“Who am I?” cries Jean Valjean at a high anxiety moment in the musical “Les Miserables”. Over the course of the story he certainly goes through a range of names, but one of the themes of the drama is about identity and self-knowledge.
Recently I asked my 7 year old daughter if she thought she might, at some point in the future, consider getting a tattoo. “I don’t think so, I’m not a tattoo kind of girl” she replied. That’s one of the magic things about being 7 – you know exactly who you are. Sadly the magic doesn’t last that intensely for most people as they get older. One of the reasons for the on-going success of self-help books is that so many of us never get any closer to knowing who we are. We get caught often without enough understanding to make sense of our place in the world. “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” (Susan Cain), “Thinking: Fast and Slow” (Daniel Kahneman), “Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential” (Carol Dweck). There are over ¼ million titles on Amazon with ‘self’ in the title…
During the past 100 years considerable research and interest has been directed at understanding personality using psychometric analysis. Evolving initially from the work Karl Jung did on psychological types back in the 1920’s, a codified tool showing how different personality types work best (now known as MBTI) was developed by mother and daughter team Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers. Their system was used effectively during WWII to identify what sort of jobs women going into factories would find “most comfortable and effective”. Jung’s typology tests looked at 4 key areas. Since then there have been other systems – Raymond Cattell’s 16 personality factors and the Big Five Dimensions amongst others. In business the application of psychometric profiling has been marked in recruitment and in team and organisational development.
Increasingly these profiling techniques are being used by younger people as they try to navigate their way through subject options, degree choices and career paths. Parents often say how worried they are that their child “just doesn’t have a clue” what they’d like to do – it’s a source of real anxiety. After all, most parents have done their best to nurture their child – supporting their education from the early months of finding their own noses, to putting their jolly egg box art on the mantelpiece to making sure they have revision postcards and highlighter pens. Parents watch the confidence of the 7 year old wannabe fireman / teacher / stuntman evaporate and then begin to re-emerge from the duvet cocoon (I know, mixed metaphors) as blinking, nocturnal, angst-ridden existentialists.
Unfortunately a quick 16PF profile won’t bring everything into sharp action-worthy relief. But it can provide a robust foundation from which to start the discussion. These profiles help by highlighting strength beyond academic results – such as listening or influencing skills. They also isolate some of the weaknesses which can have been overlooked. Personally speaking, the knowledge that I am poor at detail and finishing things (ENTP for MBTI spotters) means I am very aware that I need to find strategies (or another person) to check minutiae and conclusions.
Recently I came across a young man who had been knocked-back several times from medical college. He had A* grades and had done all the right preparations – but somehow kept not making it through interview. His parents were both doctors and he was very keen to follow in their footsteps. Working with my colleague he identified that what really interested him was the science of medicine. Though being a perfectly pleasant person, his “agreeableness” trait tended away from compassion. He changed his direction toward purer sciences, got the university course of his choice and has increased his likelihood of career satisfaction and success. In his case he has now balanced the triangle of achievement (academic), values and interests (analytic) and ability (able to apply to university).
In an increasingly competitive job market having a degree of self-knowledge can make all the difference. It shouldn’t be seen as a pigeon hole – or an excuse. It’s a step on the trail of understanding. As Jung says “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become”. Or, to return to Les Mis (and please imagine the original cast recording by Colm Wilkinson here – not Wolverine’s mutterings) “Who am I? I’m JEAN VALJEAN” !