As a professor, with students on the cusp of graduation, I often hear the same question…

“What should I do for a living? What’s the right job for me?”

It haunted me for years, having neither the tools, nor the time, to help each student individually answer this daunting question. Usually, I’d choose from the students I thought would actually use my advice, then invite them out for coffee. We’d talk for an hour, sometimes two, and I’d ask them what they were passionate about. Since the class I taught was on digital marketing, I made an assumption they liked the material.

Then, we would talk about relationships they had, their parents had, and ways they could leverage Tulane’s student services, to help find work. By the end of a coffee-jam session, I felt like there was direction, but it was still very unclear for the student. They didn’t know the next steps to take and worse, they feared they’d hate the jobs they applied for.

The last few weeks of each semester, I turn the course around and help the students find how they can use digital marketing and creative thinking to jump to the head of an application line. We dive deep into direct mail pieces that are fun, that break up the monotony that a HR rep must be facing every day. For example, I’ve had students send beach balls, inflated and without packaging, to their dream employers. They always get a call-back, and sometimes even get the job.

I had another student, who was a born networker, bring pralines from his New Orleans family bakery to an interview in Boston. He gave the interviewers and secretaries a few treats from his hometown and found that he was impossible to forget. People remembered him, other interviewees hated him; it was a perfect heartfelt gift that was totally his own.

Some students took the approach of emailing their dream organizations an inquiry to chat with someone they found they had something in common with, like they went to the same college, were in the same fraternity, or were from the same city. Then, they’d call the next day with confidence, asking if the recipient had received the email. Instant rapport was established, and the student could ask questions about the organization and see if there were any unlisted positions available for hire.

These methods are all great, but in the end, it didn’t solve the question that was asked: “What should I do for a living?”

Then, I learned about an obscure word… a strange part of the mind that dictates what you’re naturally good at. It’s called “conation.”

In the human mind, there are three components:

  • Cognitive
  • Affective
  • Conative

Cognition is the part of our brain that covers knowledge, memory, judgement and evaluation. Reasoning and problem solving, the production of language and comprehension. The tests for this part of the brain include various forms of IQ tests. In utter simplicity, your cognition says how smart you are when compared to a benchmark.

In 1936, Eldon F. Wonderlic created the first cognitive abilities test, known as the “Wonderlic Personnel Test.” This test measured a humans ability in the categories of math, vocabulary and reasoning. The test is still used today, to measure NFL players IQ and help coaches guess the right positions for them on the line.

The affective part of our brain refers to the feelings, moods and attitudes we display. There is an entire branch of psychology dedicated to the understanding and inquiry into these feelings, moods and attitudes. Affective sensory tests are “used to assess acceptance, liking, preference or emotions for a stimulus or stimuli. (ASTM International. 2009. Standard Terminology Relating to Sensory Evaluations of Materials and Products, E253-09a. ASTM International, West Conshohocken, PA. E253-09a).

This third, obscure and strange triad of modern psychology is known as conation. In common terms, the ABC’s of Psychology talk about “affect,” “behavior” and “cognition.” I find conation the most interesting — yes, feelings and emotions around a stimuli are incredibly important for research and there’s a lot that can be garnered from an IQ test by someone, but native behavior is, to me, the answer to the students question.

As luck would have it, Eldon Wonderlic had a daughter, Kathy, who fell in love with the work he was doing. She spent years working with him, but noticed that those who did remarkably well on the Wonderlic test were not necessarily successful in their profession. So, she went out to study this strange third pillar of psychology – something she calls “human instinct.”

Kathy Wonderlic, later married and changed her name to Kathy Kolbe. She has held the charge on helping individuals understand their own unique “modus operandi” through her own conative test, known as the Kolbe Test.

It’s this test, this simple 36-question online quiz, that has helped me answer my students questions. Now, when I hear “What should I do for a living? What’s the right job for me?” I can now reframe the question and say:

“What are you naturally great at? Not talent, not experience, but how you go about doing work. What is your mode of operation, and how can we ensure you are always working in it?”

