Know Thyself: Are Personality Tests Useful?

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)

If thou knowest thyself,
it will follow thou wilt not puff thyself up like the frog
that strove to make himself as large as the ox.

Miguel de Cervantes

Online personality tests seem to multiply like rabbits. Look around social media, and you can find short quizzes to determine which Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Mad Men character you are, what part of the world would best suit you, and what car you should be driving. Few of these quizzes have any basis in science or reality, but the fact that they proliferate confirms what we already know — that people naturally want to know what makes them tick.

Self knowledge is a key to vocational discernment

Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith
Knowing yourself — your talents, gifts, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and non-negotiable values, among other things — is helpful for understanding where and how you need to grow. It’s also an important first step in discerning your vocation or calling in life. Understanding your personality can even help you choose curriculum or decide on a microbusiness.

In Courage and Calling,
Gordon T. Smith defines three expressions of vocation:

  • The general call — the invitation to follow Christ
  • The specific call — a vocation that is unique to a person; the individual’s mission in the world
  • The immediate responsibilities — those tasks or duties God calls us to today

Immediate responsibilities are usually clear, because there is a clear objective to be obtained. If a baby needs to be changed, tomatoes need to be harvested, or tires need to be rotated, it’s easy and natural to take care of the task in order to experience the positive benefits of having it done (cuddles, salsa, and a smooth ride, for example). It’s when we begin to wonder about our own specific calling or why our children behave so inexplicably that it becomes helpful to understand personality types.

How can personality profiles be useful?

Personality type offers insight into relationships

When my husband first read the description of my INFJ personality, his comment was, “well, that explains a lot!” And it does. Differences in culture and experience explain a lot, too, but those differences are often easier to discern. Personality affects not only the way we relate to others, but also how we see the world, process information, make decisions, cope with emotions, and plan and organize (or don’t). Of course, personality is only one piece of the puzzle, but it can begin to bring a picture into focus.

The more different your family or cultural background is, the more helpful a personality test can be. Most of us arrive in adulthood with a boatload of unconscious expectations based on the way we’ve grown up and what we’ve read, learned, and experienced. If our spouse or children don’t fit our mental archetypes, this can cause avoidable friction within relationships.

Personalities come in many colors.For example, if your father was organized and methodical, you may assume that your husband (and all men) also should be. If he isn’t and you are, you may be tempted to nag, push, criticize, or even to assume he is being disorganized to annoy you. On the other hand, if you read his personality profile, you might discover that order and method are completely foreign to the personality type, but that his strength lies in providing unconditional support and doing routine tasks. Knowing this allows you each to shift tasks in order to become a strong, united team.

The best kind of teamwork happens when each partner uses his/her strengths to share in the building of a strong, healthy home and family. This will look different in each family, depending on the personality, gifts, and strengths of each partner. It is perfectly normal and very much okay if your family dynamic — the distribution of tasks, balance of roles, etc. — differs from that of your parents, siblings, or friends. You aren’t your mother, and your husband isn’t your father, so it would be absurd to expect your home and family to be exactly like theirs.

Part of the of the joy in growing together comes from knowing that you and your family are called to be who you are, not who your neighbor or best friend is. It comes from working to grow in wisdom and virtue, and being mutually willing to believe that you’re each doing the best you can with who you are, what you know, and what you have at that moment. That doesn’t happen overnight — it happens over the long haul. We are all immature when we begin, but we have the calling and the capacity to grow. Growth happens at different rates and times, and that is okay too.

Remember — love is kind. It thinks no evil of the other, is not irritable or resentful, it doesn’t demand everything its own way, and it hopes all things. Understanding personality differences can help you move into a love that accepts the other for who he/she is, and celebrates the strength of your combined gifts.

Personality profiles provide insight for homeschool decisions

Personality tests can be particularly helpful when you are taking on a new task, or at times of transition or difficulty. When we were homeschooling, I did extensive research, but also referred to personality profiles and information about learning styles in order to make decisions about choosing curriculum and extracurricular activities. This also helped me understand personality traits I found puzzling. Significantly, it wasn’t the personality profiles of the boys that proved most useful — it was my own profile that helped me understand some of my blind spots and weaknesses, as well as strengths.

