The Birkman of Alcatraz

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A little self-knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially if the self who is getting the knowledge is y-o-u.

Let’s face facts. With your fragile grip on employment, relationships and reality in general, it might be better to stay in the dark. Unless, of course, you really do want to know who you were meant to be and what you were meant to do. If that is the case, then you probably need a Birkman.

Often used by career counselor types, the Birkman is the great way to see if a coaching candidate should be a butcher, a baker, or get those big year-end bonuses that are so common when you choose the career of candlestick maker. According to the marketing copywriter at, “The Birkman Method® personality test accurately measures productive behaviors, stress behaviors, underlying needs, motivations and organizational orientation.”

To complete a Birkman questionnaire, you have to answer 298 questions, including 125 True/False questions about yourself and 125 True/False questions about everyone else. The questions about you should be easy-peasy. You do so much for so many and rarely get any praise for your efforts. True. You’re a caring, sharing people person. True and double true.  [The questions about other folks could force you to actually interact with the nimrods running around your workplace. Yuk!]

Once you have completed the questionnaire, the Birkman reports on your personality type in five different areas: usual behavior, underlying needs, stress behaviors, interests, and organizational focus. Since your major interest is to avoid any organizational focus, thus reducing stress and allowing you to satisfy your underlying need to spend your entire working day goofing off, completing the Birkman could be dangerous to your mental health. It’s one thing to be a sleazy slacker trying to get the most pay for the least work. It’s quite another to have it confirmed through “a process of regression and factor analysis.”

Interestingly, the Birkman uses colors to describe the inner-working of your psyche, what there is of it. In each of the different categories, you are rated as a red, green, yellow or blue. For example, if you are determined to be a “yellow” in the face of workplace stress, your natural reaction to a maximum stress situation, like seeing your manager take the last jelly donut, would be to become over-controlling, quietly resistive and rigid. In other words, you would stamp your little feet, whimper like a baby, and hold your breath until you turned red, which is a little weird for a “yellow.”

If you don’t want to shell out the megabucks it takes to take a Birkman, or would rather have a root canal than take a meeting with a career counselor, you can get a taste of the test at, where there is a free Career Quiz which uses the Birkman method to help you determine the kind of job in which you are likely to flourish.

There are 24 pairs of questions in the mini-Birkman, twelve of which challenge you to choose between different possible career paths. The choices are not easy. Would you rather be a writer or an elected official? Chances are, you would rather have any career other than an elected official, including a career rotting away in the miserable job you have now. The second dozen questions are easier. Is it OK to argue with others when you know you’re right? Easy for you to answer. You’ve never been right, not that it ever stopped you from arguing.

The Princeton Review Career Quiz only gives you two colors — one for your interests, and one for your usual style. My interest color was green, which means I enjoy activities that include delegating authority. Right on, Birkman! If I can get someone else to do my work for me, color me green.

The Princeton Review site also suggests careers that match your Birkman-Lite results. For me, the career that looked best was Bar/Club Manager. It even suggested a graduate program that would be appropriate — English literature. [So, for all you liberal arts majors out there, wondering what to do with your life, here’s the answer — go run a bar.]

Sounded good to me, until I learned that the average salary after five years was $21,000. But that doesn’t mean the Birkman was wrong, and I’ll raise my glass to the best test I know. You can’t blame the Birkman for putting me on the wrong side of the bar.


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