Successful Intelligence: how practical and creative intelligence determine success in life by Robert J. Sternberg (NY: Penguin Putnam, 1997)
(This review is four pages long. Download a PDF (112K) for easier reading)
Throughout my life I have been interested in intelligence, mine and that of others. From early years at Taft School where I was regularly described as a “gross underachiever” to later in my work life when I began to understand that “smarts” came in all shapes and sizes, intelligence has been an interesting issue. Who has it and how can you figure out what kind each person has?
Successful Intelligence (SI) presents an interesting addition to my own practical knowledge of intelligence and a further jumping-off point from Howard Gardner’s efforts in Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences.
The preface gives away the whole story. Let me quote a bit:
So, this is quite an invigorating start! Intelligence is something we use in day-to-day life.
The first half of SI takes up a review and critique of traditional efforts to define and measure human intelligence. For those of us who followed the uproar over The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) or have otherwise been exposed to critiques of standard approaches to intelligence, skip quickly to Part III “Successful Intelligence Is What Counts”.
SI posits three key elements of successful intelligence:
Analytical intelligence focuses on problem solving. SI discusses this under the following headings:
Creative intelligence focuses on finding good problems. Here SI struggles to develop a coherent and satisfying definition for creative intelligence by posing an “investment theory of creativity”. Unfortunately, this discussion struggles with a metaphor standing in as a definition: “Creatively intelligent people are like investors. They buy low and sell high.” This line of argument leads to the following notion of what creativity is about:
From my perspective and experiences in the business world, this gives much too much importance to the Don Quixote aspects of the process. What exactly is the “investment” here? Is it really true that creative people set out to be “rejected”? (Perhaps, some reading in the literature of innovation in industry might be helpful here. Although these are looking at the problem of creativity from a more macro level, Eric von Hippel’s Sources of Innovation and Everret Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations might shed some light on creativity.)
Leaving aside my quibbles about the difficulties SI has with defining creative intelligence, this chapter closes with a set of observations about how to develop creative intelligence. The section headings provide a good slice though these (paraphrased here):
Successfully intelligent people:
The discussion of practical intelligence is altogether too brief because too much of this chapter is taken up with further efforts to debunk various standing notions of the connection between standard views of intelligence and real world success.
“Practical problems are characterized by, among other things, an apparent absence of the exact information necessary for solution and also by their relevance to everyday experience.” This leads to a discussion of the roll of “tacit” knowledge. BUT, SI’s use of the word “tacit” bears little resemblance to either my own usage or a dictionary definition (in this case my usage and the dictionary are in good synch).
Now, if we strip out SI’s confusing use of the word “tacit” (perhaps you may want to substitute “practical” or “worldly”), we now have a statement about that body of knowledge that one gains through the actions, association,and activities of day-to-day life – the world of knowledge accumulated through work, hobbies, social interactions and play. Go back and reread the paragraph quoted above. Excise “tacit” and substitute “worldly”. Now we can see what SI is trying to say. I have more than a small quibble with SI’s third feature. In my experience, most of my “worldly” knowledge was directly or indirectly gathered from the people around me. This usually occurred in an expressly “helping” mode.
Although SI is hardly a comprehensive or mature statement of exactly what successful intelligence is or how we can encourage its development, it at least moves the discussion of intelligence onto a plane where we can think of intelligence as a poly-dimensional entity. This gets us beyond the intellectually barren territory of IQ and other such nonsense. Further, SI helps to move us towards notions that can support practical thinking and policy making to support increasing the body of successful intelligence in all human beings.
Viewing this from my personal perspective as a business manager, I could not help but note the immense surface overlap between SI’s description of successful intelligence and many of the underlying principles ascribed to high-performance organizations. Here, for example, are statements (bolded in the SI text) from the discussion of Problem Solving:
Now, if you substitute the words “successful companies” or “successful organizations” for “successfully intelligent people, you will get a set of useful statements about high-performance organizations. Hmmmm…