By Alex Nunes, INFP
My first taste of the working world came in high school, when I spent the summer in the mailroom at my dad’s office. I did my best to finish most of my tasks in the first hour, so I could spend the rest of the day reading in the bathroom. Two years later, I went back and did data entry. The first day, I punched numbers into an Excel spreadsheet for three hours, went home and didn’t go back.
My dad, an ENTJ, chalked this up to laziness, but it was something else. From early on, work was more than something I didn’t want to do. It was something I felt almost incapable of doing. The redundancy and the boredom were impossible to bear. I could be motivated into almost obsessive dedication to a project, but it needed to be meaningful and engaging. The problem was— and still is— I never had much interest in work as it’s typically defined.
Last year, I got a clue as to why this might be, when my company had me take a Myers Briggs personality test. I got INFP, with my tendencies towards introversion, intuition, feeling and perceiving so strong I was a near-caricature of the type.
Going over my results with an HR manager wasn’t exactly inspiring. “You’re going to need to make some changes, Alex, if you want to be successful,” she told me. Within our industry (distribution), she explained, the most common type is ESTJ, my exact opposite. To make it in this environment, she suggested I try to “act like an ESTJ.” My INFP career strengths could actually be a liability in our corporate environment, I was told. My ability to generate new ideas was threatening to people who thought the status quo existed for a reason, and my laid back presentation was probably taken, by at least some, to be a lack of enthusiasm.
I looked up the ESTJ profile on this website: “ESTJs are firm, direct, and opinionated. Their verbiage tends to be succinct and to the point. At times, others may view them as harsh, blunt, or insensitive.” The celebrity example given was Bill O’Reilly.
Yeah, I’m not doing that, I thought.
My ambivalent relationship to the professional world started to make sense when I read the INFP profile: “Idealistic, humane, creative, quirky, and individualistic…They may therefore seek out, even if unconsciously, experiences that arouse or intensify feelings of passion, inspiration, or meaning.”
The contents of my garage and basement form a fairly comedic testament to that description: a half-finished chicken coop (with no chickens in it), a weight bench (my short-lived Henry Rollins period), books on Buddhism, vinyl records and novels on themes so varied I might as well not attempt to list them here.
My work history could also be summed up as eclectic. The list of jobs I’ve held reads more like a character sketch from a dark comedy than a resume:
– Two months picking squash on an organic farm
– Three months slicing meats and cheese at a deli
– Two weeks as a cashier at Target, where I assumed the pseudonym “Richard” (corporate rules required a name tag, but they had no Alex badges)
– Three weeks as a Starbuck’s barista
– One year as a general assignment newspaper reporter
– A year-and-a-half in public radio
– A year-and-a-half editing a website
– One year— and counting— in corporate communications
If there’s a unifying thread in these experiences, it’s what drove me from each job: a lack of autonomy. I didn’t like that someone had the gall to criticize the way I sliced roast beef just as much as I resented the fact that a boss at an office job felt entitled to call me at home at 7 p.m. There’s no limit to an INFP’s idealism, and the same goes for his stubbornness. In good INFP fashion, I could never let these transgressions slide.
I resisted direction but also the system that made it possible. It was all so arbitrary and unfair, I thought. It made me indignant when a manager strolled in at 11 or left early for a round of golf only to call me out the next week for being 45 minutes late after bringing my car to the mechanic. I resented the corporate higher ups who made seven times as much as me but couldn’t muster the decency to make a request— demand would probably be a more apt word— with an ounce of grace or appreciation.
“Oh, everyone thinks these sorts of things,” is what people typically say when they hear my gripes. This is usually followed by, “Other people just make the best of it. Why don’t you?” But I’m not sure these statements are exactly true. I think the more conformist types actually like the bureaucracy and its’ rules— they even like the hierarchy. It’s comfortable for them; it reinforces their view of how the world should be.
The other common thing I hear from people who disagree with me is, “You might not like your job, but it’s better than being homeless.” This is a bit dramatic but, I have to admit, true.
The most productive part of my meeting with HR was the advice I got at the end. Instead of telling me about potential opportunities in the company, the manager explained that INFPs often find satisfaction in freelance careers that afford them independence and creative flexibility. This was reinforced by a blog I read here about INFPs and work. The post suggested the possibility of a “slash career,” meaning something along the lines of “artist/teacher/graphic designer.”
This was an encouraging insight, but I had my doubts: it’s one thing to have the desire to be an enterprising and entrepreneurial person and another to have the stamina, planning and execution to make it happen. That’s probably one reason why many INFPs wind up in careers that are such poor fits.
I realized that to get the autonomy I wanted, I would have to incorporate some of the ESTJ mindset the HR manager spoke of at the onset of our discussion. At that realization, I almost gave up. Why should I even bother if I know I’m not up for this? I became optimistic once I was able to see a key difference between adopting an ESTJ approach to get by in the corporate world versus incorporating those attributes to make it independently on my own terms. In the latter scenario, the goal is meaningful; it’s worth the struggle to get organized, be assertive, plan better and be persistent.
At this point, I hope my essay doesn’t read like a touchdown dance in written form, because my revelation is not yet fully conceived. Right now, I’m in the transitional phase. I’m still doing the corporate gig— I’m composing this at my desk right now; take that, corporate! Haha!— but I’ve also begun teaching writing at a local college and freelancing, with the intent of eventually transitioning out of my 9 to 5 gig entirely. The interesting thing is corporate work even seems doable when you have a plan to separate yourself from it.
I suppose I had a slash career all along; I just did my jobs in succession rather than all at once. I think I’ll find more success with my new approach. In many ways, I already have.
Helpful Resources for INTPs & INFPs:
The NP Types: Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP (our new online course)
The 16 Personality Types (eBook)