See – that’s the answer. I can’t predict what industry someone will like, but knowing their Kolbe score, I can quickly figure out what they’ll hate doing. Kathy has 4 major pillars that she scores test takers on:

  • If you like broad facts or the minutia
  • If you can follow an ordered checklist regularly — and enjoy it
  • How quickly you start a task or project
  • If you’re more philosophical or more tactile

Each pillar is scored on a scale of 1 to 10, where neither score is better than another. When you take the test, you’ll be given a robust PDF with the results, but the only thing that I care about hearing from my students are their results.

Just today, after spending over an hour strong-arming a past student to take the Kolbe, he sent me his results: 8-4-6-2.

Let’s dissect that.

What do these numbers mean, and how can he build an exciting future around his natural behavior?

First, the “8” is in reference to facts. He is nearly a 10, meaning he wants minutia. He always has engaging, interesting questions and wants to know the why behind everything. If he had to report to a manager who was a “1”, the student would find his manager frustrated by giving too many details. His manager might say “Harry, all I want is the big picture… I don’t need all the reasons why!”

Next is Harry’s ability to follow an ordered list. He scored a “4” which, again, is neither good nor bad. Those that follow lists and plans well, time after time, are assets. Those who don’t should never put themselves in a position where they’re forced to follow along an ordered list—it will drive them bonkers! For me, I’m a “2” on this pillar… give me the same set of tasks to do every day for a year and I throw the list away on Day 3.

The third metric is how fast you start a project. Some people like to dive right in, while others need a bit more time to think through it. They need to chat through the plan, make sure it all checks out, then they’ll do it. Harry is a “6”, I’m a “7”. We’re the kind of guys who will come up with an idea and do it immediately, without a plan. People with a high number here make for great Emergency Room triage specialists. With chaos and fast-paced decisions needing to happen on the fly, Harry and I would do particularly well. But ask us to create plans around the triaging and force us to write those plans out would be an awful punishment for us.

The final number is all about how you process information. Some people love to draw and use their hands. Carpenters, designers and boat builders tend to have high numbers in this metric. More “heady” thinkers, people who think though something deeper instead of using their hands to draw it out are on the other end of the spectrum.

Each Kolbe score is shared by about 5% of the human population. I do what I do instinctively better than 95% of the rest of the humans on the planet. Put me in an environment where I can dive into fact minutia, create plan, strategies and checklists—but not have to follow them—and I’m in heaven.

I used to think my inability to finish what I start was a tragic flaw, something that would mean my certain doom. Now, I see it as my strength; I can start many things and triage them and figure out what’s best. If I have someone who can follow my strategies but instinctively cannot create the systems themselves, we have a perfect match.

Hire your weaknesses. That’s the key here. When you’re in a position to be able to hire out your weaknesses, screen every candidate for their Kolbe. Figure out how they go about doing work and make sure they’re a good fit based on that. Just today, I turned down a smart, talented guy for a Project Management role because his Kolbe told me he wasn’t good at following an ordered list.

Don’t use this as a cop-out.

I can’t follow an ordered list for more than a few days to save my life. I have to use all of my willpower to do it, which leaves little left every day for other things I want to work on. So, you must create systems that help you with your weaknesses. If I want to go to the gym 3 days a week, I need to have all of my clothes ready at the door so once I get the idea to go, I can go without friction. I’ll never be someone who goes every M/W/F at 7:00am and I have to accept that. I can try ardently, but it will always be my weakness.

If you’re like one of my students, asking yourself what you should do for a living, quit looking at the job title. First, figure out how you go about doing work. Figure out what must be true for you to have a great work day; how to have frictionless work. Then, take that knowledge and append to it industries you’re passionate about. Just choose something if you’re agnostic to an industry. Find jobs where you can dive on emergencies or not. Where you can get all the facts before you make a decision, or where you only have to work with the “big picture.”

Once you take the Kolbe test and read through the 28-pages of results, you’ll know more about yourself and your strengths. You’ll be able to set yourself up for success in the long-run by knowing where you’ll have to use your willpower and where you’ll naturally be awesome. Take ego out of your job title and do what you are great at. You’ll find that you’ll be excited for work and it will give you energy, instead of sucking it from you.

Leave me a comment below with your favorite assessment test, your Kolbe score, or what you thought about this article…

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