A Sunday NYTimes article by two psychologists under the eye-catching title, Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters, once more raises the issue of the role of academic intelligence, personal development and expertise. The authors would have you believe that people who score high on IQ inevitably do better in business than those who don’t score as high. But if you read the thirty page research report you’ll realize that they’re pushing the envelope on the interpretation of their results. They also argue, with more success, that working memory capacity, a major component of intelligence, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. But more about that later.
For the uninitiated, this is another shot across the bow in the complex battle between inherent intelligence and learned intelligence. Once more, it’s a strong push for IQ intelligence (academic or analytical intelligence) as the be-all, end-all. Not so fast.
The authors take aim at several popular writers, but two paragraphs stick out as a summary of the evils of deliberate practice:
Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” He adds that intellectual ability — the trait that an I.Q. score reflects — turns out not to be that important. “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.
Thus, the writers argue, science tells quite a different story—that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields.
Well. . . before you buy their argument wholesale, think about the following:
Nowhere do the practitioners of deliberate practice argue that practice alone makes for expertise. Indeed, the gains you’ll get in practicing depend heavily on your training environment, your coach, and the quality of your feedback. I address this issue in my blogs, Are top salespeople born or made?, and Success is not just about practice, practice, practice. What I remind readers is that that feedback and expert coaching are also part of the deliberate practice model and key to the development of personal expertise.
Furthermore, leading cognitive psychologists, including Robert Sternberg, point out that there is no way that the maximum capabilities of any person can be measured or predicted.
The researchers in deliberate practice have also found that memory—that core measure of intelligence--can be improved.
Intelligence theorists don’t agree about much other than the ability to adapt flexibly to the environment. But most theorists, especially Robert J. Sternberg, believe that intelligence has at least three forms:
- Analytical intelligence (IQ intelligence)--the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas, solve problems and make decisions. Hambrick and Meinz are stretching this kind of intelligence to make it into practical intelligence. That’s too big a stretch.
- Creative intelligence—the ability to go beyond what is given to generate novel and interesting ideas.
- Practical intelligence--the ability that individuals use to find the best fit between themselves and the demands of the environment.
Although the three forms of intelligence overlap, people who succeed in business are specialists in practical intelligence. Furthermore, a significant study in which correlations between a test of practical intelligence and tests of academic or analytical intelligence reveal that the correlations between the two are significantly negative.
Let’s be candid. Intelligence testing is widespread. Many questions remain, however, as to what conventional intelligence tests actually measure. There’s also some question as to what the companies that produce most of the tests really want to find out. Tests are used in numerous settings, including schools, the military, corporations and for a variety of purposes including placement and selection. The testing business is worth billions of dollars every year. That’s right. . . billions of dollars. If Brooks, Gladwell, Colvin and Sternberg are right, you can see plenty of intelligence shops in deep trouble.
Let’s be even more candid. I give tests and I’m trained and qualified to do so. Though they are merely snapshots or pointers to what’s going on at a given point in time with a client, an overarching reason that I give them is that clients expect them. So, well. . . ka-ching, ka-ching. But I sure as hell educate the client on the validity, usefulness, and long-term lack of predictability for most of them.
To put it bluntly, really smart people don’t necessarily make for good business people. That’s why being a member of MENSA certainly doesn’t guarantee success in business. If you’ve been around the business barn a few times, you know, like Brooks, Gladwell and Colvin, that inherent talent is really, really overrated.