The Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation's Boston office occupies an entire 19th-century Back Bay brownstone, four gorgeous stories of carpeted, mahogany silence. The plaque out front reads: "Human Engineering Laboratory". The testing program has been around since 1922; it was started by a Harvard grad and now counts among its clients large companies and colleges such as MIT, which cites the nonprofit as an employee enrichment resource. For $675 ($750 in New York), anyone 14 and older can be tested: two three-and-a-half-hour sessions over the course of two days, plus a third session breaking down the results.
On this late-July day, my testing begins in a second-floor room that contains little more than Tim's desk, some chairs, and a few potted plants climbing toward the bright light of a bay window. Tim is a tall, good-natured 51-year-old who has worked for the foundation for 23 years. He wears suits to the office. During testing, he wields a stopwatch, and as he leads me through exercises involving words and images and one pretend game of Ping-Pong, he makes notations on clipboarded score sheets.
I'll ultimately take 28 tests. For every phase I'm excited but nervous. I love tests but loathe errors—I obsess over some mistakes longer than many people stay married. But I'll learn that there are no mistakes here, only signposts. "People assume they're being judged, but they're not," Tim says. "There's this idea that you have to score high on everything—you don't. Really what we hope people get out of this is greater self-understanding—that this is the kind of person you are, and how to apply that to career issues."
He opens a binder to a page full of black-and-white clip art. I'm not allowed to tell you what's on the page, but let's just call it a ladder, a padlock, a cheeseburger, a schooner, a unicorn, a boot, and a pile of coins. Each time Tim flips a page, something is different, and my job is to identify the change—maybe the ladder grew a rung, or the schooner moved, or the unicorn lost its horn. The quicker you respond correctly, the better you do. My test sounds something like this:
"The padlock rotated."
"The cheeseburger has a bite out of it."
"The unicorn's left eye is missing."
"That happened a couple of pages ago."
"Do I get penalized for a wrong answer?"
"No, you don't."
"So can I be a CIA agent or not?"
"We don't know yet."
The foundation calls this test Observation; it measures a person's memory for visual detail or subtle changes in a scene, the kind of skill that might be useful in detective work or art restoration. "We consider a significantly high score on any of these tests to be at the 70th percentile or higher," Tim tells me. "Your score was at the 90th percentile."
"See, I'm thinking why didn't I score in the 95th?" I say. "Never. Good. Enough."
But Tim says this score, like every other, is significant only in terms of the overall test pattern—high and low scores mean something only once you put them all together. To me, though, there's no mystery about which way some of these will go. The wiggly blocks, for instance—the test that Tim says "brings people to their knees": Just looking at it gives me high blood pressure. Think of a big black block carved into the shape of a rolling wave, and now imagine it as four different blocks, each made up of anywhere from four to 12 topsy-turvy pieces. If you were watching video footage of me trying to reassemble the horrific wiggles, you'd see me clink and clunk my way through all the stages of test distress: optimism (happily trying to match sections), suspicion ("Are you sure these go together?"), frustration (louder clinks, angrier clunks), and resignation ("Oh, just [unladylike curse] show me").
I score in the fifth percentile, which means you will not find me designing or building bridges in this lifetime. The wiggly blocks, along with a test involving a hole punch, backgammon pieces, and Post-it notes, assure me of something I already suspected, that I have zero future in 3-D. And I'm okay with that.
I expect the math challenges to be just as much fun—i.e., not fun at all. They turn out to be kind of interesting, though. One test involves decoding a string of numbers (my score: 55th percentile, or average). In another I move numbered chips around a board to create simple calculations—and stun my math-averse self by scoring in the 90th percentile. But my clerical speed? "I suspect I wouldn't be crushing any hopes and dreams if I suggested you not become an accountant," Tim says.
It quickly becomes clear that I prefer tests involving visuals, sound, and words. In a test for "Ideaphoria," I'm asked to handwrite an essay as quickly as possible on a given topic. "We're after the rate of flow of people's ideas," Tim explains, "and how rapidly new ideas come to mind." (Wonderful.) In Pitch Discrimination, I put on headphones and listen to pairs of tones and decide which tone is higher or lower. (Ditto.) The Tonal and Rhythm Memory tests ask me to listen to a string of increasingly complicated tones and, after the replay, circle a number corresponding to the tone that changed. Nothing about these challenges stresses me out—they feel manageable and familiar.
We Hear You!