Many of you know that I work with personality questionnaires such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and have done so for a long time. I find these tools useful though ultimately limited, in the way that any model or framework is – it gives you insights and a way of organising thoughts about yourself and others, but ultimately real insight goes beyond the boundaries of a model or frame. The risk of these tools is that they can seem to be telling you about yourself from outside, when real insight comes from within. Some people like the ease of relying on a tool to gain self-awareness, but this seems to me to be missing the point.
I don’t see personality questionnaires as rigid indicators or as ways of compartmentalising a person. Instead I see them as ways into insight, explorations, on a good day giving rise to that favoured phrase I have borrowed before, ‘accidents of perception’. Once someone described the Myers-Briggs to me as a raft that gets you across the river, the risk being that you get so attached to the raft you never cross to the other side.
So I use these tools with care, and I know that they can add value when used appropriately.
Over the years I have met a significant minority of people who object to personality questionnaires on principle because they feel they are being pinned to a display board like a captured butterfly. I remember the IT analyst who dramatically tore up the questionnaire in my presence, throwing the pieces out of the window; and the lawyer who insisted on tossing a coin to answer every question. So I’m never surprised when someone new comes along to fit into this category (!) and I am even prepared to be entertained.
One of my current projects involves working with three others, and at my instigation, we all set out to complete some personality questionnaires to help us understand our approaches and goals. One person took a long time to respond. I was disappointed but not surprised when he eventually refused to complete the questionnaires on philosophical grounds, saying he didn’t do such things and never had done because he didn’t believe personality could be captured in this way and he felt it would limit his potential for growth and change. As a deep believer in the everpresent potential for growth and change in all of us, I explained that I shared his philosophical orientation but believed in the value of such tools, having used them to good effect over many years.
Overnight the logical ‘flaw’ in his argument came clear to me: if he really believed in growth and development (and flexibility?) why could he not embody these principles, grow and develop and try this new way of learning at least once based on his trust in me and my expertise? I chose not to share this insight with him as I felt it might be or seem defensive. I accepted his position, and saw no point in trying to change his mind.
The next day I received a surprise e-mail out of the blue – after a long gap – from a yoga teacher where the following view of me was expressed: that I would only be open to learning on terms whereby I fitted anything new into my existing structures and this would not allow a rooting for something new and quite possibly different. I was told that this isn’t learning and is a paradox in terms of my apparent wish to explore beyond what I know. This was hugely challenging to me in terms of my self-beliefs.
The synchronicity of this interchange occurring hot on the heels of the first one stopped me short in my tracks. Of course I realised the fatal flaw of hubris in the first exchange – I had been feeling a little smug, let’s face it, in noting the logical inconsistency of my colleague’s position with regard to growth and development in the face of his rigidity when it came to filling in a simple questionnaire. So this next interchange was there to bring me back to size, it was my come-uppance, my dressing down by the world. It was a highly timely coincidence, nothing more – or was it a synchronicity, what Carl Jung called ‘meaningful coincidences’?
I reflected on this and the simple juxtaposition of these two experiences led me to make a proposal to the yoga teacher, that I would be prepared to work and learn in a way that was different from my usual approach. I am still awaiting a clear response to this proposal though I have had an acknowledgment.
In parallel with both these events, a Jungian discussion group I belong to suddenly featured an amazing story about a woman who was thinking about the need for taking care of her teeth when suddenly a box of toothpaste fell miraculously at her feet on a busy street. She looked up and saw an empty window with a curtain blowing and no one visible. The story was described very vividly and to me it read almost like a dream. The writer was asking for some help in making sense of it, she wanted to know whether it was a meaningful coincidence or not, and I found I had many ideas. This led to a wonderfully energising discussion between four or five of us, and an ultimate interpretation by the woman herself such that the curious toothpaste event which was initially so perplexing, became lighter in its legacy and left her feeling secure that her needs were taken care of at and in the moment, and she didn’t have to worry.
While I was writing this story, another e-mail arrived from one of these correspondents I have just mentioned. In it she talks to me about learning and its source and she says: ‘No one can teach you anything. You have an innate code, that needs to be unlocked. Others don’t have anything to give you. Trust yourself.’
And as I have been reflecting on how to end this post, another message in this discussion that arrived even more recently, feels quite relevant: ‘And sometimes it just is as simple as asking or stating a need. No begging, arduous on-your-knees pleading, gritting or grinding of the teeth, but a simple ask, and the universe can reply with a wonderful, abundant and unexpected gift, literally falling from heaven.’
I like these messages that have come from new friends many thousands of miles away, appearing with unexpected serendipity on my screen – my boxes of toothpaste falling at my feet. They feel like truths to hold on to as the unfinished dialogues of which life is made, continue to unfold.