Do you see yourself as a patient, or a protagonist?
In Black Earth Rising, it’s the first line of dialogue that Kate (Michaela Coel)’s character hears. For reasons I couldn’t explain, the line shook me to my core; it felt as if someone asked me the question I could never quite put into words.
Let’s be frank: Kate’s in therapy and therapy is unnerving. I evangelize its benefits, but I haven’t gotten over the fact that I’ll have to sit and have some stranger tell me about myself. I mean, the unmitigated gall. Who could know more about me, than me?
If there’s nothing you learn about me, know that I cherish my individualism and autonomy. It’s become something of a trigger for people to tell me who I remind them of. Apparently, I’m Will Smith, or Lenny Kravitz, or just like my father.
A nagging question resonated in the back of my head: Who would ever want to be put in those kinds of boxes?
My best friend from high school, it seems.
He measured everything in his life before it was cool. While applying to college in the mid-2000s, he created a rubric for the universities he planned on attending, based on student experience, the likelihood of job prospects, and countless other metrics. UPenn got a 98/100 if you’re wondering.
His methods left a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t place why. Surely, there was something you couldn’t account for in the model; where the numbers don’t align to real life. What if the data, or the measurement, is incorrect? Where’s the room for the people who want to define themselves?
Of course, he offered a logical option for my woes. “Have you ever checked your personality type?”
He was talking about Meyers-Briggs tests, the tools that define and compartmentalize personality types using a collection of standardized questions. He sent me a website that let me find out for myself and was passionately interested in my answers.
Where he offered structure, however, I saw a prison cell.
It’s clear by now, that personality tests give me immense anxiety. Sure, they help people understand more of themselves; but their assessments felt so…final. If I ever finished one of these tests, it would make the cage real.
I felt like I’d have no more opportunity for growth or change; I would just be like the rest of those who share my Meyers-Briggs type. Somehow, learning about my personality meant I finally lost control of directing it.
Nothing like money to incentivize you to get over your fears, right?
Since the dawn of time, humans have drawn up schematics to describe and categorize our personalities. From the four temperaments of the ancient civilizations to the latest advances in psychology, we have been driven to fit the variables and complexities of human personality into well-defined models.
Although we are still some time away from being able to do that, the current models account for our most important personality traits and can predict our behavior with a high degree of accuracy.
The company offers a unique innovation: curated personal life advice connected to your personality type. The test is free, as are the insights about your classification, through which you can buy online courses and their personality-curated book as lessons for life.
Additionally, by taking a page out of UX design practices, they made Meyers-Briggs types more relatable: unique personas.
Although taking the test was harmless, every answered question felt like a noose was wrapping itself around my future individuality and autonomy. Somehow, I hoped the fear was a symptom that these outcomes would eventually bear fruit.
You know, finally getting my answer about my personality type made my anxiety all the more clear.
I’m a protagonist. Makes sense, right?
Now, you probably expect me to say “It was shocking how accurate it was.” And, of course, it was accurate; but I wasn’t shocked. I felt solace in the fact that I didn’t quite fit; nobody has numbers perfectly completely in any other category.
But, they said enough.
Protagonists are natural-born leaders, full of passion and charisma. Forming around two percent of the population, they are oftentimes our politicians, our coaches and our teachers, reaching out and inspiring others to achieve and to do good in the world.
I’m like Barack and Oprah? I’ll take that.
They find it natural and easy to communicate with others, especially in person, and their Intuitive (N) trait helps people with the Protagonist personality type to reach every mind, be it through facts and logic or raw emotion. Protagonists easily see people’s motivations and seemingly disconnected events, and are able to bring these ideas together and communicate them as a common goal with an eloquence that is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Hm. Sounds relatable. I like to connect seemingly disparate concepts, and a lot of people know and connect with me as a person.
Protagonists are vulnerable to another snare as well: they have a tremendous capacity for reflecting on and analyzing their own feelings, but if they get too caught up in another person’s plight, they can develop a sort of emotional hypochondria, seeing other people’s problems in themselves, trying to fix something in themselves that isn’t wrong.
YIKES. One of those things I didn’t want to hear.
As I moved through the pages of diagnosis, I pinballed between comfort and terror. Though I appreciated how they named my unique connection to the world, my fear took hold each time they showed me the darker sides of myself.
If you’re interested, here’s the rest of the description.
Over my life, I failed to realize the power of these personality tests: they aren’t just about you. They’re about how you fit in the world.
As a designer and researcher, I’ve been drilled on how diverse teams open up the possibilities for unique creative discovery. I’ve even written papers on its utility towards conducting effective human-centered design for premier innovation platforms. The more diverse the skills, perspective and experience the team members bring, the more opportunity there is for emergent change and development.
At campuses like UC Berkeley, students are participating on design teams in almost every topic under the sun: engineering, urban planning, business, Internet of Things, even international development. The difference can come from race, gender, nationality, class, sexuality, profession, skill set, values, or many other indicators of importance. So, why not align personalities?
My advisor, Alice Agogino, published on the utility of applying different learning styles as another metric for making diversely blended design teams. All students are better at different parts of the design process: assimilation, convergence, accommodation, divergence, and the like. Thinking about these skills offers structure to the essential skills of the innovation process.
To innovate well, it helps to have a well-rounded team of naturals at each task during a design cycle. As expected, my advisor understood the practical importance of the tool I ran away from my whole life: these tests don’t represent your entire personality, they just help you understand your talents and where you might need support.
We are more than what’s inside our head. Psychologists, biologists, and many others who study the consequences of brains have debated where the person ends and the personality begins. Those at 16Personalities even make the important point: the test you take likely represents only 5% of your full personality, and science has much more to learn.
But, we are also formed by more than three pounds of cerebral mass. We are our history, our social structures, and the legacy we leave behind. Taking this test was the first step.
What did this experience teach us on this journey?
Your need for control keeps you from growing.
You might have guessed this already, but my aversion to these tests came from a deep-seated fear in myself. Once I categorized myself, it made the parts of myself all the more real, and seemingly unchangeable. I pride myself on my adaptability, my moral character, and my ability to define my own story. Classic protagonist, right? But, being unchangeable isn’t always a bad thing. You shouldn’t run from the parts of yourself that you’ve worked so hard to develop.
Take those descriptions above. Being a Protagonist means I’m connected to others. However, being altruistic and overly selfless are two sides of the same coin.
By mentioning both strengths and weaknesses, you can learn which sides of yourself you can own and control. By focusing on the shameful parts of ourselves, we can learn to better adapt as human beings.
The tests are not cages — only guides.
5%. The test only shows 5%!
As you could tell, that 5% represents a lot. Once I understand my charisma, altruism, and leadership skills are inherent qualities of myself, I can learn more about how they can be leveraged towards helping those I care the most about. At the same time, I can understand and attenuate my sensitive and selfless nature when they begin to harm my individual goals.
As a researcher of systems, I equate those small parts of myself as important opportunities to leverage change in myself and others. If understood, I can use them as I see fit.
The best things in life are on the other side of fear.
Ironically, it’s a Will Smith quote. Interestingly, the more I attack things I’m afraid of, the more happiness I experience as a result. Probably, because I’m learning more about the things that hold me back.
Taking a Personality test doesn’t tell you only if you’re similar to others. It helps you understand how to become a better version of yourself. It’s activities like these that help you learn how to be the protagonist in your own life.
Of course, if that’s your personality type.
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