by Dr. Joel Orr, Reprinted from Computer-Aided Engineering

It’s not that our marriage was really at risk, but there was one aspect of our relationship that troubled both N’omi and me. In this particular area, I often thought, “Why is my otherwise easygoing wife so picky?” And she thought, “Why is my otherwise thoughtful husband so thoughtless?” The year was 1980. We had gotten onto the Nightingale-Conant mailing list and found we couldn’t resist its offer to get its tape cassette albums, and pay for them only if we liked them. (It is still tops in customer service.) On the tape, The Psychology of WinningDenis Waitley mentioned a book by Margaret Broadley, Your Natural Gifts, which describes the work of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation / Human Engineering Laboratory. We were intrigued.

It seems Mr. O’Connor had managed an electric-meter plant for G.E. (General Electric) in the 1920’s. Meter assemblers made pretty good money. The training process was relatively expensive for GE, however. So O’Connor came up with a simple test to see who would be a good meter assembler after training. It involved a bakelite block with 100 holes in it, a bunch of headless brads, a pair of tweezers, and a stopwatch. Anyone who could insert more than a certain number of brads in the holes within two minutes invariably turned out to be a good meter assembler, and anyone who could insert just slightly fewer did not—regardless of the amount of training.

O’Connor—and his wife, who taught architecture at MIT—were intrigued. The fact that the scores could not be improved by training might mean that some aspect of the ability to perform well on this task was genetically determined. This led the O’Connors to wonder: Could there be “elements” of aptitude like the chemical elements? They were determined to find out. So they set up a research foundation, which abides until today.

The testing centers—they are in 11 major cities—do not tell people what they should do. Instead, their post-testing counseling takes the form of suggestions such as, “Your profile is similar to that of happy, well-adjusted surgeons.” Or: “You should never manage people; your profile is that of people who work well on their own, like researchers and some kinds of doctors or lawyers.”

Aptitudes have nothing to do with preferences. Most vocational counseling tests are based on asking you what you like; these determine what you are like. One of the aptitudes is called object observation. My wife scored in the 95th percentile – meaning she did better than 95% of the people who had taken that work sample. I scored in the 5th percentile.

Knowing these scores saved our marriage. Suddenly it was clear: When N’omi said “Why do you never put the sugar back where you got it from?” and I responded, “I do!” she was thinking, “The sugar was here on this doily, with the protruding spoon at just this angle. Now it’s not here!” and I was thinking, “I took it from the kitchen—now it’s back in the kitchen.” In other words, her kitchen had hundreds of pixels, mine had one.

So I immediately asked her, “What’s important to you in the house? I will memorize those things.” She replied, “You know how you squeeze me fresh orange juice every morning? I appreciate it so much! That’s why I found it difficult to tell you how disgusted I feel when I encounter the mess you make when you do it. So, please put the juicer base back flat against the wall behind the counter when you’re done. And do not attempt to wash the removable parts: just put them in the sink. You always leave them covered with pulp.” And I did. And there was peace. We’ve learned a great deal from taking the work samples, and we’ve had all our children and employees take them, too. I highly recommend them to you and your children to help with, for example, career choices.

As an engineering professional you enjoy certain aspects of your work and care less for others. By knowing what you are equipped for—what your “hard wiring” is—you will be much better able to direct your work and career choices. You also may learn why you get along better with some people than with others—and what you can do about it. Knowing the size of your pixels can change your life.

Are you ready to choose intelligently?

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