microscope with globe and toys
Photo: Victor Schrager
Manipulating numbers, identifying patterns, thinking visually: Do you know where your strengths lie? After struggling, cursing, and tweezing her way through 28 rigorous aptitude tests, Paige Williams discovered a few talents she never knew she had.
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.

Tim nods.

"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?"

"Bad boyfriends?"

Oh, if only there were a test for that.
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.
The other memory tests, not so much. In Number Memory, a computer screen flashes one six-digit number after another, then I'm asked to turn over my test paper and—nightmare alert—write as many of the six-digit strings as I can remember. In Silograms, I'm flashed one pair of words after another (an English word alongside a nonsense word) and later asked to remember which English word corresponds with which nonsensical partner. These are so stressful, I'm sure I've botched them both, but on Number Memory I score in the 85th percentile, and on Silograms in the 95th. If nothing else, the testing tells me that we're not always the best gauges of our own abilities.

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


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