by Robert A. Pease

Once upon a time there was a very smart guy—let’s call him Bob—who was getting lousy grades. (This is another esaeP’s Fable). He was in danger of flunking out of MIT, even though he had a very high IQ. His father sent him to the Human Engineering Lab (abbreviated as HEL) in Boston, to take a set of aptitude tests. When all the results were known, Bob took the report and went in to see the Dean of Students (who had been wanting to have a talk with him). Bob showed him the results—high scores in many aptitudes. The Dean went over to a file cabinet, unlocked it, and solemnly brought out—a goldfish bowl. It was stuffed full of dollar bills. He told the young man, “Bob, put your dollar in it, too. Each of the dollars in here was put in by a person with ‘too many aptitudes.’ If and when you graduate, you win all the money in the bowl. But I must caution you that the reason the bowl is so full is because ‘too-many aptitude persons’ do not find it easy to graduate. They get distracted too easily on too many subjects.” (End of Fable).

Did the goldfish bowl of money ever get claimed by a graduate? Did the Dean of Students at MIT ever actually do that? Did the Dean of Students ANYWHERE actually set up such a challenge? Maybe-maybe not.

Maybe the whole story is apocryphal. But there is an element of truth about this. The first thing I must explain is that the young student “Bob” was not RAP. I never went to see the Dean of Students at MIT. I never took the HEL tests nor got my test results until 5 months after I graduated. I have never seen a goldfish bowl full of dollar bills. But I certainly can imagine one.

When I went to MIT, I was good at taking tests. Of all the guys I knew in my high school, I was about the best at taking tests. We had a math teacher, Pappy Mirtz, who explained at the beginning of the term, “This term we are not having any un-announced tests.” Most of the class cheered. He grinned, wryly, “I am announcing them all now.” The class groaned. But the teachers who gave a little test every day did get a lot of respect, and they were generally very good teachers. When I started taking tests at MIT, I figured out that the cream of 500 other schools-most of whom were the best test-takers in their schools-were all taking tests, and they were having problems. The first test I took in Physics 8.01 was very simple. I remember it perfectly: A small mass (m) comes along at velocity (v) and smacks into a larger mass (2m) at rest, and bounces back. Allowing for the conservation of momentum and of energy, what are the resulting speeds? I started out to do the test. I struggled, and realized I could not get the equations to work right. I figured out what the answer was, and crunched the equations together backwards until they gave the right answers-just in time to hand in the paper. (The answer is that the small mass bounces back with velocity =-1/3v and the larger mass moves forward at 2/3 v. No momentum or energy is lost.)

When we sat around before the next class, some guys were discussing what they thought the class average would be. Some guys guessed 70 or 80 or 85. When the papers were returned, the class average was announced-50. Obviously, a lot of other kids had some troubles, too. More than I did.

Like I said before, I was always pretty good at taking tests. I figured out the right way to take them. We had 3-hour finals in our courses. For example, I went in well-prepared for the 5.02 final in the spring of 1958 – General Chemistry. In the first hour, I did all the problems the best I could. I recognized that the test-makers were, as usual, putting in a lot of extraneous information and useless, distracting facts. In the second hour, I brought out a glass and a quart of Hampden Ale, and drank it. Meanwhile, I checked all my answers for dumb errors, as well as I could. At the end of the second hour, I packed up my stuff and handed in my exam and walked out. I figured I certainly couldn’t improve my test results in the third hour by hanging around, but I might panic a poor few souls and improve my score compared to the class average. I did pass that exam. Not sure what I got; probably a B- or C+, which was FAR above average on those tough chemistry exams. Hey, I knew how to drive a slide rule. Still do.

In the fall of my senior year, I was taking a course (8.721) in Advanced Physics. I won’t say much about the poorly taught course (which was, many of us believed, designed to flunk out 1/2 of the senior class). But they gave us some homework problems. I didn’t do them. I thought I knew how to do them. Then they showed us last year’s final exam. It had the same problems. Then they showed us the previous year’s exam. It had the same problems. I didn’t do them. Previous year’s homework, likewise.

