Mark vs Cancer

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cult of Personality

My clinic staff and I recently participated in a corporate-sponsored personality test. Each of us individually answered a hundred or so multiple choice questions online, and a few weeks later we received a visit from a very nice motherly human resources woman armed with pages of read-outs to discuss the results.The results placed each of us into one of four main groups: red, green, blue and yellow personality types, then a hundred or so sub-types. The results graphically represented our conscious and unconscious personalities, and then churned out several pages of commentary describing us, as well as descriptions of how our personalities interact with others. (Apparently, the company that administers these tests is based out of Ireland, and they claim to have a global database of several million personalities, and a "98% accuracy rate", whatever that means.)I was skeptical. How could they discern anything about me from just a hundred formatted questions?

But then I read the personalized commentary. It was actually a very strange feeling to read a print-out of something that seemed like an intimate tour of my own mind. What I mean is, it pinned me to the wall--exactly. Now, I'm very aware of our human tendency to over-interpret and over-personalize generic data. Think of how many people are convinced of their astrological tendencies based on a few loosely worded vagueries in the daily horoscope.But this was 10+ pages of dense, highly specific paragraphs. I had to laugh out loud several times as we read through our results. Yeah, I thought, this is how my brain works. They had me convinced that their method of testing had pinpointed my personality traits.

Then things turned slightly surreal. As the staff took turns sharing some specifics from their profiles, the nice human resources lady looked at my read-out long and hard, and then said, "Wow. That's really unique, Dr. Foster."

"Yeah," I mumbled. "They got me pretty good."

"No," she said, looking past the words to the graphic representations. "I've never seen somebody with this combination of traits." She pointed to a page that showed a series of graduated arrows pointing up and down in both the conscious and subconscious areas. Most people, she said, had equal arrows clustered in one specific area. Mine, however, had scattered dominant arrows jutting in opposite directions, and particularly my conscious and unconscious arrows were mirror-imaged. That means, she continued, that you have totally opposite traits that manifest themselves in vastly different ways in public versus private. And the size of the arrows means that it takes a lot of internal psychological exertion, both publicly and privately, for you to manifest your personality.

"Are you tired a lot?" she asked. "Do you have a hard time sleeping?"

Why, yes. I do.

"I'm not surprised," she said. "It can be psychologically exhausting to have to exert yourself in each direction. Most people's personalities choose the path of least resistance, but your pattern looks like the path of most resistance."

So that means I'm crazy, right?

"No, not at all. It means you’re incredibly unique. I've done thousands of these, and I've only seen one other person whose profile resembled yours. He's one of our most successful CEOs at our biggest hospital in California."

Well, I'm not CEO material.

"Maybe not. But he is an accomplished sculptor and painter. You're obviously a skilled doctor, but do you have creative interests?"

I'd like to fancy myself a writer. I just finished a novel.

"There you go," she said. By now, the rest of our staff was honed in on our conversation, and it was a little uncomfortable, but she remained intensely intrigued. "You are just very unique. One in a million, or at least one in ten thousand. Just very special."

Now, I must confess that, at this point, I was getting weirded out. I felt like I was being set up for a practical joke, or like I was John Locke from LOST being told by an imposter that I was very special just so I could be manipulated for nefarious purposes. I deflected the conversation back to the other staff, and then ruminated in silence on the significance of this silly test.

I felt skeptical, but strangely hopeful. Here was somebody telling me what I've always ineffably felt, that I'm a totally unique personality, and a big jumble of contradictions. The truth is, I am vastly different in public and in private. Just ask my poor wife or my co-workers to describe me, and you'd probably think it was two entirely different people.

And I do get psychologically exhausted at work, and sometimes at home, too. I've always felt uneasy being a part of a large group where I don't have a defined role, or just being one of the guys in a large group. But I also do very well at relating to people one-on-one, or at performing or speaking to large groups, or in carrying out my accepted role as a leader. I don't let people into my "circle of trust" very easily, but once they're in, I become a fiercely loyal and dependable friend. I'm spacey and idealistic, but sometimes pragmatic and perfectionistic. I'm religious and skeptical, a liberal conservative, an author and a gardener and a doctor.

I've always known those traits in myself. But here was a test and another person confirming it. The test may be totally bogus, and it really doesn't change anything about who I am or how I behave, but I went home feeling validated, like somebody out there, or at least some test, understands me and appreciates my uniqueness.

Then, of course, I started criticizing myself for being so susceptible to feelings of validation from a darn test. I think my wife, and even my kids, are probably the only ones who see all sides of me and still love me completely, and isn't that validation enough?

But we humans always seek more, don't we? Why this longing to be understood and appreciated? I'm reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and even he, one of the all-time great humans, repeatedly remarked that his driving ambition was to be deemed "worthy of the esteem of his peers." If you think about it, a person who was completely detached from consideration of his peer's esteem and appreciation would be bordering on anti-social, and that’s not a healthy thing.

At any rate, if you're still reading this, and you know me, then you might be thinking one of three thoughts: 1) Dude's weird; 2) That’s the Mark I know; and 3) I guess I don't know him as well as I thought.

Right on all counts. And now I've got a fancy graph to prove it.


Matthew said...

You're weird, alright. Just don't let it go to your head.

Jeff said...

Mark, you are definitley unique and weird, with a lot of greatness sprinkled in. We like you just how you are. That's very interesting that the test seemed to nail you so well. I've never taken a personality test that seemed to be worth a thing. I must be one in a billion or so.

Em said...

Awesome. How cool to be unique and have it proven by a test. The cup is definitely half-full on this.

Unrelated to this, but tapping into that unique mind of yours, what do you think about Obama's health care plan? I read his address to the Am. Med. Assoc. and wondered what you--my only doctor friend-- thought about it. You should post about it. :)

Dad said...
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