When I wrote my list of 7 Fictional Characters That You’ll Relate To If You’re An ENFJ, I rewatched the movie Dead Poet Society. I think both John Keating and Neil Perry are ENFJs, but they’re often typed as ENFPs and that got me thinking about some of the main differences between these types. And that led me to pondering the ways that NF types, and ENFJs in particular, work to change the world.
Most people don’t think of ENFJs as a type that would buck the status quo. We see them as harmony creators, best friends, and mentors but not necessarily as someone who swims against the flow of culture. I think that’s the main reason people type Mr. Keating and Neil as ENFPs, who we more often think of as the outspoken champions of causes. But ENFJs do have a rebellious streak. In fact, all NF types are idealists who typically find some way to seek a better world. Though the ways they work toward this change (and what a better world means to them) differ depending on their individual personalities, interests, and experiences most of them do want to change the world in some way.
Just to be clear, NF types aren’t the only ones who care about social change or want to see improvements in the world. Every one of the 16 types does that in their own way, and I’ll be working on a post that covers all of them in the near future. But just for today, I want to focus on ENFJs, ENFPs, and Dead Poet Society.
I’m not a huge fan of giving the Myers-Briggs types nicknames because there’s so much more to each type than can be neatly packaged into a single description. But we can look at the different nicknames as roles that each type fills often enough for it to stick as a label. Teacher, Mentor, Giver, and Charismatic Leader are all descriptions that are used to try and sum-up the key traits of ENFJs. Interestingly, all those labels could be applied to John Keating from Dead Poet Society.
For those unfamiliar with the plot (or if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it), this film is set in 1959 at an elite, conservative, all-male boarding school in Vermont called Welton Academy. As the film opens, shy Todd Anderson moves in to begin his senior year at Welton. His new roommate is Neil Perry, one of Welton’s most promising students, who quickly assimilates Todd into his group of friends. NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
On the first day of class, the boys encounter the new English teacher, John Keating. Keating is a Welton alumnus with some very unorthodox teaching methods. He doesn’t mind ignoring tradition, and confuses his students by having them rip out the introduction to their poetry textbook and stand on his desk and look at things from a different perspective. He tells them, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
The other teachers are extremely suspicious of Keating’s actions, but his ideas capture the imaginations of Neil and his friends. After learning that when Keating was a student he participated in an unsanctioned group calling themselves the Dead Poets Society, Neil restarts the club. As part of this club, the boys sneak off campus to a cave where they read poetry and verse, including their own compositions. Sounds pretty harmless, but following Keating’s encouragement to think for themselves and appreciate the deeper things that make life worth living also puts the young men at odds with the authority figures in their lives. And that leads to some tragic consequences that make the movie’s end as heartbreaking in some ways as it is inspiring in others.
If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs types, you might be thinking that Keating really does sound a lot like an ENFP. They are the type that champions for social change, pushes other people’s buttons, and does what they think is right regardless of what others think. That’s true, but ENFJs also want to improve society, make people think, and stay true to what they think is right. The underlying thought processes are just different.
ENFPs lead with a mental process called Extroverted Intuition (Ne), a.k.a. “Exploration.” This is a perceiving/learning function focused on interacting with the world in real-time, trying out every possibility, and discovering patterns. This instinct is so strong that NFPs who can’t explore and seek novelty often sink into depression. This type supports their Ne process with co-pilot Introverted Feeling (Fi), or “Authenticity,” which checks-in with the inner self to make sure decisions lime-up with what personally feels right.
ENFJs have a different perspective. They lead with Extroverted Feeling (Fe), or “Harmony.” This is a judging/decision-making process that is focused on making sure everyone’s needs are met. It’s a very social, outward-focused function that is good at picking up on other peoples’ emotions. They support Fe with co-pilot Introverted Intuition (Ni), or “Perspectives.” This function is great at pattern recognition and seeing issues from multiple points of view.
Which type you go with for Keating depends on how you interpret his motivations. When you look at him just in the classroom, it’s easy to say that his focus is on pushing buttons, testing out novel teaching ideas, and encouraging students to do what feels right no matter what others think. That all sounds very much like an ENFP, as does his decision not to conform to the school’s culture.
