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How Aptitude Testing Helps Mid-Lifers

You can take the results to tweak your career and plan retirement


My middle child has lots of interests and a well-rounded set of talents. That always seemed like a good thing — until he started looking for colleges and talking about potential majors. When everything sounds good, how do you choose what to do?

The more I talked with him, the more I envisioned him taking years to explore options. I wondered if there could be a shortcut to help Max on his path (and keep college costs down).

That’s when I began researching aptitude testing, something I quickly realized could help mid-lifers as much as Millennials.

What Are Aptitudes?

Aptitudes are our “natural abilities — special abilities for doing, or learning to do, certain kinds of things easily and quickly,” according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, which has been testing aptitudes and researching new ones since 1922.

In the world of aptitudes, ease of a certain task indicates that you should do more of it instead of discounting it.

Unlike IQ and interests, aptitudes are our inherent talents, based more on heredity than on interests, culture or education. They are a baseline for ability. You can be born with an aptitude for music, but you still need to learn skills and how to put that natural ability to use.

People typically have between two and nine aptitudes, which don’t change over time. The stronger a certain aptitude is, the more it needs to be expressed. That’s where career comes in — since you should use strong aptitudes frequently, work is a logical outlet.

Those who don’t use their aptitudes tend to experience frustration and dissatisfaction. Those same problems crop up when you’re in a field that requires aptitudes you lack.

What the Testing Isn’t

I started to wonder about what older people like me do after they get their aptitude test results. How likely would it be that someone established in a career would jettison it to start at the bottom of something that was a better fit? And how much help would the center be in guiding a change?

When I called Johnson O’Connor’s Chicago testing center, I learned that it doesn’t offer career counseling or give prescriptive advice. But the staff helps test-takers see the link between aptitude and options. Sometimes, a small tweak can make a job more satisfying or picking up a long-forgotten hobby can round out life, bringing back a sense of fulfillment.

After talking it over, both of my sons — Bruno, 20, a rising junior at Knox College, and Max, 18, who starts at the University of Colorado-Boulder this fall — said they wanted to take the aptitude test. Warning: it’s not cheap at $675 per person. But I looked at the  cost as less expensive than additional years of tuition.

Days before heading to Chicago, I decided to get my aptitude tested, too.

Wiggly Blocks and Hole Punches

When my sons and I found the foundation office with its “Human Engineering Laboratory” sign, we felt a little like guinea pigs about to be prodded. We climbed up creaky steps to a third floor warren of rooms and were separated for test-taking over two, three-hour chunks. (You can do this all in one day, as we did, or spread it out over time.)

We were given many strange tasks to perform: placing small metal pins into tiny holes with our fingers, then doing something similar with tweezers; glimpsing a series of line drawings, then copying them on to paper from memory; listening to patterns of drumbeats; figuring out which objects had been changed or moved in a series of drawings; putting together confounding wiggly blocks and writing down everything we could think of in response to an open question.

Some of the tests seemed ridiculously easy. I was to learn that many people dismiss their ability to do certain things with ease, thinking that if it doesn’t take effort, it must not be a big deal. In the world of aptitudes, though, ease of a task indicates you should do more of it instead of discounting it.

Other tests, like one involving imagining a folded paper that someone punches with a hole punch and figuring out where the resulting holes would land, were, for me, embarrassingly difficult.

As my tester Scott Barsotti explained, these tests are not about passing or failing. All of them provide information. Information such as: I have really bad 3-D thinking.

How to Use Your Results

We returned the next day for our 90-minute results sessions. Bruno had nine aptitudes, and while his plan to teach English in high school made sense, Scott told him he was concerned it wouldn’t allow for much use of Bruno’s high visual-spatial aptitude. They talked about how he might add that element in, with good ideas about teaching science fiction (imagining new spaces).

When Scott learned that Bruno had created a board game, he was excited: “That’s an excellent use of your aptitudes,” he said. In the aptitude game, hobbies count, as long as they’re done frequently enough to allow for regular expression of your natural abilities.

Max learned he has 11 strong aptitudes. That is a lot, and in such cases, Scott said it was important to “bundle” and fit many aptitudes into one job. Because Max scored the way professional musicians do and got high marks in the “divergent thinking” areas, Scott recommended a field that allowed for creative output using music.

Again, Scott was excited that Max was using his aptitudes by recording music with his band. But now, a few weeks after the testing, Max is thinking that music will remain his hobby and he will major in neuroscience, so I’m not sure I’m out of the extra tuition woods yet.

For me, at mid-life, it was heartening to see that I’ve landed in about the only field I could have, given my scant four aptitudes. And I gained insight from one of two tests that weren’t about aptitudes: I have a subjective vs. objective orientation that pulls me to jobs linked to a cause I care about. (The other non-aptitude test is on vocabulary, as it correlates with general intelligence and career success.)

Ashleigh Ginther, who went over my results with me, also cautioned me about retirement, telling me my high score in something called “foresight” indicates I need a solid plan in place for “what’s next.” She said I would need challenging, long-term goals even when I’m not in career mode.

“I think I’ll be happy sipping Margaritas on a beach,” I told Ashleigh.

She laughed. “For about a week,” she said. “Then your results indicate you’re going to need a cause and a big goal.” She suggested I volunteer for nonprofits or political campaigns and that I write just for me. “Figure out what you feel passionate about and then go volunteer for it,” she said. She also told me I should use my musical aptitude.

“I can’t sing!” I protested.

“That’s the bummer for people who score well on the pitch discernment test,” she said. “You can hear how bad you sound. Maybe take up a stringed instrument.”

I do love the cello.

When you seek unbiased information about yourself, you might not like everything you hear. In my case: I really do love the dream of relaxing on a beach. And Margaritas.

But there’s a strong plus side to aptitude testing. I’ve noticed since my testing that I’m feeling more optimistic about possibilities in the future and am approaching my work with a greater understanding of my strengths — and weaknesses. Let’s just say that I should not be in charge of designing my future downsized home. And I will definitely not be buying a hole punch any time soon.

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