every man a genius

While browsing profiles on a Mormon dating website, I came across a girl who said she was an INFJ and then gave no further explanation, as if it was something with which everyone is familiar.  Since I didn’t fall in the category of “everyone” it was off to see the Google.

Apparently INFJ is the acronym for her results from one of the those personality tests; in this case, a rather well-known test developed some years ago by Bristol Myers-Squibb.  Long story short, I soon learned I was an INTJ.

Usually I give exactly zero credence to whatever those tests designed to categorize one’s personality tell me and view them as no more than mild entertainment.  This is why:

  1. Merely by participating in the quiz, there is a subconscious submission to its results.
  2. Personalities come in such variety that traits in one “type” will be usually be found in multiple other types.
  3. After taking the quiz and reading the results, because of #1, the user performs some mild mental gymnastics such that he latches onto the parts of the results that most fit how he sees himself while downplaying the parts that don’t quite match his personal view.  He has ample traits to choose from because of #2.
  4. The user’s conclusion will almost always be that the test was accurate and thus whatever acronym, color, or nickname is given for his personality type will resonate.  Sometimes this result must be shared on social media, too (or just on his narcissistic blog).

In short, the user reads from the quiz only the things he already believes about himself.

As this is my column, back we go to my results from the BMS test.  INTJ: Introverted-Intuition-Thinking-Judgment.

[Sidebar: There are many different websites out there claiming to give your results.  I used this one and I did not test the robustness of this particular test by taking any others.  My interest in taking those kinds of tests only lasts for so long.]

Wikipedia provided the explanation of the results.  I mentioned earlier that I usually put zero stock into these results; but these were so on-point that I couldn’t help but be hooked.

The full description of INTJ characteristics is here but I have pulled a few highlights.

  • “INTJs apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion ‘Does it work?’ to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms. This in turn produces an unusual independence of mind, freeing the INTJ from the constraints of authority, convention, or sentiment for its own sake”
  • “They are often acutely aware of their own knowledge and abilities—as well as their limitations and what they don’t know… INTJs thus develop a strong confidence in their ability and talents, making them natural leaders.”
  • “They may even be considered the most independent of all of the sixteen personality types.”
  • “Personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, can be the INTJ’s Achilles heel … This happens in part because many INTJs do not readily grasp the social rituals … Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense.”
  • “By nature INTJs can be demanding in their expectations, and approach relationships in a rational manner. As a result, INTJs may not always respond to a spontaneous infatuation but wait for a mate who better fits their set criteria.”
  • “They generally withhold strong emotion and do not like to waste time with what they consider irrational social rituals. This may cause non-INTJs to perceive them as distant and reserved; nevertheless, INTJs are usually very loyal partners who are prepared to commit substantial energy and time into a relationship to make it work.”

I think you get the idea.

[Sidebar 2: Another point that helped bolster my own ego is that INTJs are the 3rd most rare out of the 16 personality types, accounting for roughly 2.1% of the U.S. population.]

What’s the point of this story?  Well, beyond a little self-congratulations coming from the positive traits I so shamelessly outlined above, it’s to make two points: 1) that I think a lot about the world in an abstract, creative, and rational way and 2) that thinking so much can just get in my way, especially in romantic pursuits.  My whole life my friends have told me that I think too darn much.

Another reason for my relating my personality results is to excuse the hat-tip I’m about to give John Derbyshire.  I use the word “excuse” to mean I am claiming that while I post his thoughts, I had also reached similar conclusions and perhaps could have written the following article myself, as arrogant as that sounds.  But since he wrote this article in 2003 and likely had those thoughts long before publication, I’m chalking up this overlap of ideas to a case of independent creation.  The personality results support these claims by emphasizing that this is what INTJs apparently do–quietly and independently theorize about the world.  Right up my alley, I guess.

[Sidebar 3: Since I’m referencing Mr. Derbyshire, I think I can also excuse writing much of this entry in a style similar to his Radio Derb transcripts.]

