The INTJ “Mastermind” Personality Type
After Joel and I released a podcast on the INFJ personality, we received an overwhelming response from (the Myers-Briggs type) INTJ for more information on understanding their type. (Perspectives/Effectiveness in the Genius System).
That makes sense – these two types (the INFJ and the INTJ) are almost certainly the most misunderstood by both others and by themselves.
I’d almost argue that INFJs are a little easier to understand. That might be because my mother is an INFJ and I grew up around her, but there’s something about the acute pain an INFJ experiences that is an entrance into understanding them. As if the pain, itself, was a foot in the door of entering in and seeing the whole picture.
To find an entrance into an INTJ is much, much more difficult. Everything they exhibit is more subtle and muted, and the rabbit’s hole goes very deep.
As an ENTP, INTJs are my “Power Pair,” and there’s no doubt that I’ve found myself surrounded by them my entire life. I’ve lived with them, worked with them, fought with them, coached them, made love to and been rendered jelly while kissing them… you get the picture.
For all of my experience with INTJs, there are a couple of crucial components without which I don’t think you can really understand this type:
1) An INTJ is almost invariably smarter than the vast majority of people in analytical, existential, and linguistic intelligence.
There are other types that outperform INTJs in IQ tests (for example, INTPs), but I would venture to say that in all the ways society chooses to acknowledge ‘intelligence’, INTJs as a group outclass just about everyone else. Sure, other types outclass them in intra- and introspective intelligences, and of course kinesthetic/body awareness intelligence. But most cultures diminish the importance of these styles.
To truly understand an INTJ it’s important to realize that they are almost always ‘the smartest person in the room’ in the ways that we all have been socially programmed to recognize “smart.” This is a double-edged sword.
2) They are built like arthropods, and have an exoskeleton.
And it’s not purely a defensive strategy. Unlike the INFJ type that uses a ‘hard candy shell’ as protection against the world, an INTJ’s exoskeleton is a necessary part of their makeup. But like all things we come out of the hatch with, it can be used defensively. I’ll explain in a moment.
3) They are a LOT more sensitive than you realize.
What’s the point of an exoskeleton? To protect the squishy, nougat-like center, of course.
If you don’t see past the hard exterior and acknowledge just how vulnerable the inner world is, you cannot understand this type.
Before we talk about all that, let’s look at The Car Model for the INTJ personality type:
Perspectives is the process that helps INTJ’s watch their own minds form patterns, get inside the minds of others and allows them to see implications far into the future.
The Co-Pilot is Effectiveness.
Effectiveness makes decisions based on practical application, answering the question “What works,” creating metrics to determine milestones, and closing loops.
The 10 Year Old is Authenticity.
Authenticity, when done well, is all about “What feels RIGHT.” It’s how we get in touch with how things are impacting us on a subjectively emotional level, and it’s where we create conviction.
The 3 Year Old is Sensation.
Sensation, when done well, is how we stay present in the moment, and process the extraordinary amount of sensory detail that is coming at us at all times. It’s also where we get in touch with what gives us an adrenaline rush and how we improvise with our bodies.
(If you’re a Myers-Briggs geek, the primary cognitive function for this type is Introverted Intuition, the secondary is Extraverted Thinking, the tertiary is Introverted Feeling and the inferior is Extraverted Sensing.)
If you look at most profiles about the INTJ personality type, they’ll focus on the Mastermind quality of the INTJ. Long range strategy, designing truly complex systems that can be replicated, finding the weaknesses in infrastructure… INTJs are the walking think tanks that streamline the world.
But there’s only so much think tanking the world wants done, and the overwhelming majority of INTJs are just looking for a job that doesn’t make them want to stab their eyes out.
This is important to recognize – most INTJs are only somewhat satisfied in their career choice. You’ll see them peppered throughout universities as professors, in I.T. and programming departments as developers, engineers, etc. Regardless, most INTJs are not utilizing the full wattage of their problem-solving, think tanking abilities. So there’s always this feeling, however deep and unconscious, that their talents – or even they, themselves – are being ‘wasted’.
