Thoughts on Psychological Tests, Being Smug, and Failing to be a Writer

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 11, 2007

Bethel Seminary makes its incoming MDiv students take a battery of psychological tests.  I faintly recall the thoughts and feelings that trickled through my body as I spent four hours receiving said battery.  Most of the thoughts were of a cynical nature (I know myself already, what are these stupid tests going to tell me).  My feelings shifted between frustration and boredom (man these questions go on and on).  But underneath the cynicism and frustration and boredom was…hope? My hope was that these tests would tell me something about myself.  If I could know myself better, some of the self-limitations could be shed like rusty manacles. So while I hated the IDEA of these tests, I had a secret hope that they could help me rise above myself.

One of these tests quantified an intuition I’ve had my whole life: More than 99% of the population is more disciplined than I am.  In other words, if you gather 100 people into a room, I am the most undiscipline person in the room. In the same scenario, I am also the most abstract in my thinking.

When the therapist went over the results of the test with me (keep in mind that this was at the begining of my seminary career), he shared that, perhaps, seminary wasn’t the best place for me.  You see, with my highly abstract and undisciplined nature (I believe he referred to it as the “artist’s temperment”), things like writing papers and reading thick books would be too much for me.

In my mind at that moment, I remember thinking, “what does this guy know? I won’t have any troubles with schooling.” And, for the most part, I was right…sorta.  While I finished seminary with a decent GPA, my papers were always slapped together and I don’t think I ever read a book all the way through.  This realization used to give me pride.  It is kinda nice to get good grades at seminary while, at the same time, being a slacker. 

But these days, I look back on my seminary career with regret.  While most of my friends would say I’m smart and articulate, I can’t help but feel that I would be smarter and more articulate if I had only applied myself at seminary.  If only I had dropped my smug superiority about being the-guy-who-doesn’t-have-to-try, I could have been shaped into something more than I am now.

But even if I could go back, it would probably turn out the same way.  After all, I am also that one person in the room of 100 that is most likely to buck authority.

Write now it is 11:54 PM.  I’m sitting at a table in the basement, next to the washer.  The basement smells like soapy bleach, because I’m washing a load of dish towels.  Instead of working on the Jesus Manifesto, I’m writing this blog. Why? Because I’m scared.  I’m scared to really pour my soul into this book. 

I’ve spent my entire life coasting on my undisciplined smarts.  I’ve loved putting off papers and sermons and various tasks until the last minute–and then seeing how quickly, and with how little effort, I can bring things together.  This used to make me feel kinda nifty.  But now I hate it.  Because writing a book–a serious book that flows out of one’s soul–requires those things that I’ve always scorned: discipline, concreteness of thought, and submission to process. 

My fear is that I’ll try–I’ll really try to put hard work into this book and I’ll fail.  My fear is that, underneath it all, I really have nothing to say of consequence.  My fear is that I’m really nothing more than the-guy-who-doesn’t-have-to-try, when what I long to be is the-guy-who-has-something-important-to-say. 

If I have anything important to say, it is God who put it in me.  And if I am going to push past my fear and write anything of consequence, it will be God who pulls it out of me.  And even though I, like most bloggers, suffer from a form of narcissism (the sort that wants everyone to read my thoughts and find them important), I’d like to think that if I don’t have something important to say (ie, something truly prophetic), then I’d rather not write it.  And herein lies the dillema: how do I really know if the book rattling around in my skull is something important, or merely something that will make me feel important?

And so I end this rather self-indulgent, self-referential post.  I hate it when people do therapy through their blogs–and I hate that I’ve done that just now.  But I write in the hope that if I name my fear, and make it public, it will have no hold over me anymore. 

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 10 Comments

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    Let me guess: Thee is an INFJ? Or close to it?
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    I just need to point out that is is post number 666 on your blog.
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    Well, I've been torn up by anxiety, myself, a good deal while in seminary and haven't gotten terribly good grades. I don't feel anywhere as disciplined as I could be and as I think I was in the past.

    I don't know if that helps. I hope blogging about it helped.

    I would say that write the book now the way you would write your papers. Be nonchalant, but held accountable to do it regularly.

    It doesn't have to be great, but I think it's pretty obvious from your significant blog-traffic(much more than mine) that there is a demand for the things you have to say and that shd help you get your book published and continue to expand your ministry.

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    Anna: I'm more of an ENFP. What made you think that I was an that what you are?

    Jesse: Thank you for bringing attention to my blog's damniversary!

    dlw: Thank you for the encouragement. I need to attempt some sort of regular writing routine--I've been thinking about getting up a bit earlier and going somewhere from, say, 8 til 10 just for writing. But such a thing takes discipline. I wish I had a writing buddy.
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    My fear is that I’ll try–I’ll really try to put hard work into this book and I’ll fail.

    I can so identify with this, that I almost had to do a double-take to make sure that I wasn't reading my own writing. And the coasting bit before it too.

    The problem for coasters like us is that we've usually never failed, and we're scared to take on something big enough where that might be a possibility. I sure don't have conquering this figured out, but naming it and calling it out sure helps. I'm also trying to convince myself that it would be far worse to try and fail than not to try at all.
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    pray for Ukraine.
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    I rather like it when people do therapy through their blog. That's what my own blog is all about... :)
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    Yep, I'm an INFJ now, though I tested in at an INFP when I first took the test 9 years ago. Odd, how personality can migrate a little as you get older. At least we are in the same camp. ;)

    BTW, I was pretty much a slacker through my undergrad, too. I could have done a sparkling thesis, etc., but was satisfied with squeeking through. I've been struggling with what to publish on my blog, if I should have a blog at all, or just hermitized myself until I think I have something important to contribute.
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    Let me add a thought regarding whether the book should be done and if you know how to do it. Please forgive the hillbilly parable but I think it will translate.

    I have three sets of rabbit cages. The first I built with someone else. They didn't really know what they were doing but they knew more than I so we built it and it works. I have had to make a few adjustments but it should work for many years in the future.

    When I went to build the second set of three cages I attempted to repeat exactly what the other person had built with a few changes due to a few different specific needs. It turned out really bad. It has need a lot of fixing and will need some more this summer. Eventually it will work though not quite as long as the first.

    Finally I took the skills I learned from the first two experiences. Ruffled around for some other ideas from books, magazines and added a dose of my own inspiration and set to work again. In everything I let myself be led by my own values as an small animal holder and anti-industrialist guide me. The last set of cages have only needed one small adjustment. They are holding up better than the others and fit better with my style of animal husbandry.

    The first book may or may not be worthwhile. It may fail and need to go to the scrap heap. Not a fun thing to consider given all the work and personal investment. But you can only write the third book by going through the first two, suffering and all. Look at some of those seminary papers.... I'm guessing the last ones were better than the first... same concept.

    So there is the discipline of writing... there is also the discipline of suffering, or the discipline of perseverance if you want a more positive image. You learned a lot through persevering through the church "re-boot" and are a better church leader because of it. Are you willing to become a better writer through persevering through this book?

    Daniel (who is considering either starting his own book or trying to improve the soil of a nearby field... one could be as much a heartbreaking failure as the other or as wonderful success as the other)
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    "And herein lies the dillema: how do I really know if the book rattling around in my skull is something important, or merely something that will make me feel important? "

    I think the dilemna that you are facing will always be around. It will never go away and I think we all battle it in some way or another. The fact that you can recognize it and confront it shows that you are more disciplined than many others in our culture.

    Great blog Mark. I read it daily. I often pray for or think of you guys as I drive through the West Bank, almost on a daily basis.


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