Typed & Transformed

Personality typing isn't exactly psychology -- it's something better

| May / June 2004

Dividing humanity into types is a prime way that people understand one another, from ancient esoterica like astrological signs to modern systems like the Myers-Briggs inventory, used (and abused) by businesses in assessing employees. By asserting that groups of people share characteristics, regardless of other differences (such as life experience), typing can seem like fate, a too-tight box. Yet it has the potential to transcend divisions like gender and race and make us more conscious of the contributions we all make. In this section, we introduce some major typing systems and suggest ways they can make our lives richer and more real. -- The Editors

I don't know many people who like workplace meetings, but a few years ago my reaction to them was negative to the point of panic. I thought I loved and respected my colleagues, but all the emotions swirling around just under the surface of our get-togethers made me feel crazy before the meeting even got started. Someone would suggest what seemed to me a self-evidently terrific idea -- to which someone else would say, 'Okay, but how would we actually do that within our budget?'

My stomach would churn. Didn't this person understand that Utne is a visionary magazine? How dare he or she shoot down a good idea with a bean-counting quibble! Besides, I knew there was a subtext in that remark -- a resentment going back to the last issue, when we'd had a hard time with a last-minute idea. My mind would jump to a whole new future scenario of struggle. And on it went until soon I would be near despair. There's something about meetings, I decided, that lowers everybody's IQ and fosters obstructionism.

At about the same time, my wife, Laurie, a personal coach, began to study personality typologies. As part of her training, she explored several systems that parse the human race according to certain tendencies of the personality and/or the soul -- including the Soul Type work developed by Alan Sheets and Barbara Tovey (www.newequations.com), which is loosely based on the very popular Enneagram typing system. Both the Soul Type scheme and the Enneagram divide humanity up into nine numbered types. Soon Laurie and her friends were talking Soul Type talk: about how territorial Eights could be, how you could expect Ones to hold everyone to a high standard, and how Twos had a particularly intense gaze.

At first, I didn't even suspect that all of this might help me understand my colleagues at work. My response was anti-authoritarian skepticism. Calling people 'Twos' and 'Nines' felt more Orwellian than Orwell.

I held to a basic idea underlying both clinical and Freudian psychology: that human nature takes a single, general form. At the same time, some of my favorite European novels, influenced by existentialism, suggested that people were ultimately unknowable, individual worlds unto themselves. This number stuff appeared to put people in boxes. And the Soul Type system, which tied people's essences to aspects of their bodies, seemed a little 'woo-woo' for me.