Sensing vs Intuition

A friend of mine recently dropped a bomb on me that’s still sinking in. I’d like to take a few minutes to share it with you.

MBTI

Arguably the most successful personality test is the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a personality test which uses 4 axes to place people into 16 distinct buckets. It was partly conceived by Carl Jung’s work, who developed the first three axes, but was completed my a mother-daughter pair who discovered the fourth axis and formalized the theory.

There have been some concerns about the validity of MBTI. I’ll admit that the system is not perfect and any system that attempts to shoehorn human complexity into 16 buckets should be treated with distrust at best.

However, the infamous George E. P. Box quote comes to mind, “All models are wrong; some are useful.” I’ve found MBTI to be wrong but useful, and I strongly believe that it’s useful enough to, as the title of this post suggests, perform a close look at one of its axes.

Let’s run through a quick example. I prefer:

  • Extraversion over Introversion
  • iNtuition over Sensiong
  • Thinking over Feeling
  • Judging over Perceiving

Which makes me an ENTJ. In reality, each of the four axes is a gradient, and nobody is a purebred, but “ENTJ” is descriptive enough that most people can start stereotyping me right now with a fair degree of confidence.

You may want to perform your own test or chuckle at how MBTI “experts” have categorized famous figures. Be wary of getting carried away and bucketizing people too quickly. Again, MBTI has been criticized by some and people come in more than 16 types.

Sensing vs Intuition

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the meat of things.

Of all the axes of the MBTI, Sensing vs Intuitive is, apparently, the most divisive. That is, while many individuals have no strong preference between thinking/feeling or judging/perceiving, almost every individual has a very strong preference for sensing over intuition or vice versa.

Interesting.

What’s more, Intuitives make up only 15-30% of the population, but apparently they cluster together – Sensors and Intuitives don’t tend to associate with one another!

I can confirm that last bit at least, as my closest friends tend to be Intuitives. Of course, now I’m really curious to go back to high school and have all the popular kids take the test…

But what exactly is sensing? What is intuition?

Sensing is the preference for sticking to the facts, while intuition is the tendency to abstract away from the facts.

I had a hard time understanding this when I first heard it. Don’t we all have to do both? Don’t we need the ability to experience objective reality while also having the ability to project forward into the future or our imagination?

I asked my friend, Matt, what a real-world difference would be between a sensor and an intuitive.

He told me that “Sensors like structure, while intuitives prefer to make their OWN structure.”

Huh?

Luckily, his next reply really made it land for me: “Sensors tend to be big-company people, while intuitives tend to be startup people.”

My mind was blown.

Startup People vs BigCo People

It couldn’t possibly be this simple, could it?

Carl Jung couldn’t have understood this fundamental aspect of human nature as early as 1921, could he have?

A million memories flooded through my mind. My brain was suddenly processing 20 years of memories through a new lens. Had I stumbled a piece of the “grand unified theory” of technological entrepreneurship?

Could it be that this subtle “just the facts” versus “what do the facts mean?” was the crucial difference between the people that I identified with and the ones that I couldn’t seem to understand?

I reflected of my conversations with people who looked at me like I was crazy when I left Google or turned down Apple: “do you have a job lined up?” they asked. I told them I was working on a startup. “Do you have any revenue?” No, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.

I reflected on Steve Ballmer taking over from Bill Gates, on Tim Cook taking over from Steve Jobs.

In both cases, the “visionary” handed the company over to the “operator.” This is a recurring theme again and again in business, but it seems that most of us don’t have the proper terminology for it. Perhaps “sensing vs intuition” is exactly the psychological terminology we were looking for to describe “operator” versus “visionary.” And I do NOT mean to belittle the “operator!” Just as every breed of dog has a different strength and weakness, so do human beings. Apple under Tim Cook is a different Apple than under Steve Jobs (and more profitable than ever). Steve knew this and encouraged it, going so far as to getting Tim to promise never to ask, “What would Steve do?”

