The problem with personality types: testing yourself rarely works

A few months ago I did an experiment. I usually charge $350 for a coaching session, and at that fee I let people pick the time they want to talk. But then I said that if people booked the session at 7am or 10pm I would discount the cost to $150. Nearly overnight I was booked for three months solid. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. There’s a really dirty underbelly in Silicon Valley.

Asperger hot houses of IQ discrimination, sex slave enthusiasts with one or two startups under their belt, and Luddite / Mormon / Mennonites who work at Google but don’t let their wives leave home without complete body coverage. If you think I’m exaggerating, read this piece in Vanity Fair.  If you want to coach the people in these cesspools of intellect, their sweet spot seems to be $150 an hour.

2. Self-administered personality tests yield inaccurate results.

Fortune 500 companies adore personality type tests, because they ensure only leaders get trained to lead. And entrepreneurs love personality type because one bad hire can kill an early-stage startup. So when I am coaching for $350, most people have taken a personality test through work, with some expensive consultant administering the test. And the test results are usually correct.

But at the $150 price point most people do not have the kind of job where your boss hires someone to give you the test. So they just give the test to yourself. This is when personality testing doesn’t quite work.

You have to know how to answer the quiz relative to everyone else in the world. So when you get the question: I am never late. True or false? If the person is a fanatic about being late and they were late once last year, they might say false. And if someone doesn’t really notice late or not late, they will think they are probably on time because no one has fired them for it yet, so they will say true.

Each decision point is just like this one. I know it’s an extreme example, but the same is true if you answer, on a scale of 1 -10 how true is the statement “I like social gatherings.” For questions like this ENFPs routinely give a low number, because ENFPs hate doing small talk. But actually, compared to other people, ENFPs love social gatherings because they always get excited about the possibility there will be someone good there.

You really have to have all 16 types in mind when you answer the questions so that you know where you relative to other people. Because understanding yourself relative to your surroundings forces the same question as the oversized chair on Swarthmore College’s main lawn: are you really small or does your context exaggerate how you appear? And questions on the personality test are not as simple as mentally adjusting to the size of the chair.

3. The most frequently inaccurate letters are N, T, and J.

This makes sense because these are the traits that school promotes — your teachers tell you that if you exhibit these personality traits you will be successful (money and power) or righteous (or at least a reader). But most people don’t like to read and they also don’t care about money and power. So the misguided test results come from the (huge number of) people who spend their life trying to undo the pressure teachers put on them to be someone they’re not.

Usually it’s only one of those letters that is not right. And a great thing about figuring out the wrong letter is you learn not only who the person is, but also how the person sees themselves. (This also means that ESFP and ISFP are types that are almost never inaccurate results. But those people never take the test; They don’t need a test to know everyone likes them.) Another great thing about figuring out the wrong letter is the person with a fresh, shiny type result feels immensely relieved — like finally their life makes sense.

4. Identifying personality traits is really about patterns.

To figure out type, you look at patterns. For example, having a meal together is a common denominator that works to figure out what is different about a person. So the CEO of Schwab takes job candidates to dinner and has the waiter mess up the order. The CEO learns about how a person will function at work by seeing how they deal with this scenario in relation to how hundreds of other people have dealt.

I do this at the very beginning of every coaching session. I say, “Hi, this is Penelope.” I have a big enough data sample now that I know a lot about someone just by how they respond. The words they say back to me are not really varied: maybe “Hi, how are you?” Or “This is xxx.” Or “This is xx I have a call with you.” Or something like that. But I can listen to the cadence and tone of their voice, the word choice and length, and the delay between sentences to figure out a lot about their type.

If I combine that with the type they say they are, then I can tell within the first minute if the person’s type is likely something different than they reported. Which is why I say it’s all about patterns.

5. I love the routine of coaching.

At the $150 price point many people did not have a particular thing they wanted to talk about. They just wanted to hear what I would say to them. This never happens when people pay $350, and at first it made me nervous. But then I realized that I only see someone’s selected topic as a guideline anyway.

So I realized I love the puzzle part of coaching – trying to identify their personality type and their most pressing problem within the first five minutes. And I love the process of the person finding the topic both wildly unexpected and also wildly obvious (in hindsight).

It’s so easy to see other people’s lives and so much harder to see our own.

Which is why so many people told me I needed a schedule and I didn’t think it would make a difference. But then I loved having a coaching session at 7am and 10pm every day.

So I’m extending my offer for discounted coaching sessions. The normal rate is $350 for an hour, but if you book a session at 7am or 10pm Eastern you can pay $150. Use this link to make the $150 payment and I’ll send you an email to schedule a session.

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