INTELLIGENCIA

1 Feb

Alice was the admissions officer’s dream. She had
800s on her boards, close to a 4.0 average, and glowing
letters of recommendation from her teachers. She was
the proverbial good student with paper credentials that
couldn’t be beaten. She was accepted by every graduate
program to which she applied. We were thrilled when she
decided to matriculate in Yale’s doctoral program in Psychology.

The tests and other predictions of success were correct as far
as they went: Alice excelled in her first year of course work,
competing with just one other student for the highest academic
average in an already highly selective program. Then something
went wrong — something big. By the time Alice was done with
the program, she was roughly in the bottom 20% of her cohort.
And it wasn’t that she didn’t try. On the contrary, she was highly
motivated to succeed.

What went wrong with Alice is what has gone wrong with thousands
and thousands of students: they are brilliant when it comes to
remembering and even analyzing ideas, but they are dim when it
comes to generating their own ideas. They may have 700s or
even 800s on their boards, and often IQs of 140 and above, but
they seem to lack even an ounce of creativity. In other terms, they
are analytically, but not creatively, intelligent.

Contrast the fate of Alice to that of Barbara. Barbara applied
to Yale’s graduate program in psychology with good but not
outstanding grades. More notably were her superb letters of
recommendation from eminent people and her record of
published work. The impressive creativity of this work was
apparent to almost anyone who took the trouble to read it.
But Barbara’s test scores, although not awful, were modest.
Barbara, unlike Alice, was rejected. Moreover, the Barbaras
of the world tend to be rejected, not just by Yale, but by other
highly competitive programs that can give a future scholar a
head start in academic life, a future lawyer a stepping-stone
to the world of law, or a future doctor the edge up on the best
internships.

Barbara was one of the lucky ones. I hired her as a research
associate. She demonstrated exceptional creatve abilities,
and two years later, when she reapplied to our graduate program,
she was admitted as the top pick. She even received a special
fellowship reserved for top applicants. But for every Barbara who
gets a chance, there are unknown thousands like her who are
consigned to the academic waste-basket — they never get the
chance that Barbara got. We never find out what happened to
them, because we never give them the chance to show us
what they might have done.

Paul might have seemed like the ideal admissions candidate.
He combined Alice’s analytical ability with Barbara’s creative
ability. His professors were delighted with him and expected
him to be a smash hit on the academic job market. Actually,
the professors weren’t the only ones impressed with Paul;
Paul was too, and it showed.

When Paul went on the academic job market, he was asked to
interview at every institution to which he applied — an enviable
record. His hit rate for getting jobs wasn’t quite so enviable,
however he was offered only one position, at the weakest
department to which he applied. Clearly, he was far from a
desirable commodity, his analytical and creative abilities notwithstanding.

Ironically, Sam, who had received no interview offers at all in the first
round, was later offered many of the interview opportunities Paul had
initially flubbed. Sam was offered several positions and within a few
years had tenure, whereas Paul was out of a job. Sam’s work was
nothing special, but he knew what his department valued, and he
delivered.

What went wrong with Paul was straightforward: Paul was so
lacking in common sense that he couldn’t hide his arrogance
even on the one day he needed to hide it — the day on which
he had a job interview. And once hired, his arrogance led him
quickly to become a pariah among his colleagues. Paul was
analytically and creatively intelligent but lacking in practical
intelligence. Sam, more modest in his analytical and creative
intelligence, was able to translate his practical intelligence into
good, although perhaps not distinguished, career success.

The stories of Alice and Barbara and of Paul and Sam, are all true.
with only the names changed. They are also, in their themes,
common stories in academe. But stories like these are what have
led many psychologists, myself among them, to conclude that
conventional notions of intelligence may be correct as far as they
go but that they do not go far enough. These psychologists have
suggested that conventional notions of intelligence (a) define
intelligence too restrictively and (b) often provide reasonable
answers, but to narrow questions. The problem is that the
answers may be fine, but the questions are not.

From What Should We Ask About Intelligence by Robert J Sternberg

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