Other Examples

My examples are very intuitive-biased for now. Forgive me for more closely studying my fellow intuitives. I’m just hoping to get this post done before bed!

Classic Intuitives

Bill Gates - Whether INTP or ENTJ, the man created the first software company, pioneering an entire industry.

Elon Musk - Widely regarded as intuitive due to his obsession with living in the future and moving forward in the face of conventional wisdom.

Steve Jobs - There are some people who place him as sensing due to his obsession with small details such as in calligraphy and typography, but the general consensus places him as an intuitive. While there are many pieces of evidence to support this, my favorite is this incredibly prescient interview from 1996.

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is an interesting one!

I had imagined he’d be INTJ, as he’s a wonderful strategist with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

However, when I heard and then double-checked the hypothesis that he’s ISTJ, I was thrilled that we have a “visionary” (intuitive) tech founder who allegedly comes from an “operator” personality type (sensing).

I feel there should be room at the top for people of all different backgrounds. As they say in Jeet Kune Do, “We each take a path to the top of the mountain, but when we reach the top, we can each see the moon just the same.”

The interesting question becomes: is my intuitive-sensing / visionary-operator hypothesis flawed, or is is Bezos as successful as he is because he built Amazon in his own image as an ISTJ?

Well, ISTJs are known as the “logisticians,” the masters of data and logistics. Not a bad start for a man who’s built the world’s most successful logistics company using data-driven metrics.

This quote, from his Recode interview also comes to mind:

Mossberg: “Jeff, what do you think is going to change most in the next 10 years?”
Bezos: “That’s a good question. But a better question is: What’s not going to change in the next 10-20 years?”

He goes on to defend: wider selection, lower prices, and faster delivery. Sounds like things that are very measurable and have been key drivers for Amazon in the past. Hmm…

Need more of an argument? Check out this excellent TechCrunch article on “Why Amazon is Eating the World”, which goes to great length to explain the sheer data obsession of the company.

I particularly like the section about Amazon’s strategy of trying to release as much of its own dogfood to the world as possible (Fulfilled by Amazon, AWS, Amazon Connect, MWS API) primary as a means of gathering data about how competitive their own tools are:

If Amazon Connect is a complete commercial failure, Amazon’s management will have a quantifiable indicator (revenue, or lack thereof) that suggests their internal tools are significantly lagging behind the competition. Amazon has replaced useless, time-intensive bureaucracy like internal surveys and audits with a feedback loop that generates cash when it works — and quickly identifies problems when it doesn’t.

Here’s more, three excerpts from the ISTJ wiki page:

  • “[Sensing introversion] draws upon history to form goals and expectations about what will happen in the future…”
  • “[Thinking extraversion] organizes and schedules ideas and the environment to ensure the efficient, productive pursuit of objectives…”
  • “While ISTJs are capable of rapid and dogged information processing and number crunching, they often have difficulty with, or simply dismiss, abstract concepts without immediate concrete applications”

Sound like anyone we know? Or is it just rationalist horoscope? I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

Overlap with other fields

Wait a minute, does this overlap with other dichotomies at all?

Could there be a link to liberalism vs conservatism? Views on software? Scarcity vs abundance?

Think on it.

Call to Action

The challenge, of course, is that the world needs both types of people!

Just as in Daoism we need Yin and Yang, our society needs sensors and intuitives. In fact, I’d argue you’ll be able to build a much better business by drawing on the talents of both.

I won’t say that MBTI holds all the keys to human psychology, but I will say that this lens should improve your awareness of your own tendencies and those of the people around you.

To my fellow intuitives, perhaps you’ve been misunderstood this whole time, and suspending your disbelief is your superpower!

But perhaps you need someone to help keep you in check?

Written on June 25, 2017

David Kay has dedicated his life to the advancement of the technological singularity. He is a serial entrepreneur, working to impact the future of software development and medicine. If you found this article helpful, join his weekly newsletter.