Because of their introverted nature, there’s a strong need to be acknowledged and given credit, but without the indignity of having to do cartwheels. Remember when I said they outclass almost everyone in three very socially recognized forms of intelligence? It can be a source of frustration that not everyone automatically sees the full extent of this, though they are often considered by people who know them to be ‘very smart’. This gives birth to a couple of other things that just become “INTJ Problems.”
First, as a society we tend to glamorize raw computing power, but we don’t have a lot of love for people who come up with solutions that mean we have to change stuff. So, we tend to marginalize problem-solvers… unless those problem-solvers are putting dollar bills into our pockets. Most true solutions mean going through a painful transitional cycle, and the more far reaching the problem the longer the transition. We also tend to favor efficiency over effectiveness, which will drive an INTJ crazier than anything.
Creating sustainable models are the crack cocaine of INTJs, and living in a world that’s so short-sighted can make them jaded and cynical.
Second, there’s a major tendency to ‘double down’ on being so much smarter than everyone else, and therefore being dismissive. No one – and I mean NO ONE – puts as much thought into things like an INTJ does, according to the INTJ. And to some extent that’s true – it’s a rare bird that thinks as long and hard about anything as they do. But this dismissive attitude, combined with a perpetual feeling of being marginalized, creates the perfect context to generate pride as an emergent.
Once an INTJ gets stuck in the ‘no one else sees what I see, thinks as long and hard as I think, understand like I understand’ loop, the inclination to stay in the realm of ideas and conceptualizing becomes almost too attractive.
I mentioned before that an INTJ is like an arthropod, with an exoskeleton and a very squishy center.
Like INFJs, INTJs use the Perspectives process to be able to see things as others see them and get in the heads of other people. But unlike INFJs, they don’t couple this with a Co-Pilot that checks in with others emotional experience. They couple it with a more analytical process – Effectiveness – which gives them some psychological and emotional distance from others. This is their exoskeleton – a hard, outer shell that gives them room to think about long-range implications. They create their own ‘space’ – or, intellectual work room – that allows for truly exceptional thinking.
However, their 10 Year Old process is Authenticity, a process which encourages them to be sympathetic of the subjective human experience. Whenever they engage in this mental process there’s a part of them that knows they’re a sitting duck… because they are. Perspectives allows them to see how others see, Authenticity encourages them to mirror back how others feel. Because an INTJ is able to occupy both the headspace and the heartspace of another person, they become at that person’s mercy.
The exoskeleton that Effectiveness provides creates necessary and healthy boundaries to ensure they don’t get ‘squished’ by others.
(When they don’t have permission to use and exercise Effectiveness – some have reported that many attempts to become leaders or to get projects accomplished were frustrated by either parents, the school system, or other influencers and so they just ‘stopped trying’ – they use Authenticity as a defense the only way they know how: they call upon the emotion of pride to get them through as a barrier between themselves and the object that can hurt them.)
Before you’re allowed entrance, you must be vetted for trustworthiness. Like INFJs, there is a sense of others being able to do real damage, and ensuring they aren’t inviting in a ‘bull into the china shop’.
Once you’re in, though, you’re IN. I’ve held grown INTJ men as they wept for a lost love because I was ‘in’. I had been invited into the inner sanctum of that squishy space, and I was allowed to experience first-hand their amazing sensitivity.
Without the exoskeleton, there would be no protection against the world. As I mentioned before, unlike an INFJ who can use a ‘hard candy shell’ defensively and must learn to be a conduit for others emotional experience, an INTJ’s exoskeleton isn’t naturally meant for retreat. But if misused it can become a defensive strategy, particularly against suggestions to get into action. To illustrate how an actual exoskeleton works:
Since exoskeletons are rigid, they present some limits to growth. Organisms with open shells can grow by adding new material to the aperture of their shell, as is the case in snails, bivalves and other molluscans. A true exoskeleton, like that found in arthropods must be shed (moulted) when it is outgrown. A new exoskeleton is produced beneath the old one. As the old one is shed, the new skeleton is soft and pliable. The animal will pump itself up to expand the new shell to maximal size, then let it harden. When the shell has set, the empty space inside the new skeleton can be filled up as the animal eats. Failure to shed the exoskeleton once outgrown can result in the animal being suffocated within its own shell, and will stop subadults from reaching maturity, thus preventing them from reproducing.
