Know Thyself: The Short Course

Know Thyself: The Short Course

pencil filing in standardized test form
Douglas B. Richardson, Certified Master Coach

Let's say you want to figure out what to do with your life. Or, perhaps you detest your current job or have been fired six times in five years, and you've decided that some serious self-assessment is in order. Well, you're in luck.

If your navel-staring faculties are marginal, an incredible array of standardized tests, books, courses, counselors and other tools can help you undertake the task of figuring out the best type of job you're suited to do, motivated to do and are capable of doing. You can just as easily uncover the sorts of people, work, settings or careers you should stay the hell away from. To do this, you can choose among scores of proven, comprehensive self-assessment instruments and templates – tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, Enneagrams, the Strong Interest Inventory, the Herrmann Brain Dominance Profile, the Campbell Leadership Index, the Personal Profile System and, my favorite, the awesome Birkman Advanced Report.

The best assessment instruments provide lengthy summaries of your interests, values, personal style, needs and even predictable reactions to stress. They also can link your interests and aptitudes to employment categories or even suggest your affinity for a particular kind of job. This level of self-assessment can distinguish things that are fundamental from those that are incidental and help you understand which of your personal characteristics are permanent and which are transient (for example, the sense of insecurity caused by the present stinko economy). It can help you discriminate between desires that are "musts" from things that are merely "wants."

The downside of these comprehensive assessment tools is that:

A. They cost you money – sometimes quite a lot of money; and-

B. They may blow your mind with the sheer amount of data they dump on you.

Virtually no one can remember or regurgitate all the information contained in some of them. Reading your personal 45-page Birkman Advanced Report may be interesting, even liberating, but it's also like drinking from a fire hose.

Fortunately, you can get a surprising amount of practical mileage from far simpler self-assessment insights, which allow you to identify the core building blocks of your fundamental values, motivation, temperament and personal style. By asking yourself a few basic questions – essentially playing 20 questions with your nature – you can identify some basic factors that underpin all the nuances and details that the fancy assessment instruments measure more thoroughly.

Our goal in Self Assessment 101 is not to dumb it down or to "keep it simple, stupid." Rather than the KISS Principle, think of the KIFF Principle: "Keep it Fundamental, Friend." The answer to each KIFF question should help you narrow your focus and also rule out huge areas of life or work that are unlikely to appeal to or gratify you. Yes, you do have to be careful not to over-stereotype yourself, to avoid simple "either-or" answers where "both-and" may be the more accurate answer. Still, where your preferences are clear, your focus becomes clear.

KIFF Question #1 looks at one's primary orientation:

  • "Am I fundamentally oriented most toward ideas…toward people…or toward things?"
  • "Idea-people" spend a lot of time in their own heads, seeking understanding of logical concepts, objective principles and abstract theories. Looking inward, they conceptualize, envision, create, theorize. On the other hand, "People-people" focus first and foremost on the satisfaction of human emotions, on passions, relationships and affiliations. Looking outward, they interact with other people, they touch, they feel, they honor the emotional capacities that make us human. For them, being around other people and having their individual humanity appreciated are primary driving forces. Aesthetics – music, art, dance, bungee-jumping – live here.

    "Thing-people" prefer to operate in the practical, tangible world of the here-and-now. The "things" they like best may be numbers, in which case we label them "quants." Or, their favored things may be two-by-fours, traffic, trees, bits, bites, bolts, barns or Buicks. They are our natural implementers and administrators. They implement other people's designs, run things, organize activities, sweat the details. They tend to be conventional, rather than "inventional."

    Pull any of these three basic types out of their favored environment, and they may function perfectly well. But they are unlikely to function perfectly happily. To be sure, there are frequently significant overlaps in our nature (e.g., artistic engineers or extroverted programmers), but usually one of these three areas is identifiable as one's dominant orientation.

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douglas b. richardson

Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor,, for over 20 years.

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