11/08/2010 05:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tweezers, Blocks and Tones I Can't Hear -- It's All About the Aptitudes

My palms were sweaty and my heart was beating just a bit too fast as I drove far and south down the interstate toward the Johnson O'Conner Research Foundation in the Denver Tech Center.

I had signed up for their aptitude testing program after reading about them in the November issue of O Magazine. I picked up the issue while waiting in line at the grocery store and the headline "What's Your True Calling" kept singing out to me.

Lately I have been fixated on what I should be doing with the rest of my life. If all goes well I have a solid 30 years left of work ahead of me and I want to make it good. For a long time I've felt like I've been close to hitting my mark, my true calling, but yet not quite nailing it. I want to get it right and after reading this article I felt confident that if anything could help me fly off into the sunset with my natural skills and purpose in tow, these aptitude tests could. Naturally, I learned later that this desire for the magic dust, the tendency to keep looking "out there," is something I can't help but do.

The Johnson O'Conner Research Foundation is very clear about their mission: help people discover their natural potential by identifying their personal strengths so they can apply them to their careers.

During my work as a teacher, counselor and coach over the past 15+ years, I have taken my fair share of personality assessments, career interest surveys and vocational tests. While they are great tools, I was excited about the prospect of ditching what I was merely interested in or what I thought I was good at and finally discovering what I was actually good at, what came easy to me.

The other reason I decided to do it right now is because for the past few months I have been investigating a rather dramatic career change. Well, in actuality I have been thinking about this career for years but it was only a few months ago that I finally took the plunge - and by plunge I mean taking classes, volunteering and spending every free minute researching and learning about all of the possibilities in the field. Unfortunately, throughout my investigation I discovered that I hated my classes and when I volunteered I was drawn to doing the things that had nothing to do with the career I was working toward. (Essential tip: If you ever consider changing careers be sure to volunteer, shadow someone, interview people, etc. so that you can learn if it's the right fit before you sink a bunch of money into more schooling, quit your job or otherwise burn the ships. I'm usually the kind of person that jumps all in, so I am thrilled that this time I had the foresight to practice some restraint.)

When I heard about this aptitude testing I thought it might be the answer. At the end I expected them to say "The reason why you're struggling is because you have no aptitude for this. This is definitely not the career for you." or "You are absolutely on the right track. Keep your foot on the gas!"

So, that was the goal. Find out if it made sense to go in this other direction and if not, what jobs or roles would provide the opportunity for me to use my aptitudes on a daily basis.

I only wish getting to the answer wasn't so uncomfortable.

Even though they made it very clear that this was not an IQ test and that I couldn't do anything wrong, I didn't buy it for a minute. I wanted to do right, score off the charts and prove I am smart. After all, that's what tests are for, right? I was scared I wasn't as smart as I'd led myself to believe and I had the feeling my biggest challenge was going to be getting through each test without beating myself up for not excelling at every task. I couldn't have been more right. The thought that kept going through my mind as we entered the testing room was, "Does anyone score low on everything?" I was worried that I would do so poorly that at the end of it all they'd tell me I was best suited for toothpaste cap putter-on-er.

Over the course of the next few hours I played with word tiles, looked at pictures, contemplated holes punched through imaginary paper folds, learned Martian words, listened to what felt like a never-ending stream of tones, arranged color pegs, used tweezers, wrote a story and did a number game.

What I Learned on Day One

1. I am officially tone deaf. All I could think about as I was fighting to stay awake during the pitch discrimination test was, "Where's the discrimination - all of these tones sound the same!" Luckily for me, I never for one minute believed musician was going to land on my list of top 5 jobs.

2. I do not have a high aptitude for picturing three-dimensional forms. And by not high I mean incredibly low.

3. I have a high aptitude for learning words easily, which could help me greatly in learning a foreign language or in mastering scientific or technical terms, if those activities were in fact of interest to me.

4. My very low aptitude in color discrimination means I'm not likely to do so hot as a make-up artist, hair stylist, or interior decorator. I'm okay with that.

5. I have a high aptitude for observation, meaning my desire to be a detective makes perfect sense. I see things most people miss.

6. I have high rhythm memory. This aptitude helps me discern the rhythm of spoken words, which can be helpful in learning languages, speech writing and writing poetry, lyrics or jingles. It's also probably why my sport of choice for the past 30+ years has been tennis. Tennis is all about timing and getting lots of moving parts working together at the right time. Tennis was as natural to me as breathing. This test made me realize why it was so hard for so many of the people I taught over the years.

7. I have no tweezer or finger dexterity meaning surgery, nursing, mechanical drawing and miniature instrument assembly are probably not in my future.

8. Writing comes very easy to me. I have a constant flow of ideas (high ideaphoria) that come at rapid speed. This was my highest score on the test - the only one where I literally scored off the charts. In order to score in the 99th percentile you have to score 370. My score was 426.

Still, even with a few high points I felt pretty frustrated after day one. Worse, I felt average. It's really hard on your ego to take test after test to discover your aptitudes and learn you don't have nearly as many as you'd wanted. I can't say I was surprised but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I thought I would do "better."

Two days later I came back for round two of testing. More tones, memory exercises, design memorization, number games, word associations, a clerical test and these incredibly frustrating wiggly blocks.

What I Learned on Day Two

1. My memory is not so hot for numbers or pictures but it's decent with words.

2. Again, I am tone deaf.

3. I could be a kick-butt filer or comparer of numbers. This aptitude is called graphoria and it's the kind of aptitide we use in every day life. So, while it's not necessarily the test that's going to decide my future career, it does make many daily tasks super easy. I don't have to waste too much energy doing them. Scoring high on this test is probably why I liked school. Lots of the tasks that went along with studying such as taking good notes, doing homework quickly, computing quickly and organizing all of my work was a piece of cake.

