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Intelligence Is About Stories, Not IQ or EQ

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It’s the smart folk that do well in business. At least that’s what we’re told—and I suspect that to some degree it’s true. But if it’s the smart folk, what really is smarts? Or, to put it in a more academic framework: what is intelligence?

Cognitive psychologists have played around with these issues for decades and they’ve arrived at similar conclusions. Typical is that of Harvard’s well-known Howard Gardner, who first captured my attention in 1983 with his study of “Multiple Intelligences:” To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving, enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters and, when appropriate, to create an effective product — and must also entail the potential for finding or creating problems — and thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge. David Goleman emphasizes the very popular emotional intelligence as key to relationship smarts. 

Recently, I’ve departed somewhat from these definitions, and gone behind and underneath them. Mostly, it was the result of Roger Schank’s study, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. As I’ve indicated earlier, Schank is both a cognitive psychologist and a (the?) leading light in artificial intelligence. Schank got into his discipline by questioning the way in which people learn. He believes that intelligence involves the ability to see and recognize significant anomalies. What that means is that learning depends on curiosity and a way of satisfying curiosity, but not exhausting it. Wow! That really speaks to creativity and innovation—the hot buttons of the New Economy.

Assumptions of curiosity
Schank’s way of looking at intelligence is unique. He doesn’t dismiss complex problem solving, but he reframes the issue in ways that offer immense opportunities to the growing cast of software architects and neuroscientists. He proposes that intelligence is really about understanding what has happened well enough to able to predict when it might happen again. To be a successful predictor of future events, one has to have explained confusing prior events successfully. Explaining the world (at least to yourself) is a critical aspect of intelligence. So if you got into Mark Zuckerberg’s brain, as The Social Network revealed in spades, what you would find are the stories that created Facebook.com.

Here’s where he gets down to the nitty gritty: Comprehending events around you depends upon having a memory of prior events available for helping in the interpretation of new events. And that memory is inevitably in the form of story. You can’t know something if you can’t find it in memory. (All cognitive psychologists agree that a large memory is characteristic of the truly intelligent.) What that suggests strongly is that you can’t understand something unless you can find a relevant past experience in your gray matter to help you make sense of the new experience. And that is at the core of intelligent behavior.

Story form
What’s unique about Schank’s work is that he believes that memories are not stored in abstractions, but in story forms. You just don’t save abstractions in your gray matter. They always have contexts and the contexts are stored in stories. Try it on for size. It works!

One of the reasons I think Schank is correct is that my own graduate work focused on story—specifically, mini-narratives. What that study confirmed for me was what I’d found for years in my role as counselor. Therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who do counseling, rather than medicate, all agree that what makes for sickness and health is the quality of stories carried around in a person’s brain.

And what drove my business for the last 30 years were stories about development. About development that was successful and that which failed. And about stories that managers and execs laid out in face-to-face conversations.

Or, if a person is in pain and comes for therapy, your task is to help the person excavate their death-giving stories, destroy them and reframe or replace them with life-giving stories. If you’ve counseled or coached very much, you know that digging out stories and replacing them can be tough. And if you’ve struggled, personally, with some sort of trauma, you know how difficult it can be to forget or reframe. My solution to that has never been to focus on forgetting, but to reframe the story.

I reframed my initial college failure into success. And I reframed my wife’s death from Alzheimer’s as a “good death.” But what’s important about both those “reframings” is that they exist in the form of stories. And those stories continue to liberate and free me from what could have been profoundly dysfunctional trauma.

And still further, if you’ve gotten into Bob Sutton’s new book on Scaling Up Excellence, what you learn is that he’s in the business of destroying some stories and replacing them with new, more productive stories.

But, lest I forget, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology and psychiatry, built all his theories on literature. In short, his musings and counseling focused on the stories contained with the human brain.

Well, this is a shot across the bow. A small hand grenade tossed on old theories about smarts. So, what do you think?

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