SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. I’m talking today with Scott Barry Kaufman. He’s on the faculty at NYU. And he’s author of the book Ungifted– Intelligence Redefined, the truth about talent, practice, creativity, and then many paths to greatness. He also contributes to HBR. Scott, thanks so much for joining us today.

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SARAH GREEN: So I thought we would just start with why redefine intelligence? What’s wrong with the way we see intelligence today?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s not an immediately obvious answer. There’s plenty of educators that probably think that it’s perfectly OK, our current way of assessing intelligence, which is predominantly still the use of standardized test scores like IQ tests and academic achievement tests.

Those individuals can make a case that the system is perfectly fine the way it is because IQ test scores, these sorts of metrics, do statistically correlate with important outcomes in education and in life. So they could make a case if it’s not an obvious answer.

But what I’ve done in trying to look at all different kinds of minds and ways that we can achieve success in the real world once we get out of school, and the importance of things such as inspiration, and motivation, and engagement in something that personally interests you– what I started to notice was a repeating pattern over and over again.

It seems like people who appeared quote “dumb,” and I hate the word “dumb,” but people who appear tuned out, or even sometimes, these students are labeled, quote, “slow learners”– and that’s actually a term that’s used in the literature that I cringe every time I see it, but it’s used quite frequently– I notice when they are allowed to engage in something that is personally meaningful to them, they come alive. And they can demonstrate intense brilliance.

It’s almost like there’s a lot of intellectual capacity hidden in a lot of people. And I started seeing that across a wide range of different minds once I started doing this research, from people who are labeled autistic, people who are labeled schizophrenic, people with dyslexia, people with bipolar disorder– these prodigies– I looked at these prodigies and noticed just how specific their skills were.

It wasn’t some sort of a global, intellectual prowess. It was very much a passion and proclivity to master the rules of a particular domain.

And also savants, these individuals with these extra minds who may score 60 or 70 on an IQ test, which is at the mentally disabled range, yet they’re able to do extraordinary things in a particular domain. So through all this broadening scope of looking at all these different kinds of minds and past success, I became more and more convinced that it is absolutely time to reconceptualize intelligence.

SARAH GREEN: So just from that quick sketch, it may be easy for a listener to assume that this is something in line with Howard Gardner’s famous book, Multiple Intelligences. But actually, I was surprised to see in the book that you actually take issue with a number of his arguments. Can you just explain the difference there between your points of view?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: I absolutely will. So I do have immense appreciation for the work Howard Gardner’s done, the work my past adviser, Robert Sternberg has done, in broadening our conceptualization of intelligence beyond an IQ test. But what I see is that all those ways of [? conceptualizing ?] intelligence are still operating within the same paradigm. And that’s comparing one person to the next person.

So they may be adding another intelligence. We say, oh, it’s creative intelligence, or practical intelligence, or spatial intelligence. But what they’re doing is they’re adding on just more abilities. And people are trying to come up with more and more tests just to measure those abilities by comparing people to each other.

What I call for in the book is to break out of this framework of individual differences and look at the very personal level. Look at human development as it unfolds within a single person. And don’t compare their intelligence to any standardized metric. So the extent to which their kind of mind and their unique brand of intelligence deviates from a standardized metric shouldn’t be the measure to the extent to which their mind deviates from intelligence.

What I argue for is the shift to the personal developmental level. We stop this obsessive need to compare people to each other. And we take people’s dreams seriously.

In a way, I’ve expanded intelligence, I think, beyond multiple intelligence where you have a couple intelligences. I actually believe there are an infinite amount of intelligences. And I think we should be open to that possibility, and constantly open to every person’s unique brand of intelligence.

And as some people in the science community and academia may hear that and roll their eyes a little bit, oh, it was bad enough multiple intelligences. Now we have infinite intelligences? There’s not going to be any use for the word intelligence anymore.

And the thing is I take a very skeptical view of my own theories, as well. I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate. And I try to see things from multiple perspectives. But I think that the science I present in the book does show that there is rigorous research backing this idea that if we’re open to people’s unique brand of intelligence, and we help inspire them to have a purpose in life, to pursue their unique brand, they can actually demonstrate extraordinary intellectual feats and creative accomplishments.

