Self-Assessment Tools – Old Tangled Roots

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” 

–Dylan Thomas

Why are self-assessment tools, like True Colors, Insights Discovery, and MBTI (Myers Briggs Temperament Indicator) used annually by millions of professionals and students around the world? And why do they elicit such strong opinions as to their efficacy or lack thereof? To answer these two questions, this article unearths the complex tangle of ancient roots they share. Perhaps this will help shed some new light on a contentious, topical issue. As professionals find themselves working remotely with “virtual strangers” on cross-functional, cross-cultural, and cross-generational distributed teams the need for self-awareness and appreciation for the diversity of others is becoming increasingly important. Hopefully, this article may also help those deciding for the first time which self-assessment tool to use and why.

MBTI, for example, is used in over 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges and universities, and 200 USA government agencies. As well, several thousand coaches and consultants hold MBTI certification. About 50 million people have used it since the 1960s. John Wiley & Sons recently acquired DISC, another competing self-assessment tool, for $85m US.

Many academics and psychologists disparage MBTI as a ‘sacred cow’ with ‘cult status’. “It’s about belief much more than scientific evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Professor Grant is concerned by “the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to do it without the examination of the evidence.” This concern is echoed by Brian Little a Cambridge professor of psychology. “To raise questions about [Myers-Briggs’s] reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head.” “It’s like religion. Believe what you want. Get out of it what you want” notes Barry Edwards, a senior training manager at government contractor CACI. Professor Grant decries “the taboos about MBTI in academia – don’t praise it – and in corporate America – don’t criticize it. One “can’t poke a hole in their sacred cow.” “There is almost a ‘rite de passage’ to taking the Myers-Briggs, and it’s becoming a very symbolic thing,” says Professor Little.

This criticism is loaded with spiritual language i.e. rite of passage, faith, devotion, communion, cult, and sacred cow. Why? What is it about self-assessment tools like MBTI that provokes this emotionally charged criticism? I will use metaphor and analogy to answer in part. Each self-assessment tool, such as MBTI, may be likened to an individual tree. They each stand separately and distinct with the same grove. However, these trees don’t have separate roots. Instead, they all share a common system. In botany, this phenomenon is called a rhizome. These shared roots of self-assessment are buried in our collective subconscious and were seeded millennia ago. Nor is this metaphor of ‘roots’ arbitrary. Indeed it goes to the heart of these questions.

Universal Need

Human beings share a universal need for meaning and affiliation. Based on the empirical observation of natural life cycles and patterns, diverse societies through the ages have created models to help its members better understand each other and where they stand in the “circle of life”. The first circle drawn by humans was 3500 years ago. It is a simple symbol representing complex, dynamic phenomena. The painted Mandalas, which originated in India, and the stone Medicine Wheels created by the indigenous peoples of North America are notable models. Both are heuristic communal ‘discovery’ tools. Both were innovated by societies with holistic worldviews. Both models feature a circle with four equal parts. This is meant to encompass a host of related concepts including the four directions, seasons, and life stages.

This age-old, enduring observation of life’s four-fold aspect extends to the natural elements as well. Here, the phenomena of sun, sky, sea, and land provided the empirical reference for the four corresponding elements of fire, air, water, and earth. Each element was thought to represent its essential irreducible aspect i.e. the very fire-ness of fire.

The first model of personality based on the four classic elements was developed 5000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. People then believed that health was achieved through balancing the four elements that made up the body. 2500 years later, the Greeks formalized these then ancient concepts and methods. They paired each element with a corresponding human character trait: Fire – Choleric, Air – Sanguine, Water – Melancholic, and Earth – Phlegmatic. In 450 B.C.E., Empedocles called the elements the “Four Roots”. He and his peers believed both the world and humans were a mix of these four roots or rhizomata. Indeed, they were called the “Fourfold Roots of Everything.” The Romans referred to it as the Quaterni, meaning “Four-At-Once.” They also believed Harmonia was the result.

For the First Peoples of North America, Mother Earth is the Medicine Wheel or Sacred Hoop. Here too one finds the circle as a quaternary. The Ojibwe believe, for example, “the Centre of the Wheel is where the four directions come together, where the four seasons meet, where the four elements meet, where all of life is in balance and harmony, within each of us”. As the contemporary elder Pauline Shirt Dodem Kanosha’ suggests: “What we have to do is teach all the four colours so we can work together, all peoples, in a good way”. However, when the four elements are out of balance, environmentally or psychotically, the outer and inner results can be catastrophic. In the Hopi language, Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life”.

The Invisible Element

Greek philosophers intuited something more was needed to explain their emerging twinned picture of physics and psychology. The Pythagoreans believed, for example, when the four elements were in harmony, a Fifth Element appears. They called this Quintessence. It represents the purest concentrated absolute best something can be. Aristotle associated the fifth element with the highest realms of heaven. It was the invisible ether that flowed through and animated the entire universe. These ancient philosophers choose the geometric figure of a five-point star as the symbol. The star today is a universal symbol of excellence. Over 35 nations with often inimical Islamic, Communist, and Democratic governments fly flags with stars. Police wear stars to uphold the law. Heroes are awarded them as medals for courage. Children receive stars on reports for good behaviour. More about the star and the fifth element below…

Psychological Reframing

The Grecian four-fold model of personality may be “arguably the oldest of all…profiling systems, and it is fascinating that there are so many echoes of these ancient ideas found in modern psychology.” However, by the 18th Century, and the Western “Age of Enlightenment” this four-fold model was gradually displaced by scientific thinking and empirical research methods. None-the-less, it had influenced Western medical and psychological thinking for centuries.

