Know Thyself: An Easy Approach

by | March 10, 2009

You aren't sure what to do with the rest of your life, don't like your job or don't seem to last long at any of your employers. It's likely some serious introspection, a.k.a. a self-assessment, may be in order.

If you're considering this route, you're in luck, because an array of standardized tests, books, courses, counselors and other tools can help you determine what you're most suited and motivated to do.

Good assessment instruments can provide lengthy summaries of your interests, values, personal style, needs and even your reactions to stress. They can link your interests and aptitudes to employment categories or suggest your affinity for a certain kind of job.

At this level of detail, a self-assessment can distinguish fundamental from peripheral factors and whether certain characteristics are permanent parts of your personality or just transient (for example, insecurity may be due to economic or terrorist scares and not innate). With an assessment, you'll also be able to discriminate between "must haves" and mere "wants."

But these fancy tests can be expensive or provide too much data. Virtually no one can remember or regurgitate the information some of them contain. For example, reading your personal 45-page Birkman Advanced Report may be interesting, even liberating, but it's also like drinking from a fire hose.

Keep It Fundamental

There's a simpler way to gain a surprising amount of insight about yourself. This involves answering basic questions designed to identify the core building blocks of your values, motivation, temperament and personal style. Your answers will help you identify factors that underpin the nuances and details that standardized instruments measure more thoroughly.

The goal of Self Assessment 101 isn't to make you "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Instead, it's to "Keep It Fundamental, Friend" - the KIFF instead of the KISS principle. Each question should help narrow your focus and rule out life or work areas that aren't likely to gratify or appeal to you. When answering, don't over-stereotype yourself. Avoid looking at the answers as an "either-or" choice when "both" may be more accurate. Where your preferences are clear, your focus becomes clear.

Five Questions

The following are the five most important questions to ask yourself when doing a simple self-assessment and what they're designed to determine and what your answers mean:

  • KIFF No. 1
examines your fundamental orientation: "Am I fundamentally oriented most toward ideas, people, or things?"

Idea-oriented people spend a lot of time in their heads, seeking to understand logical concepts, objective principles and abstract theories. Looking inward, they conceptualize, envision, create and theorize.

People-oriented people focus first on the satisfaction of human emotions, passions, relationships and affiliations. Looking outward, they interact with other people, touching, feeling and honoring the emotional capacities that make us human. The primary driving force for them is being around other people and having their individual humanity appreciated. They also are drawn to aesthetic activities -- music, art, dance, bungee jumping, and so forth.

Thing-oriented people prefer to operate in the practical, tangible world of the present. The "things" they like best may be numbers, in which case they're labeled "quants." But things also can be objects, such as two-by-fours, traffic, trees, bits, bytes, bolts, barns or Buicks. These people are natural implementers and administrators. They implement other people's designs, run systems, organize activities and sweat the details. They tend to be conventional, rather than "inventional."

If any of these types are removed from their favored environment, they may function well, but it's unlikely they'll be happy. While orientations can overlap (e.g., artistic engineers or extroverted programmers), one is usually dominant.

  • KIFF No. 2
looks at whether you're most rewarded or satisfied by tasks or relationships: "Am I more fundamentally task- or relationship-oriented?

Not surprisingly, "idea-oriented people" and "thing-oriented people" tend to gravitate toward activity that involves achieving results and completing tasks. For them a team means people with complementary skills working together to "get it done."

Relationship-oriented people, on the other hand, find rich rewards in human interaction and affiliation. Intimacy, emotional connection, human values and self-actualization are their highest priority. For them, a team is an affinity group, a cohort that derives satisfaction from being together and enjoying shared values. By answering this question, you'll know whether you care more about the means or the ends.

  • KIFF No. 3
looks at how you prefer to structure your day-to-day existence: "Am I more stability- or novelty-oriented?"

Many of us have a strong drive for stability, security and certainty. We prefer the known to the unknown. We plan instead of invent as we go along. We like tradition. We seek to recognize risk and diminish the impact of change on our lives. Others are wired differently; their hot button is new experiences, knowledge and perspectives.

They initiate and embrace change, while knowing that it creates uncertainty and stress. Put novelty-seekers in stability-oriented jobs or lifestyles, and they get bored. Put stability-seekers in constantly changing environments, and they get anxious. Either way, such discomfort can wreck a life or a career, making this a fundamental question.

  • KIFF No. 3
is a follow-up: "Do I like to do anything the same way twice?"

Some people are naturally inclined to invent things. They want to conceptualize, envision, create or solve something, but only once. Ask them to do it again, and they become bored and impatient. Put another way, these folks are naturally project- instead of maintenance-oriented. They like work that has a beginning, middle and an end, and then to move on to another beginning. They gravitate naturally toward consulting, project-management or other nonrecurring tasks.

Maintenance-oriented people are happiest when they're responsible for supporting and maintaining existing organizations, functions and operations: "Hey, I didn't invent the system, I just run it."

  • KIFF No. 4
focuses on your personal incentive structure. It can be asked in two ways:

-- "In terms of what motivates me, am I more of an 'I' or a 'we' person?"

-- "Am I naturally more of an 'individual contributor' who likes to do things myself, or an 'interactor' who likes to lead, manage, collaborate or work alongside other people?"

Being an "I" person doesn't mean you're selfish or overly self-centered. It means that you are most satisfied by personal achievement and mastery and less satisfied by shared rewards or being part of a larger entity. Such people work well and find happiness in many kinds of organizations, but their whispered mantra will be, "This is a good place for me to do my thing."

"We" people also like to be recognized for their individual value and achievement, but they express themselves most happily within the context of greater values, such as shared achievement, cultural/aesthetic expression or human services (altruism is defined as "unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others").

  • KIFF No. 5
permeates all that you desire and do: "What is your fundamental driving force? What's most important to you?"

Here self-assessment experts and tools often detect four basic motivational types:

"Humanists" are driven primarily by a need for self-awareness, personal growth and the sense of individuality and uniqueness.

"Strategists" believe a sense of mastery and personal achievement is most important. They might say, "I am what I do." They are the world's design-build personalities. They feel insight is an essential first step, but what matters is getting the power to the road.

"Pragmatists" might say, "I most want a 'sense of place,' one anchored bypower, influence, stability and control. I seek roles and settings that provide me with formal power, respect or prestige."

"Adventurers" have low status and conformity needs, but a powerful drive for excitement and adventure: "I don't want to play it safe; I want to play often and big. Play is good. Just do it."

Given free choice, most people naturally will self-select into roles, relationships and careers that reflect and reinforce their KIFF characteristics. If you feel uncomfortable in your career, try to match what you've learned about your nature from the KIFF questions with a vocation.

This is easier said than done. Most people don't fit one category; we're rich amalgams of strengths, soft spots, aptitudes and motivations. But you have to start somewhere. If you "listen to the music" of your personal temperament, you'll hear a powerful backbeat and, hopefully, a clear melody line. In other words, you'll know the basics for a truly rich personal career and life symphony.

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