Mbti as a tool, not the territory
Published September 20, 2022


  • It’s a mean, not an end
  • Sometimes you make decisions right instead of right decisions
It’s not until recently that I start to pay some attention to personality tests, as a side effect of my sudden awakening interest in self awareness. Self awareness is a rather complex topic that I foolishly ignored until I figured out that I literally have to unlearn everything as I’ve got so many things fundamentally wrong. MBTI is just one of those personality tests that happen to be quite popular among people. Listening to this podcast reminds me to think more about it.
First and foremost, there’s no scientific backup for its validity or reliability. https://nesslabs.com/mbti gives good introduction about its history and raises solid questions about its potential flaws. But why is it still so popular? Consider there’re companies using it for making hiring decisions or individual meetups based upon it. Here are my guesses. For companies, there will always be needs for effective management. The human resource is dedicated for it. But managing people is hard and messy, and you can’t manage what you can’t measure. There’re not many rules or processes can be more effective than having employees cultivate and internalize beliefs about themselves that they are wired for certain type of “roles” because of their “archetypes” say so. For individuals, there is the need of belonging and feeling special since we’re all social animals. Behind the scene, there’s the deep seated insecurities among each individual. The test result amplifies this need well. The chance of falling under any one of the 16 personality types by average is 1/16, which is small enough to be considered as special and large enough not to be considered as exotic.
Put aside the questioning of its validity. There is a popular mental model called "The map is not the territory". This isn’t to say there is no need for the map, or the map is totally useless. Quite the opposite, map is a rather useful tool and offers necessary generalizations for human interpretation of the territory. Since it’s human nature to simplify things, usually by some form of abstraction or analogy to things that we are already familiar with, so that our brain can reduce cognitive load and save energy for other activities. But it is the tendency of oversimplification that creates problems and stereotype bias is one of those problems. Especially in this Internet age we’re bombarded with all sorts of information, we tend to form premature judgement about someone we aren’t familiar with or never directly interacted with simply based on some overly generalized signals like occupation, race or gender etc. In addition to the problem of over generalization, a map is usually static while a territory isn’t. It evolves all the time, so does the human, only a matter of fast or slow. People with open mind and a growth mindset generally embrace different ideas and opportunities to challenge or update their existing beliefs and align their behaviors accordingly.
Also, words are inherently subtle and heavily relying on context. Should we describe someone who is against social norms as a stubborn narcissist or an independent thinker? How about someone who is leaning towards risks, a reckless gambler or a fearless pioneer? How about someone who stays silent in front of strangers while can’t stop talking when hanging around with friends? There’re too many subtleties and contextual factors to be taken into account that aren’t easily achievable by tests with subjective answers.
Even if it turns out to be more useful than it seems. As Weichen in his newsletter pointed out, getting to know yourself isn’t the end goal. Better self awareness naturally leads to the question of what should we do next? It’s easy to confuse a mean with an end. Nat Eliason once mentioned in his blog after achieving the income-automated “new rich” lifestyle popularized by Tim Ferriss best selling book “The Four Hour Work Week”,
The mistake that I made, and that I imagine many people will make going down this path, is treating the income-automated lifestyle as an end in itself. I assumed it would deliver happiness and self-actualization once it arrived when I should have realized that the only reason to create this much freedom for yourself is as a means to pursue that self-actualization.
Although the freedom Nat has achieved is quite appealing to many people (like me) already, the freedom itself doesn’t give any special meaning other than a sign that we won’t have to rent out our time to someone else anymore. We still need to figure out what to do with the freedom we earned back, which the Mexican Fisherman figured out long time ago.
While knowing ourself better may help with decision making, and life is said to be all about decisions, it’s not always the case. Sometimes you make your decisions right without knowing everything you want to know. One of the good example I can think of is my personal favorite sports athlete Kobe Bryant. The NBA hall of fame basketball player who won five championship titles has determined basketball to be his calling since the age of three when he first touched the ball. And it has nothing to do with self awareness besides an inspiring dream from a little kid. And we know that professional sports are insanely competitive, according to estimation, the odds of an average high school player end up playing in NBA is only around 0.02 to 0.03 percent, let alone the probability of achieving what Kobe had later achieved. But Kobe made his dream come true and later successfully coined the mentality he developed over his professional career as the “mamba mentality”. While we may not argue that those mental muscles are useful weapons acquired by Kobe for achieving his ambitious goals, them alone won’t be able to paint the full picture of his success career either, there are just way too many people with the exact same mentality but aren’t 6′6″ as tall. It’s an example of you fake it until you make it. The obsessiveness and relentless commitment in making a dream come true is well captured in his Oscar winning short film “Dear Basketball” .
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Overall, similar to the complex world we live in, we human are also complicated. There’re infinite amount of unknowns that we have no clue about compare to our finite amount of knowns. While it may seem appealing to leverage tools to simplify things, sometimes it’s probably more practical to get out of bed and try stuffs out and see how it really goes.