Photo: Victor Schrager
The proctor offers me pins and pens and pegs and chips, and I sit like a lab monkey at his big oak desk, discovering the shape of my mind. My immediate assignment involves using tweezers to insert tiny steel pins one by one into equally tiny vertical slots in a heavy resin slab. "Go row by row until you've done the whole board," Tim Fitzgerald tells me. Tim is the Boston director of the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, an aptitude-testing organization with labs in 11 U.S. cities, and for nine hours over the next three days he'll pretty much own my gray matter.
"Am I going for speed?" I ask.
"You are indeed," he says. "So if you drop a pin, don't chase it around the room. Just leave an empty hole."
"No pin left behind," I say in protest.
"And if a pin doesn't drop all the way down, that's good enough," he says, politely ignoring me. "Don't waste time knocking it in. Just keep going, no matter how much that may disturb your sense of propriety." Already he can tell I'm a perfectionist, but for the remaining three minutes and 27 seconds of this test I try not to care what he thinks—I'm too busy tweezing and slotting, tweezing and slotting. Holing the pins is like racking test tubes, only in miniature, and with the debilitating creep of hand cramp. The exercise is tedious and repetitive, but I'm digging the rhythmic monotony.
Then I fumble a pin and it lies there mockingly until the grid is complete.
"Can I put that one in now?" I ask.
"It was number 37," I say.
"You counted that it was number 37? Interesting," he says, making a note, no doubt major control issues. Which is fine. That's what we're here for: to analyze my innate strengths and weaknesses, the aptitudes and predilections that came bundled with my DNA along with pale skin, green eyes, and double X chromosomes. Some of the answers I already know: I am unmistakably right-handed, and I'm drawn to words and art. But what else? Am I musical? Can I easily imagine objects multidimensionally? Am I unusually observant? Do I have a ready mind for foreign languages? Can I feel happy and fulfilled in a noncollaborative workplace? Can I feel happy and fulfilled in any workplace? Am I an ideas person? A numbers whisperer? What, exactly, am I inherently good at—and am I putting those innate skills to the best possible use in my career?
"What we've noticed is that when people are unhappy with their work, the most common reason is that they're not using an aptitude they possess," Tim says. "Sometimes they sense they're in the wrong field—something's missing, something's not satisfying them. Mostly it's that they think they could be doing more."
The center's typical client is a midcareer professional or a high school or college student. Most professionals get tested for one of two reasons. One, they're in the right field but possibly the wrong place within it, and they want to know what kind of environment would lead to their best work. Or two, they wake up one day and think, Hey, wait a minute, I don't actually want to be a lawyer/chemist/teacher. "These people often made their career decision too soon," Tim says. "They're having a midlife crisis and reevaluating their purpose on Earth."
Testing can nudge people to rethink their careers, even start anew. Tim and the other proctors have seen this happen: the marketing executive who became a private investigator, the payroll guru who found happiness as a consultant. I'm almost positive I won't discover that I should have been a fashion designer or a brain surgeon (world, you are welcome). On the contrary, I suspect I'm in the right field (writing) but wasting my time in office-centric situations. I'm hoping for some guidance on whether I should do what I've wanted to do for months now: leave my magazine editing job to go back to teaching and writing full-time. Will the tests pick up on that? Frankly, the tests seem to pick up on everything.
The one I just took, for instance—Tweezer Dexterity—measures the ability to use small tools or do delicate tasks. "Think of a dentist or surgeon," Tim says. "You were in the 90th percentile, meaning you were faster than 90 percent of the population. So what this tells us is, you're fast and accurate with tiny tools."
"'Fast and accurate with tiny tools'—I like that," I say. "Could be a book title."
"And what would that book be about?"
Oh, if only there were a test for that.