But we also see Keating apologizing to a fellow teacher who was shocked by his teaching methods. He politely explains his ideas and works to maintain harmony with the other teachers while sticking to his deeply held beliefs about the purpose of teaching. We also see that he understands people so well that sometimes it seems as if he can read their minds (which I have seen ENFPs do, but it’s more often associated with NFJ types). And while he does counsel Neil to be true to himself, Keating also tells him that before he can do that he needs to resolve his conflict with his father. His overall focus tends to be more on people and how they relate to others than on exploring possibilities or figuring out how things work.
How You Hold Cultural Values
Typologists consider both Feeling and Thinking rational functions because they hold rational values. In the case of Extroverted Feeling, the priority is values related to people and their social obligations. I think rather than ignoring social obligations, Keating is simply holding to a set of social and cultural values that are not the same as the culture of the school where he’s teaching.
When he’s confronted by the head of the school about his unorthodox teaching methods he says, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” Keating has very different ideas than the others at Welton about what education is supposed to do, and therefore what the values of an educational institute should be. And he manages to hold to the values of a culture he thinks should exist while also working within the culture that currently exists. He does this because, “I love teaching. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
ENFJs are much more likely to be comfortable navigating this disconnect between ideal and reality than (for example) an ESFJ type. That Introverted Intuition co-pilot is constantly trying to figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together and what’s going on “behind the curtain.” That’s the side of their personality wondering if there’s a better way to do things; one which would benefit even more people than the status-quo does. As FJ types, ENFJs are still deeply invested in social harmony but they’re also perfectly willing to remake society or create their own.
Going back to ENFPs, they’re more likely to see very little need for respecting cultural values at all. Their focus is much more on personal values and staying true to yourself. While Keating does value those ideas, he also counsels his students to pick their battles wisely and exercise caution. He wants them to become their own best selves within the structure of community and family.
O Captain, My Captain
ENFJs like to create their own followings and to pass on their teachings, and that doesn’t always fit with society as a whole. In the most extreme example, one stereotype is the ENFJ cult leader (villainous or otherwise). But ENFJs can also change the world in more subtle ways, usually through interpersonal connection. That’s what Keating does. He understands these boys. He knows how to bring literature to life for them and how to bring out the best in them by shaking up his teaching methods, pushing each to excel, and personally engaging all students. He even gets shy Todd spontaneously composting poetry and reciting it in front of class (the same scene I referenced earlier in my mind reading comment).
But not everyone wants the world changed or agrees on what type of change is for the best. The most chilling example in this film is Neil’s father, whose attempts to control his son’s life and crush his dreams leave this young man feeling trapped and hopeless. Also an ENFJ with a strong desire for harmony that’s currently at odds with his idealism, Neil feels he can’t talk with his father, can’t express who he truly is, and can’t live with disappointing his parents.
One of my most vivid memories of watching any film is sitting next to my ENFJ brother and watching this film for the first time. As we sobbed over Neil’s suicide, my brother told me Neil is one of very few characters in fiction that he can personally identify with. They’re so similar, but my brother had a supportive family who encouraged him and he’s now out there changing the world, shining positivity into everyone he meets. Neil could have been like that, but instead of encouraging him the people with the most influence over his life shut him down and he couldn’t see how things would get better. It’s heartbreaking, especially since from an outside perspective it’s so easy to see how much Neil’s life and circumstances could have changed for the better if given a little time.
- If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you don’t have to go through this alone. We care about you and want you here on this earth. Please seek help.
The responsibility for Neil’s death is shifted to Mr. Keating, who chooses not to fight the school’s ruling against his so-called “blatant abuse of his position as teacher.” But the boys whose world for the past few months revolved around Neil and the Dead Poets Society say, “It wasn’t his fault.” They knew their lives were changed for the better by Keating, and that the negative influences in Neil’s life didn’t come from his English teacher. They’d seen Neil turning into a leader who, like Keating, refused to give up on people and brought out the best in them. And they’d learned that’s how you change the world — one word, one person, one idea at a time.