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Plenty of people stay in one career all their lives. Others move from one career to another every few years. Still others stay with a career for many years before switching to something completely different in the second half of life.

When we see that last situation unfolding, we often get to wondering: Has this person changed completely overnight?

It might seem so, but perhaps there is something else at work.

We Have a Choice: Flexing Your Personality Preferences

What happens to us over the course of our lives when it comes to the use and development of our personality type preferences, and how does that impact our career paths? Are we stuck with our particular type preferences with no choice or ability to use the opposite preferences? Is personality permanent?

Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous!

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, on whose work the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based, believed our preferences are inborn predispositions and do not change. However, Jung also believed how we use those preferences can and does change.

In other words, the question of whether personality is permanent requires a deeper discussion. We all have a choice in how we use our mental energy (extraversion-introversion), how we take in information (sensing-intuition), how we make decisions (thinking-feeling), and how we organize the outside world (judging-perceiving). As we develop and grow, we should learn not to rely only on the side of our preferences that is part of us. Instead, we must learn how to use the opposite side when the situation calls for it — an action I refer to as “flexing.”

Knowing when it is appropriate to flex your personality preferences is a good indicator of development. When you can’t identify those situations — or you can but choose not to flex — that’s not good type development. In fact, when you overuse just the side of yourself you prefer, you may be greatly hindering your ability to take in information and make decisions.

The MBTI assessment tries to help us understand our preferences so we can make “clearer perceptions and sounder judgements,” as Isabel Briggs Myers wrote in her book, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. The MBTI assessment does not tell us our type preferences are all that we are and we have no choice in the matter. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t really know the MBTI assessment.

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We Are Houses With Many Rooms

Now, you might be thinking: “If the MBTI assessment says we have a choice in the matter, why does it put each of us into a box on the MBTI type table? That looks pretty permanent to me!”

I’ve heard this kind of comment a few times over the years, and it’s true that you’ll see 16 boxes on the MBTI type table. But instead of seeing the type table as a series of boxes, think of it as a 16-room house. All the MBTI assessment is doing is asking you to choose the room you prefer, recognizing that of course you will use all the rooms in this 16-room house, and you will use many of them every day.

The idea that I am born with my preferences (INFP in my case) makes sense to me. The idea that I’m only my preferences and don’t ever use the other preferences certainly does not make sense. In other words, those four letters do not describe everything about me — or about anyone.

I work with the MBTI assessment professionally and personally just about every day. It is the most widely known personality assessment in the world. It is also — at times — the most widely misunderstood. This assessment is not about labeling and limiting us. Instead, it is about showing us that we have preferences that can help us leverage our strengths, and we have preferences that can limit us when we don’t learn to flex appropriately.

What might all of this mean when it comes to a career path? As we move throughout our careers, we typically find things we like or prefer (hopefully) and things we don’t (hopefully not too much). When our MBTI preferences are fulfilled doing things we like, we tend to continue doing that work. This would explain why I have stayed at the Myers-Briggs Company for more than 32 years!

When our preferences are not fulfilled, we can try to find ways to flex our preferences to meet the needs of the type of work we are doing. However, we can only bend so far until we break. When a job would require more flexing than is feasible, that’s when someone leaves to find something else.

As we search for fulfillment in our work, we can be aided by an awareness and appreciation of both our MBTI preferences and their opposites. Once we learn to appreciate the opposites, it may become easier and even interesting to flex. When this happens, it can look like people have changed, but I would argue they have developed instead. They have taken who they have always been — in type language INFP or ESTJ — and are learning how to use the opposite preferences when a situation calls for it.

So, is personality type permanent? My short answer: While our preferences don’t change, how we use them can and should!

Michael Segovia is the lead trainer for The Myers-Briggs Company’s MBTI Certification Programs. He recently presented a TED talk reflecting on how type theory has informed his understanding of his own life story.

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