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
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
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
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
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
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.