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Job Inner-View

In which a mid-career reporter subjects herself to a battery of ability tests and learns that she has some talent for writing (hooray!) and a fair amount of musical ability (say what?).


Relax, I kept repeating like a mantra. There's no reason for those sweaty palms.

You are not back in school. This is not a final exam that will determine your grade in your toughest class, which will in turn decide your grade point average for the entire year.

This is a good test, a benign test. It will reveal your natural strengths. It will help you plot your future career path, keep you from making boneheaded decisions, perhaps one day enhance your finances.

Try as I might, I could not get over the idea that I was being tested in some cosmic sense. Memories of years of all-nighters and cramming and striving for good grades swept over me. Would I measure up? What if, heaven forbid, my results registered no natural strengths, only weaknesses? What if my boss found out? Insecurity welled up. I hunkered down, using a pencil with a very sharp point to make dots inside the dozens of circles on the page in front of me. What on earth, I wondered, will this strange foray into pointillism expose about me?

One morning in late April, with this special report on training and education in mind, I drove to the Santa Ana office of the Highlands Program.

The organization, based in Atlanta but with offices nationwide, is one of many that administer tests and workshops designed to help individuals evaluate their innate abilities. The idea is to help students or working adults figure out what to do with their lives.

The tests are part of a holistic approach to making career decisions. Building on theories of several pioneers in the field, Highland's co-founders--Don Hutcheson, an entrepreneur with a background in advertising and publishing, and Bob McDonald, a psychologist--developed a multifaceted program that also looks at skills (or learned abilities), interests, personal style, family needs, values and personal vision or goals.

My assignment was to tackle only the tests (the first segment of the program), receive a few hours of feedback and write about the experience. To a baby boomer in mid-career in a fast-mutating industry, it sounded like a good plan.

But a few minutes into the 3 1/2-hour experience, I began to think that I had made a serious mistake. By the third exercise, I was becoming forlorn and wondering whether I could bolt for the door without anyone's noticing. By the time it was over, I was also feeling frustrated and a tad stupid--not to mention physically weak and woefully uncoordinated.

Not to worry, program director Michael H. Foust, an Orange County psychologist, assured me later in an e-mail. "I was totally humbled by it," he said of his own test experience.


These tests are not intended to be the SATs revisited. There are no pesky mathematics equations, no literary passages to absorb. It's not a test of what you know or can figure out but what you can do--easily and naturally. Depending on an individual's strengths and weaknesses, portions of the Highlands battery can seem a bit like torture at times. Of course, other parts--the "easy" parts--can be almost enjoyable.

Abilities, the program notes say, are our permanent set of talents. They stabilize in a person at age 14 or so and are essentially the same throughout a person's working years. A true ability is something that comes easily and is not something one can learn or improve through practice.

To ensure that these tests measure an isolated ability--and to make sure that the test taker can't use other skills to help solve the problems--most of the tests are timed.

Consider this one: You have 30 seconds to memorize a list of 15 nonsense words and their common English "meanings," such as "cup" or "boy." Then you look at a blank piece of blue paper. Then you must try to recall the English words and match them to the list of nonsense words. Ugh.

Or this one: Spend 15 seconds studying a connect-the-dots design. Look at a blank sheet. Now turn to a page with only the dots and re-create the design. Sure, you can guess. But any stray, incorrect lines will be subtracted from your score. Eek.

And this monster: Take 30 seconds to eyeball a list of numbers, each with six digits. Turn to the ubiquitous blank page. Then on the next sheet fill in the blanks with all the numbers you can remember. I settled for memorizing the first digit of each series, thinking that perhaps I should be flipping burgers for a living.

When we got to a long section on visualizing spatial relations--which tests one's ability (or inability) to see three dimensions when only two are evident--I just about snapped. Spatial relations have always been a weakness of mine. I just could not figure out how to twist figures in my mind to see how they'd look from another angle.

Through the years, I had read that girls tend to be weaker than boys in this area, and that was all the excuse I needed. As the seconds ticked away in the Highlands test room, I began to guess, circling answers with abandon--and with absolutely no idea what I was doing.

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