferences.

I’m not a fan of MBTI as a management tool (not that I’ve had much opportunity to apply it that way), but I do think it can provide useful personal insight. It did in my case, at any rate.

Thanks to Johnnie Moore for inspiring this post via his post on MBTI limitations!

INTP Motivational poster by Greg Davis

MBTI pairs image by Jan Dillis

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