Title of the column: “The Importance of Not Thinking Too Much

On to the quotes (emphasis my own):

“In general, however, [the case for thinking too much] is a bad one. It would not do for the concert pianist to think about every note before he struck it, or for the tennis player to perform a mental exercise in mathematical ballistics before swinging the racquet, or for the courtroom lawyer to carefully ponder the pros and cons of each question before addressing it to the witness.”

“But that, of course, is the pre-postmodern way of doing things. We are all intellectuals today, encouraged to think about everything all the time — think, and analyze, and ‘deconstruct.’ Every man a philosopher, all worshippers [sic] at the Temple of Reason. Now, reason is certainly a very fine thing. I spent much of 2002 hobnobbing with mathematicians, and I think you will walk a long mile to find someone who has more respect for the power of reason than I have. However, there are regions of life, thought and behavior that are beyond reason’s scope, and ought to stay there.”

“Derb” then relates a story about three accomplished mathematicians who discussed over dinner two great mathematical questions that not only seemed unanswerable but also threatened the very philosophical foundations of modern mathematics.  What one of the men found most interesting was that his two colleagues did not seem to care too much about the existence of these questions.  They, in essence, asked themselves, “What does it matter, really?”  Nothing in their day-to-day work would change whether they devoted their intellectual energies to these questions or not.

The story reminded of me of the first time I read A Study in Scarlet and shared Watson’s incredulity that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the fact that the earth rotated around the sun.  Besides being ignorant of it, once he learned of the Copernican Theory, he did his best to forget it.

In Watson’s words:

“‘But the Solar System!’ I protested.

‘What the deuce is it to me?’ He interrupted impatiently; ‘you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.'”

It’s not a perfect parallel, I admit, but it reminds me that sometimes it is in fact more useful to only spend your energies on questions of practical importance.

In my local congregation there is a young man who, after brief interactions with him, I labeled as a “meathead.”  Perhaps a bit insulting, however I was trying to think of a simple way to describe someone who gave little thought for anything outside his day-to-day life.  Someone who viewed the world in very simplistic and black and white terms.  A rather pleasant person, too, with a good deal of niceness and seemingly bottomless enthusiasm.  “Meathead” was meant more as a descriptor than an insult.

One day as I sat in a meeting I looked over at this person and considered him more carefully.  This time, I saw a man who is well-liked and enjoys his daily life.  He participates in a host of fun activities, regularly makes new friends, pursues women without much self-consciousness, and accomplishes a fair bit of good in terms of community service and volunteer work through the church.  I thought, “Am I really so much better than he?  Any better at all?  Me, who considers myself so thoughtful, creative, and rational.  Who reads and writes about big ideas and doesn’t have much time for the mundane.  Am I happier?  Do I do more good in the world?  Do I somehow matter more?”  Quite to my consternation, I realized that depending on how you keep score, I was far behind this man in terms of quality of life.  And I think the difference really comes down to a “meathead’ versus a “thinker.”

Final quote from The Derb:

“Perhaps… we shall come to our senses and stop trying to analyze and deconstruct our society down to the bitter end. Perhaps we shall realize that in order to get on properly with life, as with mathematics, a great many things just need to be taken for granted. Perhaps, like Hume, after arriving at some nihilistic end point of our inquiries, we shall recover our respect for the much neglected, sadly unfashionable virtues of carelessness and inattention.”

And that is the goal, ladies and gentlemen.  Everyone these days thinks he’s brilliant.  Everyone has their college degrees, their “informative” podcasts, and their moments of sophisticated reflection.

Does this mean we’ve all reached a higher plane of intellect?  I doubt it.  If everyone is a genius, then no one is.  True, there are a few exceptional minds in our population, but the rest of us are all of the same type of humans that have inhabited this planet for the last few millennia, albeit with more technology.  Not much else has changed.

A quote oft-misattributed to Marilyn Monroe but was probably said by Terry Johnson goes like this: “Have you ever noticed how ‘What the hell’ is always the right decision to make?”

I concur.  Here’s to thinking less!  Concerning everyone else and the ever-increasing amount of thinking going on these days, the one question I still can’t answer is, “What does it matter, really?”

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