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A Higher Education Toolkit for INTJs

Monday September 24, 2018

I’ve coached a lot of INTJ university and college students. Many of them suffer for lack of a set of tools that will help them overcome the various problems they encounter. Higher education is not always, as many INTJs assume, a super INTJ-friendly place. It can be, but you will need to leverage your innate cognitive gifts in order to figure out how.

Whether you’re off to university, college, or some other learning institution, here is my toolkit for INTJ student success.

1. Understand How to Go High-level, and Do It.

INTJs are really good at doing things, overall. But we’re really, really good at doing high-level things. Some examples:

  • Strategic-level critique
  • Theory design and development
  • Contingency planning at the level of broad approaches to things
  • Conceptualization of new thought patterns or thought structures
  • Using metaphor and vision to drive a creative process

When you approach your studies, or problems with your studies, make sure to pay attention to the high level. If “it just isn’t working,” acknowledge that at a high level. Design a high-level process for diagnosing and addressing the problem.

It’s OK and necessary to go low-level sometimes (design a schedule for the day, rearrange your study notebook, figure out a knot for your shoelaces that won’t come untied as easily, figure out what to do when your prof doesn’t show up for class), but what I want to emphasize here is: Know that the high level is there, and work down from the high level as much as possible. This is where most of your cognitive leverage will be found.

2. Design and Refine Your Approaches

INTJs are really good designers.

Oh, you thought I meant graphic designer? Well, you can be, sure. But what I’m talking about here relates to #1, above—the high level.

At a high level, you can design an approach to your studies by outlining key principles. For example:

  • Grades will generally reflect my ability to thrive at a course- or major- level.
  • Grades do not reflect my general ability level.
  • If I get low grades, I will follow this process:
  • First…
  • Second… (etc.)

This is a simple example. You can even go higher-level than that, and write down your general process for transitioning through school to gainful employment. But get something down on paper.

Then, if you stop using it, consider that it needs refinement in order to stay relevant to you and your studies. Go back and update it with what you’ve learned since.

This should become a living process, and as such it will help you design your way through a successful education experience.

3. Interpret Your Interests with Metaphor in Mind

It is completely possible that a given major—for example, a science major—sounds really appealing to you because your subconscious would like you to take a more [scientific] approach to your own life.

Please re-read that until you understand and go “oh.”

If the first part will be difficult, if the actual science major will cause your grades to drop: Try the second part first. Start being more scientific today. Figure out what that means for you.

It is possible to become a very successful person who did not earn a formal science credential and who also conducts as much science as they want, in a field of their choosing. Science is not owned by a credential—far from it.

I can’t emphasize this one enough—interpret your desires as something you can start doing right now, without a formal credential. Only seek formal credentials when you know you can earn them and get good grades. Otherwise disaster can result.

Am I suggesting you’re weak? Is this some kind of under-handed challenge? No!!!!

Does this only apply to science? Far from it!

This may mean undergoing a form of ego-death. You may have to admit that while you wanted to be a physicist as a kid, it’s just not in the cards for you as a major. And that’s often a great alternative to suffering through science courses with C’s, D’s, and a major case of depression.

And once the physics major is in your past? Now that you’re done with school, having picked a different degree? You are free to start doing physics like Jason freaking Bourne—because you are the one picking the targets now, not your professors. Life has a funny way of presenting multiple ways to reach desired outcomes…

4. Interpret Grades with Care

Low grades can absolutely destroy an INTJ’s sense of self-worth.

Have you ever flunked out of a class? Three classes? I have!

Have you ever been on academic probation? Once again, I’m your man! I’ve been there.

Meanwhile, confused friends asked me how that could happen—they knew for a fact that I was “bright and very capable”. Professors wrote me frustrated notes, asking how I could be so engaging in class with questions and theories, and yet flunk their tests and fail to turn in homework. “I feel slightly offended,” one wrote.

I feel into deep depression as a result. I didn’t understand it, but I could see it happening just as clearly as my friends and professors could.

It was simply a mismatch: Classes and majors and teaching styles did not fit my aptitude. I had hallucinated (see #3). I thought that I wanted the literal thing of a computer science degree, when in fact my subconscious was simply drawn toward the theoretical approach to and application of technology, which is one of my gifts.

As a general rule, INTJs should be careful, then, to choose courses where high grades are all but guaranteed. If your grades are high, you are doing well at school. If you don’t do this—believe me, your mental health is at risk. You can still do well overall, but be very careful.

I know one INTJ who disagreed with me here. He undertook a very serious and difficult pathway into a medical career. Each course was a trial of his ego vs. the instructor’s syllabus. Each victory was hard-won.

Later, years into the career, he told me he wished he had picked something different, something more relaxed and theoretical.

You’d think that would be easy to figure out, but a lot of INTJs dive in and select majors or classes that are challenging, because they want to learn, and then they overshoot learning and go into proving. This can cause huge problems. Both “learning” and “proving” can be said to be risky approaches to higher education, in different ways.

Perhaps sometimes you’ll have to admit that you can’t learn anything you want in the school’s way. If you get poor grades at something when you study it the school’s way, try picking it up on your own, outside of school. I’ll bet you’ll do great.

And low grades in a challenging course do not mean that you aren’t learning. They mean that the course was not designed for someone who shares your mindset or experience level. In most of these cases, the most efficient choice is simply to change courses or majors until your grades go up.

