Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Authenticity. This concept has frustrated and eluded me for years.
Back in my roaring ’20s, just after graduating from college, I took an intensive training course in the Meisner acting method with Larry Silverberg. Larry’s job was to help us discover our emotional triggers, and learn how to use them onstage for the most genuine performance possible.
Larry was very good at his job.
One day he stopped the scene I was struggling through and fixed me with a very hard, searching stare. “Stand up on the chair,” he instructed. I complied. “Now I want you to yell, as loud as you can, ‘I AM AUTHENTIC,’ over and over, until you believe it.”
So there I stood, yelling “I AM AUTHENTIC,” until I was bawling and my voice gave out. But I still didn’t believe it. And neither did he.
It was at that moment that I realized what a complete and utter phony I was. I was engaged to a man I didn’t love–a literal rocket scientist who was perfect on paper but for whom I inexplicably felt absolutely nothing. I was working a crappy service job I couldn’t stand, telling myself that I was going to be a famous actress someday when in reality I was terrified of so much as auditioning for any of the major Seattle venues, let alone moving to NYC or LA to try and make a go of it.
By the end of the course, I had broken up with the rocket scientist, moved into a shared industrial loft space in Belltown (tres la vie Boheme), quit my job, and started working as a Belly Dancer at a hip restaurant/bar in Capitol Hill.
I did feel more authentic, but I also felt hungry, and scared. I was broke as a joke, and coming home to a dangerous neighborhood at 2 am carrying my tips in cash was clearly unsustainable. After two straight weeks living off a single box of Cream of Wheat when tips got thin, I decided that something had to give, and I walked into a temp agency to get a Real Job.
A similar version of this same story has played out over and over again in my life, and I would guess, in many of our lives. Striking a balance between being our authentic selves and doing what it takes to survive in an inauthentic world is no easy feat.
It’s easy to stand in judgment of those who are working jobs that make them miserable, but not everyone has the luxury of getting paid to do something they enjoy. And likewise, it’s easy to stand on the sidelines and say,
“Just go get a job that pays the bills and then do what you love in your spare time.”
But anyone who’s actually attempted to do that knows that the wrong job won’t just take up your time, it will drain you of energy and motivation to do anything but crash out on the couch and watch Netflix until you pass out.
When I became a startup EA, I thought I had found a sustainable solution. I loved getting up and going to work every day. I got to wear lots of hats, to interact with lots of people, and to try lots of new things, AND I got a decent paycheck. Plus benefits! Most importantly, I got to sit shotgun on an amazing entrepreneurial ride from incorporation all the way to acquisition, sharing in every triumph and every heartache along the way.
It wasn’t all champagne and roses at PlayFab, though. As long-time readers will recall, the more detail-oriented aspects of my duties as an Executive Assistant were, shall we say, challenging for me to master. I read all the books, listened to all the podcasts, leveraged all the habit-reforming tricks, made all the checklists, and asked all the questions. And though my organizational skills quickly became second-to-none (I live at inbox zero, y’all), I still found myself struggling to focus on and keep track of important details.
And, inevitably, this caused some serious problems for Bossman, and some seriously debilitating stress for me.
I recall a particularly painful conversation in which he sat me down and told me that, much as he adored me and valued me as a sounding board for ideas, he believed that it would take a “Gattaca-level transformation” in order for me to become the kind of steel-trap Executive Assistant he required. He recommended that, once funding permitted, we should hire him a new assistant and I should transition into full-time Office Manager.
I was crushed. And though in my heart of hearts I knew he wasn’t wrong, I was determined to change his mind.
I doubled down. I went to all the workshops and joined all the meet-up groups. I became the co-leader of the local chapter of the Executive Assistants Organization (EAO). I made “measure twice, cut once” my mantra, and forced myself to read every word of every email before taking any action. I even faced my fear of public speaking (it’s different from acting, trust me) to run two successful workshops at the Administrative Professionals Conference (APC). By all outward appearances, I was crushing it.
Bossman was impressed with my progress, and grateful for the effort I was so clearly putting in. And by that time, I knew him so well that I was borderline psychic in terms of predicting his needs. But before we got big enough that the question of my long-term job title could be raised again, PlayFab got acquired by Microsoft.