SARAH GREEN: So I think one of the things that’s interesting that comes up again and again in the book and in just our brief conversation so far is the way you really are uncomfortable with a lot of labeling and comparing. And that seems like something we know goes on in school. But it also goes on in the workforce.

We talk about A players versus B players, or we talk about star players, or we talk about a special track for emerging leaders, or high potentials, as opposed to, I suppose, low to average potentials, which we almost never even talk about in the pages of HBR. So I guess my question there for you is why do we keep feeling the need to label people? And are the issues we have with labeling adults as problematic, you think, as the labels we have for kids?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: That’s a really great question. And I do think that the labeling system we have at play in education, and in business, including the assessment procedures we have for who we’re going to hire, job applications, that system is all still operating within the same framework of potential as being something that you can capture one slice in time.

That whole framework is not conducive to human flourishing. And I think that there’s so much research showing that, that those aren’t conditions, that if you want to maximize your productivity in a business, it’s not going to do you well to administer a bunch of standardized metrics that are measuring a very global capacity, and then recruit people based on that, and think that that’s going to be conducive to innovation in your company.

So that whole framework in which we can capture potential at one slice of time, place an enduring label on that person, and then that will remain. That is, I think, an outdated notion. And what I try to do is try to reconceptualize potential as readiness for engagement. So I argue that potential– and this is a pretty radical notion.

It may be a hard pill for some people to swallow, especially because we’re so entrenched in this notion of potential as being something you’re born with. But I think all the latest research in developmental psychology shows that potential is a moving target. It is something that constantly shifts based on your engagement in a process.

So for instance, you could measure someone’s IQ score. You could measure someone’s weight, for instance, at a very early age, at one snapshot in time, or any snapshot in time, you can measure a person’s weight and then say, oh, that person has the potential to be very obese the rest of their life. And you could stick this enduring label on that person, making that person feel like a total loser in life, feel like they won’t [INAUDIBLE].

And what you’re doing is creating this situation where they’re going to be less motivated, less engaged to hit the gym. But if you do something different, if you tell that person, well, actually, potential is a moving target here.

Your potentiality changes every single time you go to that gym. Every single day, day after day, month after month, you will eventually be changing those odds. You will genuinely be changing those odds.

There’s so many cases of people achieving things so far beyond what was predicted for them, and I review that over and over in the book, that I really do think it’s time that we reconceptualize what it means for someone to have a potential.

SARAH GREEN: Well, so, that’s interesting, because I think one of the things that really struck me in the book was how you have woven in a lot of your own personal story, which I think makes it much more readable than a typical academic book.

But one thing that struck me is that again and again, you had these officials, teachers, and educators, and people in positions of power as adults, telling you as a child frankly that you just weren’t that smart.

And clearly they were wrong in the end. You proved them wrong.


SARAH GREEN: Well, so, I’m wondering is that persistence itself– it, to me, seems really unusual, especially in a kid, just again and again prove the adults in his life wrong. Is that level of grit in itself a kind of skill or intelligence?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: I think it is. It seems like, when you look at the people who make fundamental, revolutionary breakthroughs in any field, you keep noticing over and over again a high preponderance of them have some sort of disability when they were younger, whether it was a physical disability, mental disability, some sort of low expectations that they wanted to prove people wrong. And what does it do? What does that do when you want to try to prove someone wrong?

You increase your engagement in something even more so, because you want to fight against those expectations. So it seems like it actually can be a gift having what we label as a disability, or disorder, and cause people to overcompensate and engage in things in other ways.

So, for instance, people with dyslexia, there’s research showing that there’s a higher number of people with dyslexia that become social entrepreneurs, that start their own business, that are very creative in their business endeavors compared to the average person who has dyslexia in the general population, because whatever they are having difficulty with through their reading, they overcompensate with their nonverbal communication, through initiative, personal initiatives, through this grit that you mentioned. And this overcompensation leads to greatness.

SARAH GREEN: That’s really interesting. I was noticing that a lot of the book does focus on the personal journey of people who are trying to move past labels. And in fact, the dedication, which I thought was quite inspiring, is “This book is dedicated to everyone who feels trapped by a label. May this book inspire you to believe in yourself and set yourself free.”

