With the number and variety of personality quizzes these days, it’s easier than ever to determine vital information about yourself, such as what city you should actually live in, whether you’re a pirate or a ninja (sadly, you can be only one), or how you would survive the Hunger Games. The web has helped such quizzes to flourish as a form of entertainment, and algorithms make it easier than ever to process answers and share them on social platforms, enabling us to immediately compare ourselves to others. Because we don’t do that enough already.
Ever since the 19th Century, when phrenology used skull measurements to determine personality types, we’ve been seeking ways to categorize each other. These days psychometric tests, like ones based on Myers-Brigg, are part of a several billion dollar industry that offers insight about how people work together in companies and organizations.
But there’s a deeper need behind the popularity of personality tests, a real sense of searching in our desire to find clues about human behavior. Who hasn’t felt the relief of identifying and naming the particular brand of crazy in one’s family: Oh! Grandma’s a narcissist—that explains so much! We are comforted by knowing where to place that person in the narrative of our lives.
And thinking in stories is what we do as humans. Learning from what’s happened is how we endure. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains that neuroscience reveals how, “the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for our survival . . . and tells us a story about it.” This has been true since we heard about the guy in the next cave who ate the wrong kind of mushroom. It’s true now when we read about the girl who caused her father to lose his $80,000 bonus because she bragged about it on Facebook (her actions violated his non-disclosure agreement).
In fact, now more than ever, we’re desperate for guidelines as we navigate the information wasteland. The more access we have, the more we need to pare down the input and weed through it. What should we buy? Who should we like? Where should we live? In the Privileged World, we are overwhelmed by the luxury of self-determination. We can change jobs and social levels. We’re not condemned by class or parentage, or isolated by extreme poverty or lack of transportation. We can even choose to be a pirate or a ninja, or at least engage in cosplay as one.
Our stories are shaped less and less by forces beyond our control—tyrants, class differences, poverty— and more and more by information. Information we desperately seek to curate as social platforms necessitate the management of our own personal brands. Whether we want it or not, we are being evaluated through the new media. I’ve been at a party and had someone google me as I was standing there with him. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to engage the actual person; he needed to simultaneously evaluate my persona.
Intentionally or not, we’re all marketing ourselves to our network—to family and friends, future employers and future spouses. Media savvy parents are even reserving websites for their kids before they are born. It’s the Age of Content Marketing, and the content is us.
So don’t feel bad next time you put off answering work emails to take the quiz that will finally elucidate what is secretly killing you inside. We need all the help we can get as we try to understand and craft our stories. Just remember, assessments are only a tool. As illuminating as it can be to know whether you’re really an idiot, you don’t want your story to be a tale told by an idiot, or an algorithm. Be wary of relying too much on the markers that help you on our journey, for the path—and the story—is ever-changing.
In a world where more and more emphasis is being placed on personal marketing, let’s hope the question doesn’t change from “What’s your story?” to “What’s your brand?”