Personality tests are becoming increasingly popular among people entering the workforce and those seeking career transitions. These tests are intended to gather information about the taker’s desires, fears, needs and values and recommend careers best suited for people with those traits. If we pick a career that other people with our personality type tend to enter, and avoid those careers they stay away from, the theory goes, we’re likely to find job satisfaction.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Getting clear on your desires, fears, and so forth, and learning which careers people with those traits tend to prefer, seem at first glance to be helpful career guidance. However, basing one’s career path on personality test results makes an assumption I question. It assumes we should choose only those careers that the test tells us we’re comfortable with, rather than trying to understand and perhaps overcome the discomfort we believe other careers would provoke in us. In other words, it assumes that, if we’re afraid of doing something, we shouldn’t try to come to terms with the fear, but instead select a career where we don’t have to face it.
For example, following this thinking, if you’re extroverted, you should choose a job that mostly involves working in groups. If you’re convinced that you’re not creative, you should select a career that involves structured, rote activity with little need for innovation. If you’re shy, you should stay away from selling and networking. And so on.
At first glance, it may appear that we’ll lead happier lives if we stick to careers—and other activities—that we’re fully comfortable with, and avoid anything that might trigger our anxieties. However, it seems that—no matter how successful we become at what we do—part of us remains dissatisfied when we limit our horizons out of fear.
For instance, I know several highly paid and highly competent lawyers who wanted to be artists of various kinds when they got out of college, but were skittish about the financial instability of the professional artist lifestyle and what their families might think if they made such a choice. However, a few years into their law careers, they regretted their decision and wished they’d been able to overcome their fears.
I believe this happens because we understand, consciously or otherwise, that our fears aren’t part of who we really are at the deepest level. They’re just strategies we developed—often in early childhood—to protect ourselves from perceived threats in the world. I think psychologists John Firman and Ann Gila put it well in Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit when they describe our fears, dislikes and discomforts as aspects of our “survival personalities.”
As young children, we’re completely dependent on our parents to meet our needs and ensure our survival. Over time, we learn which behaviors make them more likely to pay attention to us, and which ones seem to make them pull away or punish us. To ensure we get the care we need, we learn to prefer those behaviors to which our parents respond favorably, and shun those they dislike.
If our parents seem to respond positively when we’re quiet and submissive, for instance, we learn to passively bend to others’ will. We learn to avoid aggression, as it upsets our parents and puts us at a perceived risk of abandonment. Over time, we start believing these inclinations and fears are part of who we are—part of what Firman and Gila call our “authentic personality”—but in fact they’re part of an artificial “survival personality” we created to make sure we get our parents’ approval.
Our survival personalities can get us far in the adult world. If we learned to be submissive as children, for example, we may have great success in a workplace that’s rigidly hierarchical and where obedience is highly valued. However, part of us remains aware of when we’re following the rules of our survival personalities rather than doing what we truly desire. This part yearns to get back to being who we really are, and ultimately this yearning becomes so painful and powerful that we fall into despair. As Firman and Gila put it:
“Many of us can live a long while lost in an identification with survival personality, especially if this mode is well-functioning, adaptive, and capable of success in the world. However, in many cases, survival personality sooner or later eventually wears thin, revealing the hidden chasm of nonbeing on which it is built. . . . The pressure from such hidden wounds can and does eventually wreak havoc in our lives and in our world.”
When we avoid the career we want based on discomfort—when we say, for instance, “oh, I could never be an entrepreneur, because I’m afraid of selling things to people” or “I could never be a musician, because I have so much stage fright”—we’re following the dictates of our survival personalities. If we take this approach to life, eventually unease and dissatisfaction with what we’re doing catch up with us.
Taking a personality test to clarify your likes, dislikes, fears and inclinations is certainly interesting, but much of what such a test will show you—particularly in the area of your dislikes and anxieties—is your survival personality, the personality you developed to get the care and attention you needed as a young child. Following your survival personality’s rules in selecting a career may make you a well-liked and productive worker, but in the long term it won’t bring you the happiness you seek.
This isn’t to say that personality tests have no worthwhile purpose. In pinpointing areas where you’re afraid, anxious or blocked, a personality test may help you recognize your opportunities to grow as a person. In other words, it may help you see where your survival personality is artificially limiting your options. It may take some inner work, but overcoming your fears and finding a career in line with your authentic personality—what you genuinely desire and find meaningful—is the best way to achieve lasting satisfaction.