How to Get at What You're Good At

Before you take the Johnson O'Connor test, brush up on your Martian, work on your wiggly blocks

My name is Dan, and I'm ideaphoric.

That's what my counselor concluded after two days of rigorous testing at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation in Washington, DC. There's not much my friends or family can do to help. They'll just have to accept me for who I am: someone who rapidly generates ideas (many of which are impractical) and who is woefully suited for jobs that require extended concentration on complex tasks.

Aptitude testing purports to identify what people have a knack for, what they innately do well. These tests have always sounded like pseudoscience -- abstract exercises designed to measure the unmeasurable. My skepticism intensified when I learned the Johnson O'Connor process would take 9 hours of my time and 480 of my dollars. But I was in the thick of a genuine career moment: Should I move my speechwriting aptitude to another organization? Write a screenplay? Start a business? I figured a few tests couldn't hurt.

"We're going to try a bunch of things and see if any of them are easy," explains my bearded aptitude swami before he ushers me into the testing room and seats me alongside another man in his early thirties. It's Day One and we begin with group tests.

The lights dim, and a slide projector begins shooting onto the screen a series of two-word combinations -- one word in a made-up "Martian" language (for example, gev), the other its English equivalent (in this case, dentist). When the slides stop, we turn over a worksheet and try to write the English words beside the Martian ones. Then the same sets of words smack on the screen in a different order ("Gev, dentist ... dak, egg" I whisper to myself). Then comes another worksheet. Then two more rounds.

Finally it's time for a new test. We are asked to use one hand to deposit a mound of small pins, three at a time, into row after row of small holes on a plastic board. Subjects who perform well (hint: not me) supposedly harbor the capacity for surgically precise movement -- something required to become, say, a gev.

Later we are allotted 11 minutes to write an essay on an open-ended "what if" question. (This test, it turns out, probes for ideaphoria.)

Day Two proceeds in much the same fashion, only this time I have a new guide for the individual exercises. She is a preternaturally perky woman (picture Sandy Duncan on speed) who administers the test that nearly does me in.

Before me sits a large wooden cube, about the size of a 13-inch television set, that has been carved into nine different wiggly shaped sections. I close my eyes as my guide takes apart the block and lays the nine pieces in a row. My job: reassemble the wiggly blocks into the original nonwiggly cube as fast as I can. I immediately manage to connect two pieces, but the other seven just won't fit together. After five sweaty minutes I stumble onto the solution.

Then she makes me close my eyes so we can do it again. It's the same cube, but my second effort takes even longer. The third attempt is so difficult that I begin to believe the pieces don't fit together, that what's really being measured is my willingness to obey an authority figure. Nice theory. My score places me in the 10th percentile for structural visualization.

After more tests, I return to the office of my first guide. He hands me a chart with 18 bar graphs. It's my Inventory of Aptitudes and Knowledge. He also hands me a report that concludes: "The combination of high ideaphoria, high inductive reasoning, and ... low structural visualization suggests `communications' type work such as journalism, teaching, and advertising." Moreover, it adds, "Work that also uses your numerical aptitudes would be especially suitable."

How about that? Sounds like writing speeches on economics for a Cabinet official. Or writing articles for a magazine on the new world of business.

I also scored decently in areas that my guide says I don't necessarily have to pursue through work -- for example, the Martian word test and an exercise on observation. These aptitudes, he says, could be satisfied by studying a foreign language or taking a photography course.

How about that, too? I'd been studying Spanish for a few years, and days before had started shopping for a new camera. Maybe this stuff wasn't so bogus after all.

As the results unfolded, the real value of the test seemed less in helping me decide precisely where to work than in confirming I had landed in more or less the right field. Had I been an unhappy architect or aerospace engineer, this test certainly would have helped me figure out why (if the crumbling houses and crashing planes hadn't already tipped me off).

Aptitude tests can't tell you exactly where to go with your life, but they do offer a compass to indicate whether you're heading in a sensible direction. And sometimes that's not a bad idea. As any ideaphoric person would surely agree.

Daniel H. Pink (dhpink@ix.netcom.com) is an aide and speechwriter at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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