I have often wondered why I am less than fully enthusiastic about Myers Briggs. For many people it provides such a lucid way of self-understanding that they happily say, ‘I am an ISTP’ or whatever, even posting the information on Facebook page or Twitter profile – so you know what they are really like.
Part of my problem, I suspect, is too much Psychology at an early age. When I was a graduate student I shared an office with someone who was fast becoming an expert in psychometrics (making and evaluating psychological tests) and he schooled me to have a high level of scepticism about the whole business. He did a good job.
The slightly scary thing for me is that I have found Myers Briggs to be pretty reliable – to have good ‘test-retest reliability’ as my old friend would say. I get the same result every time. But I am still not sure it has got me quite right.
Anyway, it was with my critical faculties ready to go that I looked up a talk by Susan Cain on TED. Cain’s book ‘Quiet’ has roared to the top of the New York bestsellers lists. It is a book in praise of introversion. Now there’s marketing for you. A book in praise of extraversion would never do so well. It’s the introverts who love books – they are fascinated by what is going on inside their own heads and lose energy when dealing with other people or are subject to lots of external stimulation.
For the record, I am persuaded by a good deal of what Cain says at the cultural level. We – and the ‘we’ here is a bit of north Atlantic one – have gone a bit overboard in terms of structuring things – not least learning opportunities for both children and adults – in favour of extroverts. It’s the dreaded groups again!
Cain argues that there is a greater need for peace and quiet, for individual concentrated effort, than we often allow. Teamwork is good but sometimes someone just needs to go away and think it all though. There is limit to the intensity of thought you can have in a group. And probably a limit on originality too. It’s groups, after all, that do group-think.
For me Cain’s talk came to life, the light bulb went on, when she spoke not of introversion and the qualities of introverts but about ambiverts. Like their ambidextrous cousins, these are people who do not really prefer one way of functioning over another. They are equally comfortable with the situations where the introvert feels most at home and situations where the extrovert is having a good time.
Ambiverts are equally happy to see a meeting in their diary as to see a space for writing a report. They enjoy a party and, guess what, they equally enjoy a good book. They find both satisfying and rewarding and like to have a varied life. They have enough introversion to be able to take stuff on board slowly and enough extraversion to be able to push ideas out without feeling depleted. They can write a book and talk about it without feeling that one or other task is all a bit too much.
I found this amazingly helpful. I have always hesitated over personality test questions like – ‘would you prefer to go to a party or read a book?’. ‘Depends on the party’, I think. ‘Depends on the book.’ ‘Depends what I did last night.’ Until discovering ambiversion I had felt this was a fault. That there was something sinister about it. I now think what I always thought – that it is sensible, reasonable and well-balanced.
Cain has spoken up for introverts. Someone needs to do the same for ambiverts (they only get one mention in her book). Make it easy for us people on the borderline – or rather in the middle of the continuum – to come out. ‘I am an ambivert!’ You can whisper it to a friend or proclaim it to the world – yes, you can do either.
Being an ambivert means you have an answer to that question which always makes more sense to the person asking it than you. So have it at the ready. ‘Are you an introvert or an extrovert? It’s okay you can tell me?’ ‘Neither, thank you. I am an ambivert and my Myers Briggs type is ASTJ’!
See Susan Cain’s great talk at http://blog.ted.com/2012/02/28/an-introverted-call-to-action-susan-cain-at-ted2012/