Don’t put me in a box


Put me in a box, and I’m going to fight my way out. In this case, I’m not talking about literally being put in a box – that would be weird and cartoonish – although if someone did physically stuff me into a box, my first priority would definitely be to escape, even if my hypothetical kidnappers were humane enough to poke air holes in the top and toss in a bologna sandwich.

Anyway, when I talk about being put in a box, I’m actually talking about being categorized, being told what I am and what I am not, being told what I can and cannot do. I know that we all do this in some form or another to make sense of our world (I’m this kind of person, you’re that kind of person, therefore we are or are not compatible…), but I have a distaste for the practice.

Unfortunately, tools that categorize people are becoming more and more common, particularly if you’re looking for a job. I recently was asked to take a “predictive index survey” for a potential new employer. Having had the same job for the last five years, I’ve never actually taken a test that was being used in a hiring decision. I’ve taken plenty of personality tests, sure, but they were more informative than anything else. I wasn’t being officially sized up.

This predictive index was a little different. First of all, it was being used in some way to determine whether I’m the kind of person they want to hire. I’d like to believe that this potential employer was using it sparingly, with caution and with a grain of salt, but since I took it so early in the hiring process, and they knew me only through my resume, a cover letter, and a 15-minute phone conversation, I know it’s being heavily relied upon to screen people out.

The test itself was odd. It was online, of course, and consisted of just two questions. First question: look at the words below (a list of about 75 words) and mark the ones that “describe how you are expected to act.” No further detail was given. Now, do they mean how I’m expected to act at work? Or at home? At my mother’s dinner table? The online index was not able to answer these questions before I started. I decided to answer it in a work context. I chose words that describe my version of the stereotypically perfect employee.

The final question was a little simpler. It asked me to look at the same group of words from question one and choose the ones that actually describe me. I answered this one honestly. Now you tell me – did I have the right strategy to “pass,” this index, or did I botch it badly? Would I have been better off marking the same boxes in both questions? Would that have meant I’m worthy of hiring, or would that mean I’m being dishonest, because no one has all the characteristics of the perfect employee? Do perfect employees even exist?

My head is spinning. Usually these personality tests are pretty transparent, and I tend to score right down the middle. I’m introverted/extroverted. I sense/intuit. I think/feel. I judge/perceive. The results depended on my mood, on what I felt like scoring on a given day. But this test was so simple it was ingenious/idiotic. I can’t decide what’s worse: being evaluated by a two-question instrument, or not understanding the two questions. I feel like the old guy who can’t program the VCR.

Ironically, we’re doing some personality testing at my current job, and one of my strengths is that “I value each person individually” which means that I don’t like these sorts of inventories for any other purpose than self-examination. When other people start using these tests to judge what I can and can’t do, and then making decisions that take these judgments into account, I get ticked. They might be able to test who you are, but they aren’t testing what motivates a person. They aren’t testing a person’s will.

In high school, my basketball coach put me in a box, and that box was on the bench. I don’t blame him because, as a freshman and sophomore, I wasn’t any good. What my coach didn’t see was that I liked the game. I liked it a lot. Over the next few years, that meant I played a lot in the off-season, which meant I got a lot better. It’s hard to predict desire, and consequently, how that desire can change the future.

I had a good friend on that basketball team who was a perennial B-student and always in the academic shadow of his oldest brother. Because he was motivated, he has since gone on to become an emergency-room doctor. Einstein was slow to talk and his parents were worried that he had something wrong with him. I bet the world is happy he didn’t accept being the best darn patent clerk he could be.

In some countries, kids are tested and put in academic and vocational tracks at a young age that largely determine the rest of their lives. Why would we tell a five year old what they can and can’t do for the rest of their lives? Would you want that for your children? I like that, in America, you can reinvent yourself. You can be a screw up in high school and go on to run a company. You can be a lawyer who becomes an artist. You can lose your way and find it again.

Like anything, the indexes like the one I took can be useful and they can be counterproductive. I say use them when you like two job candidates and you need to break a tie; don’t use them to define the ideal employee. But the trend is for more testing and more checks. Background checks; credit checks; genetic tests; you can’t seem to escape it these days. If the trend holds, only people with perfect academic records, perfect credit and perfect smiles will be able to get a job and work. If that’s the case, I guess I won’t have much else to do but sit in my box, and eat a bologna sandwich.