I recall someone writing that personality assessments were an idle activity of the leisured class. They said that people before the 20th century were just too busy trying to survive to spend time talking about values, belief systems, traits, virtues, abilities, and their ilk. As our family historian, I have read several wills written in the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the itemized lists of possessions contained only items necessary for survival—plates and plows, no books or pictures. I do recall one deck of playing cards! It was a Spartan life, with tomorrow’s planting or plowing more on their minds than the whys and wherefores of human destiny.
I’m not so sure. Humans have always been ponderers, I think. Today, a whole industry supports pondering, with upwards of 3,000 personality assessments creating an almost billion dollar industry. While paper and pencil or computer-administered personality assessments were unknown to the ancients, they certainly showed evidence of engaging in personality assessment in their own low-tech ways.
When Jane and I worked in China in 2012, we heard a presentation on the Chinese tradition of horse sense and its relevance to Human Resources. The speaker told the story of the aging Bo Le, a mythological Chinese character reputed to be the first person to tame horses. Duke Mu (659-621 BCE), 14th ruler of the Zhou Dynasty in the state of Qin, was concerned that he was about to lose a valuable resource—a person with good horse sense, who knew how to tell the difference between a solid and an ordinary or even risky horse purchase. The Duke asked Bo Le, “You are getting on in years. Is anyone in your family able to take over for you and find me a good steed?” Bo Le replied:
“A good horse may be judged by his physique, countenance, sinews, and bones. But in judging the best horse in the world, it seems as if these qualities are red herrings. The best horse raises no dust and leaves no tracks. All my sons are lesser talents. They can judge a good horse, but they lack the talent to judge the best horse in the world. However, there is a man who is my porter and firewood gatherer who is called Nine-Cornered Hillock. In judging horses, he is not inferior to my abilities. I respectfully request that you grant him an audience.”
Duke Mu granted him an audience and commanded him to search out a fine steed. After three months Nine-Cornered Hillock returned and reported: “The horse has been located. It is in Shaqiu.”
“It is a yellow mare,” answered Nine-Cornered Hillock.
Thereupon Duke Mu sent men to Shaqiu to obtain the horse. The horse, however, turned out to be a black stallion. Duke Mu was quite displeased. Summoning Bo Le, he inquired of him saying: “What a loss! The man you sent to find me a good steed cannot distinguish the color of one coat from another nor a female from a male, what could he possibly know about horses?”
Bo Le let out a long sigh and replied: “It always comes to this! This is precisely why he surpasses me by a thousand or ten thousand fold and is infinite in his capabilities. What Hillock observes is dynamism of Heaven. He recognizes the refined essence and discards the dross. He focuses on the internal and disregards the external. He looks at what is to be seen and does not look at what is not to be seen. He scrutinizes what is to be scrutinized and disregards what is not to be scrutinized. It appears that what he has judged is a quality more precious than just a horse.”
The horse arrived and ultimately proved to be an excellent horse. Therefore the Laozi says: “Great straightness is as if bent; great skill is as clumsy.” (from Huainanzi, (c. 139 BCE), 12, tr. Major et al. 2010:458; in Wikipedia, under “Bo Le (mythology)”
Bo Le and his successor Nine-Cornered Hillock both recognized that we cannot look only at surface features in making personnel decisions—degrees, class standing, clothing, coiffure, facial features, physique, weight, awards, and so forth. They understood that we must look behind the masks and into the infrastructure of the person—the behavioral traits, the mental abilities, and the values that form the core of how they naturally approach work and life. Today, we recognize that there are not enough like Bo Le and Nine-Cornered Hillock to staff all of the Human Resource departments in the world, so we use personality assessments and analytics to supplement our personal judgment.