I like the variety of the testing, the mental muscles I'm forced to flex. When a computer screen shows me a series of line drawings, I'm to list, as quickly as possible, whatever words come to mind. Scissors, barbell, mustache, bird... In the verbal equivalent of the Rorschach test, Tim says a word and I answer with the first word I think of—he might say peanut and I might say baby, whereas the next test subject might say butter or crop. The type of answer a subject gives puts her into one of two O'Connor-devised personality groups: objective or subjective. Objectives are generalists who prefer to know a little about a lot, according to the foundation's methodology; subjectives tend to be specialists or experts. Since I've spent my entire career as a general-assignment writer, I suspect that (like most test subjects) I'd be labeled an objective, but I actually score as a subjective; in O'Connor's world, this means I prefer individualistic work. A subsequent "grip test," which measures hand strength, will, as Tim puts it, suggest something about whether I'm okay with idleness. The stronger the subject's grip, the more stifled and frustrated she may feel in a job that forces her to sit at a desk all day. No surprise here: Give me freedom.
By the third day, I'm dying to know where all this information is leading. Judging from the dossier of results—graphs, summaries, booklets—Tim has me quantified in entirely new, or new to me, ways. And despite my deep-seated skepticism about labeling and jargon and what the cynic in me would call psychobabble, I'm hoping the analysis will reveal something fresh and marvelous, insights that might actually empower me to change my life. Everything Tim has said these past two days has made a certain sense. Besides, there's nothing wrong with listening.
We get quickly to the most important finding: I'm a combination of something called high Ideaphoria and high Foresight. Which makes me think of a high forehead. I squelch the urge to laugh, and concentrate instead on Tim's explanation. Ideaphoria was measured by the superfast handwritten test requiring me to riff on an essay answer; I scored in the 99th percentile, the "extreme end of the spectrum," he says. "For people like you, the mind's always going, one idea after another. You can't really shut that off—ever." Low scorers tend to prefer sticking to one task without interruption. "With a high score, the first thing we want to do is find a place where you can really use that flow of ideas, rather than having to suppress it all the time."
Foresight was the test where I looked at the line drawings and wrote what came to mind. It was also high. "People like you see a lot of possibilities in almost anything," Tim says.
All of this rings true, and sounds great, but, as Tim explains, it's a bit trickier than it might seem. For starters, high-Foresight people must always have a long-range goal in order to feel fulfilled, and their daily work needs to support that goal. (For me, my day job would need to feed my long-range plan to write books and teach full-time.) Complicating matters, high-Ideaphoria people generate loads of ideas but have trouble choosing just one. This, paired with the perfectionism of high Foresight, can lead to misery, because a flow of ideas means nothing if, as Tim says, "the work has to be perfect for all time."
"So, not an ideal combination," I say.
"I don't like to make that kind of judgment," Tim says. "People who are high Ideaphoria and high Foresight are the ones who end up doing the really cool things. They often have a lot of anxiety initially, but once they get going, they're determined, and they do it."
"The key phrase being 'once they get going.'"
"They're thinking not only about what they'll be doing when they're 60," he says, "but also what will be on their tombstone—their purpose on Earth." One of the worst things that can happen to someone like me is actually achieving a goal, he says. "Because then there's an emptiness."
And it's at this point that my brain does something uncharacteristically supportive and awesome. It forms the following thought: But if I'm always generating new ideas, wouldn't those fill the emptiness?
Reader, you have to believe me when I tell you this was a breakthrough. I've spent most of my life focused on what I'm not, but this little jargon-enabled epiphany made me realize the upside in choosing to work with what I am.
Tim helped by summing it all up: "You're a specialized communicator. You're creative and have lots of ideas. So you get passionate about something, you tell people about it, you write about it, you draw things, whatever. You're organized, and there's some musical and language aptitude going on." At my request, he also did a bit of career counseling: I should think about avoiding corporate and office work, and I should probably introduce my idea stream (torrent, really) to a little loving discipline. I should consider being a college professor, a consultant, a novelist—or a journalist. As it happens, I told him, I'm working in every one of these areas.
"Do you find that most of the adults who come for testing are in the field they're naturally suited for?" I asked.
"Most, but certainly not all."
"And people can make changes at any point in their lives and be happy?"
I hope he's right. Although if he's not, there's always the tiny tools.
Paige Williams quit her magazine job weeks after writing this story and now teaches narrative writing at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Her website is www.Paige-Williams.com.
Your Turn: Take the tests yourself