I’m about to go massively abstract, so please bear with me.
A big part of the perpetual learning most INTJs do is to build on that exoskeleton – or, in other words, be more and more prepared for a world that isn’t very kind to creatures who lack awareness.
In order to experience real growth, an INTJ needs to feel certain that they won’t be “left to the elements” during the process. Meaning, if they think they’ll be massively exposed they’re simply not going to venture out into a world that could crush them like a grape.
But if they burrow in and never allow themselves to experience life, they risk “suffocating within their own shell,” so to speak.
Growth, itself, can be slow because there’s always a question of how much, how quickly?
Much of the growth an INTJ does is internal – remember, the new exoskeleton is being built underneath the existing skeleton. That means a lot of growth is happening where you can’t see it, and so outside forces will give the INTJ feedback that they aren’t making fast enough progress simply because it’s all under the surface.
That said, it can be truly difficult for the INTJ to be willing to shed the old exoskeleton in favor of the new one, which is by definition softer and more vulnerable. If they do have the guts, though, this is generally a time period of extraordinary growth for the INTJ. For example, all of a sudden a once shy INTJ can become outgoing with an insane social schedule. There is a time period of ‘experience gluttony’ as they grow into their new shell, and once the growth happens, often they settle down and appear to level out.
These moments of growth are incredibly important, and if they don’t give themselves permission they will ‘suffocate’ under the weight of their old shell.
In the most healthy versions of INTJs, the growth phase will also encourage massive implementation, building something that can be measured. They position themselves in consulting or team-leading roles where others can bring their ideas to the ‘outside world’ and they can vet the ideas outside of mere concepts.
The less healthy the INTJ, though, the more they stay in the world of conceptualizing, think-tanking, idea-generating, etc. There is no end to learning, and they will always be in need of more of it. The extraordinary amount of content and material consumed by an INTJ can be staggering to think about, and while impressive, if the INTJ never graduates to implementation (either by themselves or through a team) they sink further and further into a world that can’t be visited by others. They disqualify themselves from intimate connections, relationships and from being able to have the impact on the world they crave.
The key to growth for INTJs can be found in the Co-Pilot process of Effectiveness. Many INTJs find themselves unsure of what exactly they want to bring to the world, and feel they have to have a complete picture of what it looks like before they can move forward. I’ve heard INTJs say things to the effect that they can’t go socializing until they ‘get their life together’, but still not have a clear idea of what that would look like.
Unfortunately, that lack of clarity is in and of itself a defensive strategy. The less well defined the goal, the more murky the definitions, the further away from action they allow themselves to be.
When an INTJ truly steps into their genius, they have clearly defined mile markers. Effectiveness is all about creating a linear strategy to get to a goal, and creating metrics to determine what ‘done’ looks like. The most empowering action an INTJ can take is 1) being aware of their own personal stall tactics, and 2) clearly outlining metricized markers on the way to a goal.
There’s a host of quotes about what can’t be measured can’t be managed, or improved upon. While that may or may not be empirically true, it is true for the INTJ, and is the key to INTJ fulfillment and happiness.
When an INTJ gets into action and begins reaching mile markers, their concepts are no longer abstractions. They can be vetted, improved upon, test/iterated. But most importantly, the INTJ is making an impact on their environment, which may be one of the most satisfying things they experience.
If you’re in a relationship with someone of this personality type, one of the best ways to build intimacy is both intellectual and emotional honesty with yourself. If an INTJ suspects that you can be exploitative – that you can dick with someone’s emotions or be intentionally cruel – they will shut you out as quickly as possible. Being vulnerable is precious to an INTJ and they appreciate it when you express it. Staying present, working through an issue, and being unwilling to be cruel with an INTJ is the surest way to their heart.
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