When I went into the final-guess what problems were there. The same darned problems. I had to do them, so I did them. I passed the course. But they did manage to flunk half of the senior class. Meanwhile, I had decided that all this quantum-mechanical stuff was not very physical, so I bailed out and got into Electrical Engineering. Even as I was planning to survive that 8.721 class and its final, I was taking a couple of labs in Course VI (Electrical Engineering) plus a couple of theoretical courses-and having FUN! So that is why I got my B.S. in EE, not in Physics. And I graduated in September of 1961, not in June, because I was taking so many courses in EE that I couldn’t start my thesis until June. After I graduated, I went to work for Philbrick Researchers. I was doing technical writing, and studying the design of op amps (with vacuum tubes, and germaniums, and silicon transistors, too). I learned from some pretty good engineers, too: Bob Malter, Tim Noble, George Philbrick, Bruce Seddon, and Al Pearlman. I learned some marketing angles from George and from Dan Sheingold. I saw some true MASTERS at work. I was having a LOT of fun!

Now, it is a fact that five months after I graduated, I went in to the Human Engineering Lab for some testing, because I was having so much fun. Why did I go in? Not sure. I guess a friend recommended it.

What did I learn? That I had strong aptitudes in a LOT of things. Let me explain the Wiggly Block test: if you take a big block of wood, and use a jigsaw to cut it into several curvy pieces in the X dimension, and then again in the Y dimension, you get a group of blocks that are curvy, and they all fit together if you fit them wisely. A 3×4 matrix of 12 blocks. Assembling this puzzle from randomly turned and jumbled pieces is one of the standard old tests for engineering aptitudes at the HEL. They call this “structural visualization.” Most engineers are very good at this test. Surgeons are. English majors are not. The absence of Structural Visualization is called Abstract Visualization, and English majors usually have it. I did very well at assembling this Wiggly Block quickly. Heck, I could even do it with my eyes closed, with a blindfold.

[editor’s summary:What tests were difficult? Pitch and Timbre Discrimination, color perception, finger and tweezer dexterity (left hand) and abstract visualization. Everything else was high, with objective personality.]

What does it mean if you have an aptitude and you aren’t using it? You may, without noticing why, get frustrated. Let’s say you have good musical aptitudes. If you have to drop out of a choir to work on “work,” you may get frustrated, and yet not be able to put your finger on why. I had to drop out of a chorus, but I keep my licks by singing along with the radio. There are ways to exercise such aptitudes if you are aware that you have them.

What does it mean if you are doing okay in a job where your aptitudes are needed, but your aptitudes are low? You may be doing okay by working hard as a salesman, or a manager-but you may be getting frustrated. Maybe you should plan to shift your career into an area that’s a better fit with your aptitudes.

What does it mean if you have too many aptitudes? It indicates that you are likely to be easily distracted, with too many irons in the fire. It makes it easy to be a jack-of-all-trades-and master of none. If you are aware of this, you can concentrate on the necessary tasks when it’s really important, and get that task done. Like graduating from school. (Or completing a column before deadline).

I have recommended HEL testing to several engineers, technicians, and friends. Often, they learn about some aptitude, missing or extra, that explains why they were not happy in their career.

If you are curious why you are having fun at some job, or curious why you are doing okay even though you are not having fun, you might think about taking these tests.

The tests are of all sorts; in general, they are fun. My wife has been tested. My kids have been tested. For example, we had Benjamin tested when he did so well at geometry that they put him into the advanced algebra section, where he struggled miserably. Benjamin’s Structural Visualization is quite high, so he did well at geometry. But his accounting aptitude is low, which means he makes lots of mistakes on numbers and codes, and he cannot spot the mistakes.

NOW it all makes sense! 

This article originally appeared in Electronic Design magazine.

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