Before I ever purchased curriculum, my personality profile told me that there was absolutely no chance that a straightjacket textbook curriculum would be tolerable. Of course, I had to test the theory (another aspect of my personality type), so we tried a few textbooks, most of which were universally hated and quickly passed on. As the boys grew older, we let them help to choose curriculum, and I found that they were usually drawn to things that suited their personality type and learning style.

The remedy for Pride is Humility or true self-knowledge.

Personality type can reveal how to live out the specific vocational calling

Dante by Luca Signorelli (1450–1523)My personality profile was helpful in choosing micro-businesses, as well as in shaping the business I have today. I knew I would be a writer ever since I was a small child, but wasn’t sure what I should be writing about. A Myers-Briggs personality profile (more about that below) helped me narrow my choices and realize that no matter what subject I chose, it had to be meaningful to me and helpful to others, as well as creative and autonomous.

These four criteria pushed me toward freelance writing and nonfiction, which hadn’t previously been on my radar. Like most budding authors, I had focused on fiction — writing books I wanted to read. I’ve done a bit of that and may do more in the future, but it wasn’t until I began writing nonfiction that I began to see my personal calling more clearly. Opting for nonfiction in a meaningful subject area proved to be the foundation for Everyday Education, the business I’ve been working with for years.

I still consider my personality profile when considering whether to take on new projects or subjects, and I always recommend that parents, especially those who are homeschooling, entrepreneurial, or both, learn more about personality types and learning styles.

Myers-Briggs personality profile

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is only one of many ways to learn more about personality, but it has been in use since World War II. It was designed with the belief that “a knowledge of personality preferences would help women who were entering the industrial workforce for the first time to identify the sort of war-time jobs that would be ‘most comfortable and effective’ for them.” It is an insightful measurement for anyone, and can be helpful in building understanding within personal relationships, as well as in making decisions and discerning vocation.

The essential thing to remember is to answer the questions on any personality instrument based on who you are now, not who you are trying to be, who you think you should be, or who someone else thinks you are. Like Benjamin Franklin and saints through the ages, most of us are trying to grow in wisdom and virtue, and most tests seem to take that into account. Answer realistically, choosing answers you genuinely prefer. Try to take the test when you have a few minutes of quiet and can take time to reflect on the results.

Take a personality test online

16 Personalities offers a free online test based on Myers-Briggs types that is well designed and seems fairly accurate. You can take it in less than 15 minutes, and receive results immediately. There are other free tests online, but this is particularly easy to use (just click the slider to move it) and offers a good amount of information at no cost, plus a non-intrusive opportunity to upgrade to a 60-page PDF of your type for $16.95. When I took the test, my results were consistent with results I’ve received with other MB-type profiles, and my family’s results are no surprise either, so I felt it was well worth the 15+/- minutes.

Is there a downside to personality profiling?

Our family has found it enormously helpful to learn about personality types. Some things are obvious without testing — anyone who knows us could tell you that we are all introverts, for example (we ranged from 53-90% introverted according to MB). However, personality profiles have provided significant insight into less obvious areas of strength and weakness, and helped us understand one another better. The cautions I would offer are these:

  • If you want the test to be useful, answer honestly. This is a not a measurement of virtue or worth.
  • Don’t mistake personality type for destiny. We are each responsible for learning and growing; cultivating strengths, trimming weaknesses, and supporting one another.
  • A personality trait such as being quiet or analytical is not a virtue; it’s a personality trait, and as such, should not be a point of pride or comparison.
  • No personality type is inherently “better” than another; all are necessary for a functioning whole.

I have heard occasional worries that someone (that hypothetical “other”) will use a personality profile as an excuse not to grow. This is, of course, entirely possible. However, it is a choice, and a person who chooses that does not need an excuse not to grow — they have already made that choice, and that is a matter between them and God. You are responsible only for your own commitment to grow in wisdom, virtue, and knowledge, and personality profiles can be a tool that will help you on your way.



The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, including Orthodoxy, Heretics, and the Blatchford Controversies
Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

1 Response

  1. August 27, 2014

    […] normally, to become whole persons– spiritually, mentally, physically, how will they ever know themselves? Will they achieve the success of a well-rounded personality, a contented spirit, and a happy […]

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