Bill Symes Helps Youth To "Know Thyself"


Self-described "idealist" schools students on choosing suitable careers



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Bill Symes at his 85th birthday celebration. He has worked as head of philanthropy for Monsanto Company, as a Webster Groves city council member and as a university adviser. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
05/02/2008 - Bill Symes of Warson Woods is on another crusade. His mission is to help young people heed the sage advice of Socrates to "know thyself."

Symes, a self-described idealist, has had many missions in his life as head of philanthropy for Monsanto Company, as a Webster Groves city council member and as a university adviser. Now, after celebrating an 85th birthday, Symes is knocking on school doors to help young students who need a little direction, who need to know themselves.

"Socrates told us to 'know thyself.' Psychologist Carl Jung and two brilliant women who picked up on his treatise, 'Psychological Types,' have given us the best means yet of doing just that," said Symes. "If we are not afraid of what we will discover, we can make much better decisions by knowing what kind of personalities we have – what makes us tick."

The two women referred to by Symes are Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Meyers, who developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test (MBTI). Their personality quiz helps individuals discover their personality types and cognitive styles.

Symes uses MBTI information, plus a career book, "Do What You Are," by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron, to help wayward students get on a new track. That new track can help students understand their strengths and weaknesses in dealing with school and in making decisions about a course of study for suitable careers.

"The program I want to give all young people, probably as early as ninth or tenth grade, certainly by the time they are seniors in high school or freshmen in college, would help them determine their personality type from the sixteen classifications," said Symes. "From there we can look at study habits and career choices.

"Personalities don't change. They can adapt," added Symes. "Half the students who do poorly in college have the basic skills, but they are easily distracted or they drift without a regular structure – without having their feet held to the fire regularly," said Symes. "If students know that is the way they function, they can find ways to compensate and react."

In his own case, Symes realized later in life that he was an ENFP (Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) personality. He said he studied math in college and planned to be a math teacher, but as an ENFP, he said he was actually ill-suited for the detailed, quiet tasks involved in teaching and analyzing math.

Eventually, Symes found a perfect career in corporate philanthropy that could utilize his own ENFP traits of independence, flexibility, risk-taking and being people-oriented.

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Bill Symes (center) received a proclamation from Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch in honor of his 85th birthday. Symes celebrated with friends and family, including Rev. Robert Tabscott, left, at Llywelyn’s Pub in Webster Groves in February. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Running Into Resistance

Symes admits he has run into resistance from local educators in trying to sell his program to them. He remains undaunted. He said that young people today need all the help they can get in a complex world full of temptations and distractions.

He said there is resistance from the psychology community, which has resisted the MBTI body of work because it originated from women, sometimes dismissed as "housewives," with no formal training in psychology. He said some school administrators are a bit paranoid of anything new that may involve risk-taking.

"A few administrators may feel they could actually do students harm if the students learn things they don't want to hear about themselves," said Symes. "What is learned might be quite different from an individual student's own self-concept."

While some educators have closed the door on Symes' program, others have embraced it. At Lindenwood University in St. Charles, where Symes has taught and advised, he has used the program with signs of success. He can point to laudatory letters from happy parents, including Sally and Rob Rains of South County.

"One day our son, Mike, who is a sophomore at Lindenwood University, got a phone call from Bill Symes to go to his office," said Sally Rains. "When he got there he was greeted by Mr. Symes, who talked to him and gave him a book about personality types.

"Mike showed us the program papers and we all tried to figure out all our personalities" added Rains. "It was really incredible how much Mike's personality profile really fit him. Once you understand other people, it is easier to look at them in a different way."

Rains applauded Symes for trying to help her college student son find a career, but she said his program can also help everyone dealing with people. Whether it's people in the work place, a spouse or a child, if you realize why they act a certain way, it is easier to work with and understand them, Rains said.

"Mr. Symes bought books at his own expense and passed them out to the college students," noted Rains. "This is his way of making the world a better place. It's great – inspiring – to see someone going out of their comfort zone and making the effort to improve someone else's life."

85 Years Young

At his birthday party in February, Symes reminisced about his past in politics, philanthropy and education.

He grew up from birth to 13 years of age in Waco, Texas. From 13 to 18, he lived in Gallatin, Tenn., then went on to Rhodes College in Memphis. He was in Okinawa, in World War II. After the war, he married "the love my life." Gene Symes passed away in 2005.

Symes finished his undergraduate degree in chemistry and went on to Columbia University in New York for a doctorate in chemistry. His late wife studied in New York as well, which provided her with "a fabulous musical experience that prepared her to be one of St. Louis's preeminent church musicians," according to Symes.

While working at Monsanto and living in Webster Groves, Symes said several people urged him to run for city council "as a flaming liberal to balance a largely conservative council." He did run for office and served four terms.

"I enjoyed playing a role that was needed, such as being sure Epworth  Children's Home was approved to bring their inner city agency here, when other council members and the mayor were against it initially," noted Symes. "I'm also proud of standing up for a policeman fired unjustly and for convincing the council members that the street reconstruction job had to be for all 70 miles that needed it not just the 17 miles proposed by the city engineer under the bond issue."

Ever the "flaming liberal," Symes contends the country is sorely in need now of some personality types who have leadership and management skills after a dearth of such qualities.  

"The national scene has been a disaster," insisted Symes. "It has been said that the great leader 'does the right thing,' and the great manager 'does things right.' President Bush has been a disaster on both counts and the Democrats have failed to recover significantly since regaining the Congress.

"It has been mostly downhill for too many Americans and we have the terrible suffering on all sides with the Iraq debacle," said Symes. "It has torpedoed the country into a ten-trillion dollar deficit, raising serious questions about the future of the world's greatest remaining empire. We have the ability to recover, of course, if we can all be inspired to do our part, and to return to using our talents for the common good."

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