Grades don’t reflect who you are, but if they continue to get worse and worse, they can reflect that you’re hallucinating about your prospects in this major or course of study. Blame the process before you blame yourself.

5. Measure Your Overall Pressure & Ability to Respond

Periodically gauge your ability to respond to school pressures on a scale like this:

  • Response Level 1: I am completely overwhelmed and barely able, if I’m lucky, to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Response Level 2: I am overworked and frequently feel down.
  • Response Level 3: I have a lot to do, I’m doing some of it, and I have some up days and some down days.
  • Response Level 4: I am handling most of my work well, and I have a generally good feeling about my prospects. Down days are the exception to the rule.
  • Response Level 5: I am always top of things, and down days are almost always due to outside circumstances like a friend’s family problems or a TA throwing up on my notes. I feel like I can solve most any problem that comes up.

You should also design your own measuring devices like this when you can. That’s part of learning to be a scientist—do it.

Once you understand your level, try to design your way through it—and out of it, if needed. See Toolkit item #2 above, for more on that. (Measure, Design, Execute…then Measure Again.)

Personally I was at all five levels at one point or another during university. I’ll discuss one of the biggest complicating factors next.

6. Monitor Your Outside Concerns and the Resources they Demand

Outside concerns include things like:

  • Your part-time job, and how difficult it is
  • Your obsession with yoga classes, or volleyball, or lifting, or whatever sport helps you out
  • Your relationship with your friends or family
  • Your side-studies, because one major is never enough
  • Your spiritual pursuits, in or outside of church
  • Your membership in any clubs you belong to

It is completely possible to enjoy all of these things more than university. I remember when I realized “I’m better at all of this stuff than I am at my computer science classes.” That was really telling. I would go to work and win an award for fixing a computer systems problem, then return to school and flunk a test on data structures. As a result, my work-focus intensified, and I suffered at school even more.

Part of the solution for me was changing my major and changing jobs. For you, who knows what the solution may be. But these factors can all affect your grades and happiness.

You’re an introvert, so it’s easy to blame yourself for things. But you may also need to blame outside concerns in order to make positive progress.

7. Know your Professor’s Personality Type

See if you can figure out your professor’s type. For example, INTP professors are common in higher education. They can sometimes get INTJs really riled up in classes, because they often teach at a slow, methodical, step-by-step pace from the ground up, without making leaps of intuition, or allowing you to make leaps of intuition. They don’t see as much of a point in project-based or outcome-based work. They don’t generally care as much about real-world impact as INTJs do.

And that’s just one example.

Ask about professors or teachers before you sign up for classes. Do some simple comparative analysis between professors.

And while you study, keep a simple dossier. Write down leverage points—tips that help you work around any personality differences. For example, maybe the professor really cares about rote learning, and not much about how much you love learning your chosen major subject of psychology. Many efficient learning methods can be employed here, with a promise to yourself to learn more in depth later.

8. Watch Other Students and Ask them How they are Approaching a Class or Major

In a school setting, watch the other -J personality types. For example, ask the ESTJ how she’s studying for the test. Ask the ISFJ if you can read their latest paper (and give them a lot of compliments—they need this—while looking out for any strategies they used to make the paper longer, etc.)

Then, zoom out a bit with your INTJ perspective. You can’t be an ESTJ, but ask if there’s some middle ground that would be helpful to you. You can’t be an ISFJ, but maybe your papers could stand a little bit less attention to information depth, while conveying a more friendly tone and calling out more references.

Also, when you receive a syllabus, ask others what caught their eye. Occasionally someone will blurt out a strategy that you may have missed: “This basically says you don’t need to turn in any homework if you can maintain high test scores.”

Learn from other students: There’s always something to be picked up.

9. Understand Your Major’s Personality Types and Outcomes

Is your major extremely high-level, like economics or psychology? Or is it low-level, like studio art or dance? Perhaps in a low-level major, you can increase your chances of success by taking a high-level approach—focusing on broad strokes in your studio art, or developing your own theory of dance?

Look at the various personality archetypes and how they play out in your choice of major. Also, look at the students around you. How would you describe their types?

10. Let Yourself Say It: “This Isn’t Working”

Some of the most powerful executives in the world leverage this key principle: If something isn’t working out, make the call and start making decisions.

INTJs are extremely perceptive people. The opposite of perception is judgment. Sometimes we get so caught up in our perceptions about things, in our intuitions, that our judgment process suffers. This judgment process is also known as an “executive” process.

If things just aren’t working—make that call. Don’t worry about blaming yourself, or others. Just start making decisions and writing down lessons you learned after making those decisions. This decision-analysis loop will become a powerful tool for overcoming speed bumps.

At the extreme end, if you’re suffering to the degree that you feel depressed, or even want to end it all—which can happen—wouldn’t it be better just to end school, and give the “real world” a chance? In my opinion it’s always a good idea to leave that option open. Be very careful about forcing yourself to conform to this or that outside structure, just to align yourself with some view you held when you signed up for classes.

11. Reflect after Each Interval

In addition to the analysis I just mentioned, pick intervals at which to reflect. For example, once a week, once a month, once a semester. Ask yourself what you’d do differently in the next interval. Write it down, then try it. If it works, add your new knowledge to your list of tools or your general theory.


There’s a lot here, and it will take some time to learn and apply. So in the meantime, forgive yourself if things aren’t going well, and pat yourself on the back if things are going great. I hope this can be helpful to you no matter what the circumstances. Good luck in your studies.

Filed in: School /3/ | Planning /17/

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