I remember when I first encountered MBTI. It was introduced to me over beer, by a friend of a friend. He was a self-professed INTJ, and he was convinced that I was an ENTP. I thought it was fascinating. I can’t remember the specific details, but I went home to check it out. I did the tests.
I initially got ESTP a few times- which was what I had convinced myself I was- but after a while I started getting ENTP. I believe that this boiled down to the fact that I was interpreting ideas such as “intuition” and “abstraction” as something touchy-feely and emotional-like, and I felt like I was more of an analyst than a go-with-what-your-soul-tells-you person.
Anyway, I was hooked. I thought it was the most interesting thing I had ever encountered in my life. I did. It explained, in one fell swoop, almost all of the difficulties and troubles I’d been having in dealing with other people. It forced me to acknowledge the reality that not everybody is like me- in fact, that most people aren’t like me- and that what I perceive to be normal and acceptable isn’t always so to everybody else.
It was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, instead of thinking that other people are either stupid or flawed, I learned to see that they were simply different. We didn’t have to be at loggerheads with one another- I simply needed to learn to see things from their perspectives. I became somewhat obsessed with understanding and mastering the MBTI system. I’d read up about all the archetypes, and after a while I even got into the technical details underlying the functions that determine the archetypes.
(Most MBTI tests you do online aren’t very accurate, because they try to get you to pick a side between the four variables. In reality, the best way to figure out a person’s MBTI type, in my humble opinion, is to make sense of their functional preferences.)
As I got better at making sense of the MBTI, I started becoming more prescriptive than descriptive. I started to pigeonhole people. When I was younger, I assumed that people were either one thing or the other. You either got me or you don’t. After I picked up MBTI, I became enamoured with the idea that there were many kinds of people, more than I had ever imagined. 16 different types! That’s even more than in the zodiac!
I started paying attention to people and noticing the differences- yes, this person was more of an introvert, and this fella is more of a “feeler” than a “thinker”. Slowly but surely, I noticed that I was making better social decisions- I was less likely to piss people off by doing or saying things that they weren’t comfortable with. (Of course, “less likely” doesn’t change the fact that I was still doing it really often…)
But after a while, a new way of seeing turns into a new set of blinders. I started to obsess about MBTI, and I started viewing everybodythrough these lenses. What had expanded my mind and my vision of the world was now beginning to limit it. MBTI is ambiguous enough that it allows you to cherry-pick, and this is dangerous because it isn’t real knowledge. It’s simply confirmation bias- you start to see what you want to see.
I started to impose my views on other people. I had friends who weren’t certain of what their type was, and I “figured them out” and then told them what type they were- arguing in a persuasive manner. (One can be a “creative accountant” when it comes to MBTI- If you’ve already decided what type a person is, and the person is reasonably ambiguous, as most people are, then you can squeeze them into the type that you want to.)
Another problem with MBTI is that it allows you to justify your weaknesses. I am an ENTP, and ENTPs have inferior Introverted Sensing- so I suck at routines. I am an INTP, and INTPs have inferior Extroverted Feeling, so I don’t have to care about social norms or other people’s feelings. It becomes like a sort of handicap. It’s like saying, “This is the way I am, so it’s okay for me to be this way.”
MBTI is really just about preferences. It’s about what you like to do, not what you’re necessarily good at doing. Just because you’re an INTJ doesn’t mean you’re “smart”. You could meet an ESFP who happens to be a better logical thinker than you are. There is “some” co-relation between preferences and competence, but you can’t use one to consistently predict the other. The few times when you get it wrong will screw you up terribly. Don’t do it if you can help it.
If you’re interested in getting into MBTI, I think it’s something to be encouraged. It broadens your perspectives and makes you look at people in a new light. But I think it’s a provisional system. It doesn’t explain everything. (Nothing does.) It’s much akin to Wittgenstein’s Ladder. You climb up and over it, and then you discard it.
I like to think that the “objective” of MBTI, if there is one, is to render itself obsolete. How can that happen? It happens when it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to type anybody. It’s often difficult to type highly competent individuals such as Barack Obama, because they seem to be so good at everything. I think a good understanding of MBTI allows us to figure out what to work on.
As an ENTP, I learnt to understand my strengths better- I’m good at divergent perspectives and rigorous, consistent thinking. I learnt to see my weaknesses better, too. I have trouble sticking to a single thing for a long time.
Some people argue that we should ignore our weaknesses and focus entirely on our strengths. I think we should 80/20 it. A strength is like a motor, and a weakness is like a hull breach. If we had to choose between one of the two, yes- more strength over less weakness, a powerful motor over a smaller hole. But in reality, we don’t have to choose just one or the other. A little time patching up the hole can allow the ship to move a lot quicker with the same motor. Make sure to 80/20 it so you don’t waste too much time on one element of the broader system.
I used to define myself as someone who couldn’t be bothered with routines or sticking to any single pursuit for a long time. I’ve since decided to challenge that definition. I’m never going to be as good at focusing on one thing as I am going to be at divergent perspectives, but there’s no reason why I need to be terribly bad at it. MBTI has revealed to me my strengths and weaknesses- I focus on developing my strengths, but I also think it’s necessary to diminish one’s weaknesses- at least to the point where it doesn’t become a burden that holds you back from accomplishment and fulfillment.
MBTI simplifies our endlessly complex reality into 8 cognitive functions at 16 personality types. Of course, there are really an infinite number of cognitive functions and personality types. But these 8 and 16 respectively allow you to broaden your perspectives- at least, it did for me.
We teach children that electrons of an atom orbit the nucleus the way the planets orbit the sun. That isn’t actually true, but it expands the children’s minds and sets them up to understand other things better. Similarly, MBTI isn’t actually an accurate depiction of reality. (Nothing can be.) But it expands your mind. Just remember that it is not a substitute for truth.
I no longer really think of people in terms of MBTI. I don’t really care what your type is. I have reached a stage where I’m comfortable with not having “answers”. I think character is more important than personality. I still subconsciously evaluate people, of course- but I no longer wonder “what’s this person’s MBTI type?”. My thinking is a bit more subtle and nuanced now- it’s mostly intuitive, and a little difficult to express. But it definitely works better than sticking to a rigid system.
Still, again, I would not have gotten to this stage without having gone through that one. You need to learn the system before you can disregard it. Climb the ladder before you discard it. Know the ‘rules’ so that you can break them.
MBTI opened my eyes and broadened my perspectives, but then subsequently limited it. I found it necessary to climb up and over it, and then discard it.
I still think it’s a valuable system worth studying- just be careful of falling into the various traps associated with falling in love with a way of seeing things.