And so my question then to you is what if you’re in the position of being a teacher, or a manager of someone, and you want to help set them free of, maybe, a label that they seem to be struggling under? Can another person do that for someone? Or is it a journey that we all have to undertake for ourselves, by ourselves?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: Yeah, I think a major point of the book is I want to inspire people to become their own self-advocates in life, and regardless of other people’s expectations of you, to build up that competency and that confidence that you really know yourself really well enough that you can just display to people your talents and abilities without those expectations.

But at the other side of the coin, if you’re a manager, and especially [? if ?] a lot of people who are constantly having to do group work, or teamwork, or things of that nature, there are things that you can do in the environment to increase the chances that that person is going to show their best side, show that brilliance, to really believe in themselves.

Obviously, having positive expectations of their work performance helps. But also appreciating and making that person feel as though the unique, like I say, brand of intelligence they bring to the workforce, the workplace, is appreciated and valued, and that when you are very sensitive when you’re creating these teams, you’re very sensitive to the bigger picture in looking at all these different puzzles, all these different kinds of minds that you have as workers and helping to see who fits their value best into that bigger picture.

SARAH GREEN: So I guess one final piece of the puzzle here that I found really interesting in the book was the idea of passion and motivation and how, in some cases, it seems like throughout school, you point out that students often lose motivation as they get older.

And certainly, if you look at the amount of articles that HBR has published on motivating employees, it doesn’t seem that it gets easier once we reach adulthood. What is the problem here with how we’re understanding motivation? And why do we seem to lose it as we age? And how can we get it back?

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: That’s a great question. I think that when I talk about motivation– in the book and on HBR, I’ve often made this distinction between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. It seems to be something that resonates with a lot of people and a lot of employers, because you can clearly see the difference in your workers. And you see different levels of productivity coming out of each kind of passion.

So it’s really hard to identify in yourself what is driving you. Are you driven by external rewards? Are you driven by the need to prove your smarts? Can you stop thinking about your work when you want to, like when you spend time with your family? Is your work harmonious with everything else, all the other sides of yourself? If not, then you probably have obsessive passion.

But harmonious passion is something we really should be cultivating. And we don’t in schools. And then it gets so low, those levels get so low by the time people graduate from business school that by the time they get into the workforce, they’re not in tune with their harmonious passion.

But the harmonious passion is helping people feel like all of their sides of their self are well-integrated. There aren’t any sides of yourself that are standing out as contradictory to the other sides so that you’re constantly seeing this conflict, oh my gosh, I’m doing this but this side of me doesn’t approve of this.

No, there’s this very harmonious side. And there’s a side of you where you’re able to disengage, you’re able to have multiple activities that bring you pleasure in life. There’s an intrinsic joy– I know at HBR, they talk about intrinsic motivation all the time. But that really is part of this larger idea called harmonious passion.

All this stuff. And we see it decline because these structures that we’ve set up, the structures we set up starting in third grade, you see– as I write in the book– right after third grade, you see this steep decline in intrinsic motivation. And that’s just around the time when external grades and rewards become more important.

I certainly remember preschool was the best time of my life. No, it was the best time of my educational career was preschool. Everything went downhill after that because there weren’t grades. There wasn’t this evaluation.

So what I like to say is I’d really like to see a shift and [? really ?] re-imagine education from evaluation to inspiration. And what we see is the more and more that students feel like they are being evaluated for their intelligence– and that’s really how people feel when they’re taking things like SATs, or GREs, or any of these– even talking tests and they’re not given a chance to revise, or they’re not allowed to do projects on their own terms.

All these conditions we currently have where we don’t give people autonomy, we don’t let them feel like they’re competent human beings, all those things is completely killing their harmonious passion, which is what is actually necessary for flourishing in education and business, eventually.

SARAH GREEN: Well, Scott, I think it’s a great book for anyone interested in understanding their own minds, but also anyone responsible for other people’s minds, too.

Script of an an HBR Ideacast interview with Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University, and author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

Source: HBR Blog | June 13, 2013

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