4.I have a high aptitude for number facility. This just means that I can perform arithmetic operations quickly, which I find quite helpful when figuring out how much a sale item costs or how much of a tip to leave -- but I do not see myself jumping ship to become a bookkeeper or an accountant any time soon as those careers completely conflict with my highest aptitude, ideaphoria.

5. I have high foresight, a high aptitude for seeing possibilities and I have the ability to see beyond obstacles to complete whatever objectives I have in mind. I need to set long-term challenging goals. This was music to my ears. I was dying to go home to my husband to show him this lovely little bar on my graph, proving that my easily excitable nature, my desire to constantly wonder what's next and my need to apply to ten different PhD and graduate programs over the past 5 years (but then choose none) may be thoroughly frustrating, baffling and annoying to him, but it's actually an aptitude for me, so I am going to stick with it. Now I am more certain than ever that one of these days one of my ideas or projects is going to make complete sense.

I learned a lot of other things from the process of taking these tests such as I hate waiting and idle time during and between tasks drives me crazy. My brain doesn't shut down, ever, and I need an outlet for my ideas on a regular basis. There was no chance in hell I was going to remember the eight 6-digit numbers they flashed in front of me, 4 times, and staring at a blank screen for 2 minutes was not going to help my cause. I always feel a need to move on. Listening to 100 tones and being unable to distinguish any difference between each pair was maddening and I just wanted it to stop so I could move on to something I could feel good about - like a higher score on something else. I had fun watching myself go through this. I had lots of advice to give myself too, go figure.

But despite those less than stellar moments I also got what I came for. Of all of the careers and possibilities that showed up for me, the one career I had been contemplating recently never did. It made sense in light of how frustrating the process was turning out to be and while I was relieved to have been spared the very real prospect of sinking another 40k+ into my education I was still left with the question, then what now (high foresight).

Before I went in to my final consult, I made a list of the careers/jobs I thought were going to be a match. These were the careers that showed up 99% of the time when I took the personality and career interest tests and even though I knew these aptitude tests were a completely different approach, I still thought, or I guess worried, that they'd all say the same thing.

These are my top 5 based on standard paper and pencil career and personality tests:

1. Counselor/psychologist

2. Arbitrator

3. Teacher

4. Editor

5. Producer/Production Supervisor

These are the kinds of work suggested by my aptitude pattern:

1. Journalist/Writer

2. Advertising, marketing and public relations

3. Teaching & Researching

4. Consulting

5. Small business owner (I should specialize so that I am an expert on something specific)

6. Mediation

Interesting. For the past 5 years I have owned my own business(s) where I have been doing marketing consulting, teaching and writing. Five out of the six things I have been doing for the past 5 years are the exact 5 things that reflect my highest aptitudes. And I'm also a trained mediator. Cool, right? In addition, my burning desire to earn a PhD in my field of interest or my MSW makes perfect sense too. Teaching, researching and becoming an expert at something is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. It's what comes naturally to me.

So why after all of this did I sit there feeling like something was not quite it? I mean after all of this wasn't someone going to come in and crown me master of some totally new aptitude? Is my high aptitude for foresight getting in the way of me being able to see what is already smack dab in front of me and no matter what I'll never feel like I've "made it"? Or, am I just not seeing the whole picture? This is where the consulting session comes in. Having someone who really knows what they are talking about go over all of this information with you is the best part of the program.

We talked for nearly ninety minutes and by the time it was over my head was spinning with ideas.

Sure, I was in a situation where much of my work was aligned with my aptitudes and I was likely in the right ballpark but for me to feel like I am really nailing it it is going to be a matter of tweaking the context a little bit and marrying my interests and my knowledge with my aptitudes. It's also critical that what I do hold significant meaning for me. I cannot work to just get a paycheck. I need to feel like I am make a contribution that matters in the big picture. It's all well and good that I have an aptitude for working in certain fields but it doesn't matter much if I have no interest in working in those fields and they have no meaning for me. I have to figure out how to extrapolate the aptitude and discover other places it could be used. For example, I could explore speech writing opportunities, use my investigative journalism skills and put together a documentary on female aggression or motivation in adolescent girls, send more queries to magazines and earn a spot as a regular columnist, teach more of the topics that are meaningful to me to students excited to learn, do absolutely everything in my power to get into MSW or the PhD program of my choice and probably most importantly, stop doing the things that are in direct conflict with my aptitudes.

One of the best things I learned from this testing is what I am not naturally good at because I have spent a lot of time in my career and in my businesses doing things that are not natural strengths for me. These things drain me, frustrate me and often make me want to throw in the towel completely. But, these are things I thought I was good at or I was supposed to be good at so I kept doing them, kept going back to them, kept beating myself up for not liking them more. Now I know why. There's so much freedom that comes with that knowledge. It's not that I'll never have to do things outside of my aptitude range but it absolutely makes no sense that I would seek out opportunities to engage in work that requires me to use aptitides I don't have most of the time.

Several people have asked me if going through this aptitude testing program was worth it. I think it was invaluable. I wish I had done this 20 years ago. I know that armed with this information the second half of my working life is going to be far more fulfilling, not just more fulfilling for me but for whomever crosses my path.

If you're sold and are ready to find out your natural strengths, check out where you can get tested here. And, if you go to the office in Denver tell the awesome Dessie and Ortrun I say hello!