Friday, November 30, 2007

The curse of intelligence

Scientific American helps explain why so many smart people are so bloody useless:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

I don't think this tells the whole story, but it is a relevant element of the problem. The truth is that you can't think your way to anything; I don't think execution and hard work is 99 percent of the equation but it is more than 50 percent. I don't think the intelligent are actually any less averse to risk than the norm - the overwhelming majority of people won't lift their finger if it's not of immediate material benefit to them - I suspect that it's the realization of opportunity cost that is a larger factor among the highly intelligent. The "I wasn't trying" defense becomes pretty empty once one is pushing thirty and begins to realize that one has accomplished absolutely nothing of any note despite one's supposed intelligence.

I personally find it very difficult to concentrate on any one project for a long period of time, mostly because I get bored easily once things are past the strategic stage. I'm quite willing to work hard, but working hard at one specific thing and ignoring all the other opportunities out there is pretty much impossible for me. The problem is that as studies of the truly great have shown, it takes about ten years of near psychopathic concentration on an activity to reach a level of superlative excellence.

But the study is a real wake-up call to parents with highly intelligent children. There's nothing wrong with being open about their intelligence, trying to hide it from them merely gives them a greater sense of elitism and contempt for those who attempt to deny the obvious. (Seriously, would you ever try pretending that a tall or fast kid is just like everyone else? It's just as stupid to try to deny a child's intelligence, which is equally observable to all and sundry, including the child.) But presenting it to the child as a challenge to excel rather than a fabulous aspect of his self is more likely to foster that excellence.

Talent and intelligence are great tools. But like all tools, their utility depends completely upon how - and if- they are used.


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