And, to be completely honest, part of me was relieved. Because although things like calendaring and travel support had gotten easier over time through sheer repetition, that laser-beam attention to all the little details was still not easy for me. And I still couldn’t figure out why, or how to fix it.
Then one dreary Redmond day, while attending an on-campus admin conference, I finally learned the answer from a sassy blonde named Jessica “Kick” Butts. Jessica’s message was simple: Don’t Do Stuff You Suck At.
Now, I’ve known my Meyers-Briggs personality type for decades. I’m an ENFP, which means that I’m Extroverted (I get more energy interacting with the external world of people and places and things), Intuitive (I rely on gut-level instinct rather than sensory data), Feeling (I empathize rather than analyze), and Perceiving (I prefer to let things unfold naturally and spontaneously).
My type is often known as “The Inspirer” or “The Campaigner” because we literally cannot stop coming up with new ideas, and our energy is infectious.
I’m not gonna lie: I’ve struggled with this diagnosis. It often feels like I am a fairy on a Dungeons and Dragons quest. The gang is more than happy to have me along, but they honestly have no idea what to do with me.
Put a little pixie dust on that mortal wound, you’ll be fine!
I’ve taken the test several times over the years, always with the same result. One time I even attempted to skew the results by answering the way I thought a more practical person would, but somehow the test was onto me, and I still came out as an ENFP.
So yeah. That’s me. The inspiration. The entertainment. The muse.
So when Ms. Kick-Butts started explaining to the audience that personality types are innate and do not change, I knew she was right.
When she told us that tasks which are simple and straightforward to one type will be crazy-making for another, I knew she was right.
When she told us all that we would be much happier, and that our career path would be much smoother, if we could be truly honest with ourselves about what we rock at and what we suck at and just stop doing the things we suck at altogether, I knew she was right.
But somehow I was completely unprepared for what came next.
She walked us through each of the dichotomies, explaining the difference between introversion and extroversion, intuitive types vs. sensors, feelers vs. thinkers, and judgers vs. perceivers, and listing off the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Introversion vs. extroversion held no great surprises: extroverts are good with people, introverts are good with information. Check.
But then she started describing the difference between sensors and intuitives, and the smile slid off my face. “Intuitive types,” she explained, “take in information from the top of the funnel. They’re interested in the high-level overview of a situation, and once they’ve got the gist, they immediately want to move on to something new.”
I was floored. She had just described with casually terrifying accuracy the central issue I had been struggling with for the past four years–nay, my entire life: a glaring lack of attention to detail.
She went on to explain that sensors prefer to focus on information at the bottom of the funnel: the fine-grained minutia of details. Numbers, names, dates, places… things that can be sorted and sifted and parsed into spreadsheets.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking “Wait–what?? There are people out there who enjoy that stuff? For real???”
And just as if she were once again reading my mind, Jessica asked the audience to stand up if “sensor” described them best, and to remain seated if “intuitive” felt more correct. That’s when about 75% of the audience of Microsoft admins stood up all around me, and I realized that not only do these people exist, they are the majority. Especially in my field.
I started to feel a bit lightheaded at that point. But Jessica is so engaging that I was soon sucked back into the presentation, and learned why I was able to improve my organizational skills, but not my overall attention to detail. As it turns out, the most flexible dichotomy is the last one: judging vs. perceiving. In fact, Jessica insists that this is the one area in which all personality types should teach to their weaknesses and strive for balance.
Judgers are natural planners. They like to know what’s going to happen, and when. They do not like surprises, and prefer to control all the parameters that can be controlled in advance.
The worst thing you can say to a J is “Don’t worry about, it, we’ll figure it out later.” Like Santa Claus, they enjoy making lists, and checking them twice.
Perceivers, on the other hand, are more like kids on Christmas morning. They delight in surprises and prefer to let things unfold naturally and spontaneously. They prefer to leave things open-ended, with lots of options and possibilities, and get uncomfortable when asked for a final decision.
The worst thing you can say to a P is, “So what’s the plan?”
J’s and P’s need each other, and need to learn from each other. P’s need to learn how to do, and J’s need to learn how to just be.