During the 1920s – in response to the post first world war fragmentation and alienation of modern society – Carl Jung revisited and modernized the moribund concept of the four-fold temperament model.

This was based on his extensive original research into ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophies and alchemy. Jung reframed the elements as psychological functions. He called these sensation, feeling, intuition, and thinking. Since then, hundreds of psychometric assessment tools capitalize upon and have freely borrowed from Jung’s original psychological four-fold model. The Myers Briggs Temperament Indicator is likely the best-known example. During the late 1940s. Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers adapted Jung’s model. They reduced his functions to eight sets of four-letter formulas for the different typologies. The following Table illustrates.

Perceptions Are Colored

There are several different four-fold models of life and temperament around the world found in Australasia, Europe, and America. Many feature colors for each quadrant in the circle. When compared, these colors do not all agree or align. However, the essential meaning and purpose behind each is universal and enduring. From the mid 20th century, like the Myers Briggs partnership, over twenty companies also developed proprietary psychometric instruments. However, unlike MBTI, these adapted the use of color from these older models. These more specialized color-based self-assessment tools are used in education, corporations, hospitals, non-profits, and government agencies in over thirty nations. They include for example:


Why do critics use religious terms to frame their concerns about self-assessment tools like MBTI? I think they clearly and rightly discern what underpins MBTI and its informing Jungian psychological model. In other words, they see a holistic, energetic mystical worldview. On the other hand, MBTI proponents think of this tool as a wholly scientific resource with credible empirical data. To condescend and call this pseudo-science misses the point and validity of this exercise of self-assessment. However to pretend this is a purely scientifically reliable method also misses the point of its purpose and efficacy.

The poet Octavio Paz described the world as “a conspiration of elements all moved by universal sympathy.” Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher, believed our archetypal affinity with the four elements is revealed as a form of poetic truth. “This adaptation of the ‘elements’ is archetypal, a product of what Jung called ‘the natural mind’ that derives” from natural sources and offers a natural wisdom”

There is a profound relationship between our inner elemental states and the greater world we inhabit. ”In “Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas”, Dr. David Macauley observes “the four elements – water, air, earth, and fire – have exercised an enormous, if often unnoticed, impact on the Occidental imagination.” His book is a “powerful invitation for philosophical regrounding and lyrical reflection about basic elemental principles that are critical to living wisely and well on planet Earth today“ (2011).

As our forbearers did 5000 years, we need to know who we are, what our direction is, and where we stand next to each other in the ever turning circle of life. It may be reassuring for the more literally minded to think of their elemental strengths as a simple letter formula, such as mine which is INTJ. Perhaps the more poetic-minded are as happy thinking of their own character traits as a mix of colorful energies. Essentially these different designations all mean the same thing and for the same reasons.

Our Work @PlayPrelude

When Carl Jung formulated his model of personality based on the four elements, he left out the fifth element. The reason has never been made clear despite much research and reading on my part. Suffice it to say, proprietary tools, like MBTI, based on Jung’s model left this out too. We’ve developed an online self-assessment tool called iStar™ in response. Its design and user experience restores the fifth element as an integral part of the self-discovery process.

Upon completion, each individual receives a digital iStar Badge™. This enables them to easily picture their elemental strengths together within a circle. The apex points upwards towards unlimited possibility. This gives the user a direction and focus in channeling their four elemental energies to higher purpose and meaning. That is the absolute best they can possibly be. In this schema, the fifth element’s strength is imagination and the determined pursuit of excellence. The iStar process also includes a vital team dimension. This enables members to very quickly and easily see their global elemental strengths in terms of alignments and gaps. Online training and facilitation is streamlined for busy professionals. iStar has been used by individuals, ages12 to 60+, around the world. This includes professionals in several sectors – education, project management, leadership development, and human resource management. This also spans diverse cultural groups from India through the Persian Gulf to First Nations peoples in Canada.



Howard B. Esbin, PhD
My professional life spans the private sector, international development, philanthropic fundraising, and entrepreneurship. Part one, from 1973 – 1988, was spent in the jewellery industry. This included senior management roles in retail and manufacturing. Part two, from 1991 – 1997, involved consulting and senior manager roles in international development. The former included working in Kenya with the International Labour Organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Royal Netherlands Government Embassy. This involved original field research and recommendations for youth entrepreneurship and artisans called Jua Kali. I also later oversaw a $3M fair-trade enterprise called Bridgehead owned by Oxfam Canada. Part three, from 1998 – 2004, saw me as a director of an annual, volunteer-driven philanthropic fundraising event, called HOPE Beachfest. This was the world’s largest one-day volleyball tourney (10,000 players) with an all-day rock concert (15,000 party-goers). Part four, from 2008 – 2018, involves my time as an entrepreneur developing and launching the Prelude Suite™. Additionally, from 1984 – 1998, I attended McGill University on a part-time basis earning three successive degrees culminating with a doctorate in education. My research examined how a carvers’ community transmitted its visual knowledge generationally, informally and non-verbally. Education Canada, the International Labour Organization, and UNESCO have also published my related writings.