From ISTJ to ENFP, finally at peace with MBTI

“Though shyness per se was unacceptable, reserve was a mark of good breeding.” - Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That can’t Stop Talking

I was a “good girl” at school as a kid. I started the year with the worst marks (usually because I couldn’t speak French, after spending 2-3 months summer in Vietnam), but often finished the year being among the 5 best students. Teachers liked me, they would often write about me: “Elève sérieuse, réfléchie et réservée”. I was a “good girl” introvert kid. I wasn’t just reserved, I was utterly shy. I still have a shell of shyness, but I find that when I smile, this shell becomes a safe bubble.

From introvert to extrovert

Indeed today, I wouldn’t say I’m an introvert anymore. I don’t necessarily feel exhausted after a networking. On the contrary, I can come home at 2am after networking and party, energized and sit at my computer do some work. I don’t really need time on my own to recharge.

Yet I enjoy being alone. I like to work alone on projects. I have been developing software and writing code for years after all. I enjoy writing, hence this blog. I enjoy handcrafts like knitting and crochet. I much enjoy walking in the streets on my own, wandering through parks. I remember as a teenager wandering on my own for hours over the bridges on the Parisian péripherique. The city and its buildings were and still are fascinating.

I used to do this quite often in France and in the UK. Here in Vietnam, it’s much harder. There’s just nowhere quiet. Although it’s better now we moved to district 2, where it is less crowed. Furthermore, now I have kids, alone time that is not work ends up at impractical time of the day (or rather night) to go for a walk.

The joy of networking

I discovered the joy of networking in London. Back then I wanted to start my own business, so I went to networking events: mini barcamp, girl geek dinners, mobile monday, Vietnamese meetups, Javascript meetup, etc. That was a real challenge, I was pretty shy and thought my English wasn’t good enough at the time. I really admired those people who would be so outgoing, and who seemed to be friends with the whole planet.

I have one pretty vivid memory as a teenager of actually enjoying being around friends and having that role, being the one “in the spot light”. It was a weird feeling of, for once, being the one entertaining the others, telling jokes and using my wittiness to make others feel comfortable and laugh. It felt great.

I suppose that was the premise of my becoming extrovert. Years later moving to Vietnam actually helped.

Not French nor Vietnamese, but both

The first speech I had to give was for the company’s annual seminar. I had just joined the company and I was there in front of a hundred of people, having to explain the rules of a game. It was in Vietnamese. It felt awkward but I remember telling myself that I had to go for it now, that was what I signed up for. Over the years, with practice, I learned how to present, how to tell a story and to improvise. I present at conferences, I run workshops, I pitch. Still a lot to learn, but definitely less awkward now.

Another factor that helped in Vietnam is that speaking English here is much less intimidating than in the UK. There is also a physical factor to it. Here in Vietnam I am of normal size. Back in Europe, I am “petite”, and with a high pitch voice, one doesn’t sound very credible. Still today, I think I ought to take singing lessons to lower my tone, the way it is recalled of Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady.

Eventually more than anything, our daily work, what other expect from us, the cultural context highly influence our personality. Or rather allow us to explore and develop some parts of our personality.

Looking back when I was a kid, being a Vietnamese in France, I suppose I was expected to be quiet and serious. I was to be reasonable, reliable, planning and organized. Those expectations were set by society but also by my family. For example, in grade 8 and 9, I did home-schooling without much supervision in Vietnam so that I can learn Vietnamese and get to know my parents (I was adopted by my aunt).

Cognitive functions, from ISTJ to ENFP

Recently I took the Myers & Briggs test again, and I turn out ENFP. I am well aware of the limitations of such a test, and this result is of course very much influenced by my current situation. But having read a bit more about the theory of cognitive functions behind the types, I recognize my way of thinking (with its limitations) in the cognitive functions that this MBTI type use:

  • Primary function - Extroverted Intuiting: Interpreting situations and relationships and pickup meanings and interconnections to other contexts
  • Auxiliary function - Introverted Feeling: Valuing and considering importance, beliefs, and worth
  • Tertiary function - Extraverted Thinking: Segmenting, organizing for efficiency, and systematizing
  • Inferior function - Introverted Sensing: Reviewing and recalling past experiences and seeking detailed data

Usually an ENFP will develop these cognitive functions in this order. But taken in a different order, it actually leads to the complementary type, the ISTJ, which description fits pretty well with how I was younger.

This leads me to think that all my uncertainties about my preferences and personality eventually come from the fact that my education, social and family context made me develop my tertiary (Extroverted Thinking) and inferior functions (Introverted Sensing) before my primary (Extroverted Intuiting) and auxiliary (Introverted Feeling). So I learned them in the “wrong” order and it took me years to figure out a happier order for myself.

Naturally balanced and what’s in it for education

This finding somehow put me at peace with the MBTI. I can now stop wondering why I am a total freak. If I were to generalize it, then the tentative theory would be that everybody have potential preferred inborn cognitive functions (the way we are wired) but that the environment in which we evolve develop them in a certain order (the way we are social). This would explain why some of us are MBTI mismatch. We keep navigating between the types that our cognitive functions can lead to. At the end of the day, I still think that we have a natural order that we are more keen with.

A healthy and mature MBTI eventually gets to develop their 4 cognitive functions in time. This raises a more general educational point: should we try to develop our children’s non dominant cognitive functions or let them fully develop their ways, and trust human nature that eventually they will learn to balance it out? In other words, should we help them to develop their strengths with the risk that they might miss out later on, or should we make them work on their weaknessesi as early as posble?

It seems the trend today to be more favorable to the former. It is the approach to early education in the Carolina Abecedarian: parents and educators should start by observing children and choose to play games to their preferences and stages of cognitive development. Open education is all about getting out of a fixed curriculum and letting children choose want they want to learn. Eventually when they get enough of a topic, they will move on to another topic. It’s all a matter of building self-confidence. Encouraging children to find as early as possible their own “natural order” that fits them best may be the best thing we can do get them to embrace a life where more and more of tomorrow won’t be like yesterday.