This is why Bossman and I made such a great team. He taught me how to J it up and get things done; to prioritize and plan so that both my time and his would be spent on the right things at the right time, and in the right order. And I taught him how to enjoy the ride; to celebrate victories, explore possibilities, and to combine work with play to improve our collective quality of life.
Because of that partnership, I became more effective, efficient, and productive. And I daresay he became a better leader: keeping out of the weeds, and soaring up in inspiration-land where he belongs.
In fact, the last time I took the Meyers-Briggs assessment, I was much closer to the middle on the P/J scale than ever before. Still a P, of course, but only by a slight margin.
Why, then, have I been so totally unable to bridge the gap between Intuition and Sensing?
It turns out that, whereas P/J has to do with conscious processes like how we choose to structure our time or carry out external tasks, the N/S dichotomy is about how we take in and process information in the first place. And those, my friends, are unconscious processes.
So while we can become more aware of those processes and even, to some degree, manipulate them by sheer force of will, we cannot permanently alter them, any more than we can alter the way we take in air or process food.
This realization shook me to my core. I was about to go back on the job market, and the positions I was being offered were all, without exception, detail-oriented. Program Manager,
Executive Assistant, Business Manager… Every single one of them required, right in the job description, “A high level of attention to detail.”
So what was a fairy to do? I needed a job. I needed money to support my family, and insurance to keep us all healthy. And unfortunately, in this country, that means working a 9-5 job. But nobody was going to hire me just to be inspiring and delightful and… fun. That’s not a priority in corporate America. I needed to sell them a skill set they could reliably count on to increase their profits.
I bought Jessica’s book and read it cover-to-cover, hoping in vain to find the secret recipe for transforming myself from amusing to marketable. Instead, I learned what I already knew from painful personal experience:
I am awesome at exploring new ideas, meeting new people, frolicking in the liminal realm between the imaginary and the possible, and inspiring others to do the same.
And I should absolutely NOT be doing anything that requires me to be logical, impersonal, and take a systematic approach to organizing things or people to achieve a purpose.
But denial is a hell of a drug, so back on the market I went, hoping for lightening to strike twice. Maybe I would find that perfect fit again: a company that was flexible enough to appreciate my quirks, but stable enough to offer me a decent salary and benefits.
And when I got the offer from Qualtrics, I thought I had found it. I mean, their whole focus as a company is EXPERIENCE. Hello?? That’s what ENFPs are all about!! I came in full of energy and excitement, ready to learn their culture and make a positive impact on their quality of life.
As it turns out, though, even executives at experience-oriented companies need their assistants to stay focused on the details.
Ironically, on my very last day at Qualtrics, Jamie Morningstar gave a talk on “opportunities for growth,” in which she used the metaphor of a tree to explain how the human brain works.
Whereas it’s quite easy to grow new leaves on existing branches (meaning to expand and grow our existing strengths), it’s extremely difficult to grow new branches. In other words, we are much better off focusing on the areas we already excel at, rather than trying to grow an entirely new skill set from scratch.
Or in Jessica’s words, we should all STOP DOING STUFF WE SUCK AT, and focus on the stuff we couldn’t stop doing if we tried.
So here I am, back at the drawing board. The recommended career paths for ENFPs are:
Acting (been there, done that: doesn’t pay enough to live on unless you are well connected and/or look like Angelina Jolie)
Teaching (ditto: pays crap unless you get tenure at a well-funded university, which is extremely competitive and highly unlikely at this point in my career)
HR/Social worker (one word: paperwork. NEXT.)
Writer. You mean, like… what I’m doing right now? That’s a career path?
I mean, I have been helping my husband, an entrepreneur, with his branding and positioning. And writing all his content. And doing voice recordings of that content because podcasting is the new blogging and oh P.S. by the way did I forget to mention I’m a voice-over artist, too?
Well, will ya look at that? I have been assisting a new bossman to start up a new business, and found a new niche, without having to do stuff I suck at.
Turns out the world is still full of infinite possibilities after all.
Live authentically, work delightfully, and STOP EATING CRAPPY CHOCOLATE. Life is too short for that nonsense.