Today's Reading

How one answered the ninety-three items on the questionnaire would determine one's personality: one of the sixteen possible four-letter combinations that revealed your true self—your "shoes-off self," as Isabel liked to say—to you. We were told that both their questionnaire and their categories of personality (E/I, S/N, T/F, J/P) were based on the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, one of the twentieth century's most influential personality psychologists and author of the 1921 book Psychological Types. It was not necessary for us to know anything else about Jung other than his name. "Jung is a very respected name, a big name," Patricia told us. "Even if you don't know who he is, know his name. His name gives the test validity."

The second rule of speaking type was that you did not, under any circumstances, refer to the type indicator as a "test." It was a "self-reporting instrument" or an "indicator," Patricia explained. "People use the word 'test' all the time, but what you're taking is an indicator. It's indicating your personality based on what you told the test." Although her statement sounded tautological, Patricia assured us that it was not. Unlike a standardized test like the SAT, which asked the test taker to choose between right and wrong answers, the type indicator had no right or wrong answers—only two competing preferences. "In reading for pleasure, do you (a) Enjoy odd or original ways of saying things; or (b) Like writers to say exactly what they mean?" "If you were a teacher, would you rather teach (a) Fact courses; or (b) Courses involving theory?" And unlike a standardized test, in which a higher score was always more desirable than a lower one, there were no better or worse types. In a riposte to the long and punishing tradition of psychological testing in America, which had proceeded by separating apparently normal people from neurotics, psychotics, and sociopaths, all sixteen types were created equal. They each had their strengths and weaknesses and their special place in the world.

The final rule of speaking type was, to my mind, the most important and the most unsettling: you had to conceive of personality as an innate characteristic, something fixed since birth and immutable, like blue eyes or left-handedness. "You have to buy into the idea that type never changes," Patricia ordered us, and she asked that we chant after her: "Type never changes! Type never changes!" "We will brand this into your brains," she promised. "The theory behind the indicator supports the fact that you are born with a four-letter preference. If you hear someone say, 'My type changed,' they are not correct." Her insistence on a singular and essential self—a self whose moods and mysteries were crystallized by four simple letters—seemed to me impossibly retrograde amidst the cheerful promises of self-transformation through diet, exercise, travel, therapy, and meditation that I encountered in popular culture every day. Yet it also struck me as an irresistibly attractive fiction. There was a certain narcissistic beauty to the idea, a certain luminance to the promise that, by learning to speak type, we could learn to compress the gestures of our messy, complicated lives into a coherent life story, one capable of expressing both to ourselves and to others not just who we were but who we had been all along. What type offered us was a vision of individual identity in its most transcendent and transparent form. "Who are you?" the type indicator asked. "I am a clear ENTJ," Patricia answered. "I am an ISFP," the woman sitting next to me whispered in return. What other language afforded such clarity? Who would not want to believe in it?

That was the end of day one. The rest of the week was busy, crowded with tutorials and tests, group exercises and games. It ended on a rousing note with a sales pitch delivered to us by two executives who had flown into New York that morning from Sunnyvale, California, home of Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP), the current publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. They urged us to use our accreditation status to purchase as many Myers-Briggs products as we could afford and to attend as many workshops as our schedules could accommodate. Then, in a graduation ceremony of sorts, they presented each of us with a pocket-sized diploma and plated metal pin with the words "MBTI Certified" embossed on it.

At the end of the week, my contact at CAPT informed me that, based on my performance at the accreditation session, they had decided not to allow me into Isabel's archive. In response to my request for more information about their decision, he cut off all further communication. His evasiveness raised the very question I suspected the organization would have most liked to avoid: What did they have to hide?

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