Beyond IQ: 5 Ways To Reframe Success And Smarts

Some of the most successful people were "ungifted," according to traditional measures of intelligence. Here, insight from Scott Barry Kaufman and his book, Ungifted, on reevaluating your intellectual strengths and weaknesses and assumptions.

When Scott Barry Kaufman was in elementary school, he lagged behind other students, in large part because a series of ear infections as a toddler made it difficult for him to process words in real time. When he took an IQ test at age 11, his results were so low, he had to repeat the third grade and was tracked into a program for kids with learning disabilities. He ultimately fought his way out, got straight As, and by high school argued his way into becoming an unofficial member of the "gifted" class, thanks to an enthusiastic and supportive teacher. Ultimately, he would go on to get a doctorate of psychology at Yale and win a Gates scholarship to study at Cambridge.

Kaufman, who is now an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at NYU, has subsequently devoted his career to questioning the way we measure intelligence, particularly in children. In his new book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Kaufman looks at several different kinds of personal attributes that contribute to success as an adult, many of which have nothing to do with IQ. Kaufman’s personal history illustrates this point, but so does a great deal of research and data that he collects. Studies show that even prodigies don’t always have sky-high IQs. For example, one musical prodigy who was the youngest person to perform with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center and scored three movies without any formal composition training had a visual spatial IQ score lower than 97 percent of the population.

Though much of Kaufman’s book focuses on how labeling children as "gifted" or "disabled" affects their self-esteem and levels of achievement, there are many lessons for getting the most out of your innate abilities as an adult. Here are four rules for reframing your skills to get the best working results for yourself and others.

Your Weaknesses Might Be Linked to Your Strengths

In Ungifted, Kaufman discusses the "neurodiversity" movement—the notion that some labels, like autism and dyslexia, which are perceived as disabilities, might actually be an advantage in some ways. The notion that people on the autism spectrum can excel at jobs in computers and engineering is pretty well-worn cultural territory, but Kaufman unpacks studies about dyslexic individuals as well. There is research that shows that dyslexics have higher levels of spatial intelligence, and that they can also succeed as entrepreneurs, because they are used to doing things their own way and finding work-arounds. Examples of artists and designers who are dyslexic are Picasso, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, and Tommy Hilfiger. The most prominent dyslexic entrepreneurs are Virgin Atlantic head Richard Branson and Cisco CEO John Chambers. Even if you are so-called "neurotypical," you can still extrapolate from this lesson: Don’t think of your perceived weaknesses as something to feel bad about. Think of how they might be the reflection of some of your strengths.

Inspire Yourself.

Inspired people are more open to new experiences and more driven, Kaufman asserts, but "inspiration is also important for making progress towards goals." Most people aren’t going to wake up on a rainy Monday feeling like the most inspired soul on the planet, but Kaufman mentions a way to get yourself into an "inspired state of being," which can contribute greatly to your success: Call up an inspiring memory, role model, or story. For me, it would be rereading my favorite sports nonfiction, but yours might be remembering the actions of your mother or your mentor, or someone else dear to your heart.

Encourage Autonomy In Yourself And Others.

Kaufman looked at studies that found that students learned better when they were "made to feel as if they had choice over their actions (for instance, using phrases such as ‘you can’ and ‘if you choose’ in the instructions) rather than being made to feel as though they were being controlled (using phrases such as ‘you must’ and ‘you have to’ in the instructions." This lesson can be extrapolated to the workplace. If you’re a manager who is looking to get the best creative work out of his or her employees, making them feel like they have autonomy (even if they don’t) could be highly motivating.

Stop the Negative Self-Talk.

When children are told they have the ability to do well on a task, they perform better than children who are told their ability is mediocre. Most of us struggle with our inner negative Nancy, telling us there are aspects of our jobs and our lives we’re just not that great at (my Achilles heel is my sense of direction). But when you hear the message—not just from others but also from yourself—that you aren’t good at something, Kaufman notes, you can slip into a "helpless-oriented mode of thought." If I told myself I could find my own way, perhaps I wouldn’t feel as though I need someone else to navigate for me.

[Image: Flickr users Eusebius, Lainey Powell, Erica Zabowski, and LASZLO ILYES]

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  • Amitava Bhattacharjee

    The headline of the article talks about "5 ways" but I see mention about only "4 ways" - am I missing something here?

  • jfuller71

    Great article! I remember as a child often being told I was a daydreamer and would not amount to much.  After 23 years in the military and now working on my Masters in American History, I think that day dreaming kid did pretty good.  I am afraid many times in society those that are late bloomers or not the first at everything are left in the shadows.  Encouragement is a great way to encourage those types and watch them excel at whatever they put there mind to.

  • Jonah

    An idea does not require a person to be gifted, it simply requires a spirit for initiation and the capacity to keep it going.  Truly, the above article can open up the eyes of anyone who is waiting for a push of luck to start a life.
    The time is now to live how you want to life and to invest in what you want to invest in. Thanks for sharing this amazing information, bravo.

  • Dhirajupadhyay001

    very nice for people who lose faith in themself..thank you for sharing..:) 

  • Mchikwanda7

    Thank you for sharing this . Totally agreeable nothing instill more confidence and a sense of capability in a child than positive talk and when they begin to realize their supposed weakness as a strength they carry this can do attitude to their adulthood and excel in most endeavors !

  • Eric Pomert

    I often find I can't list back the sequence of scenes I've cut together and was once told that is crucial for an editor.  Well, it hasn't created any problems in my 2-year career, and I think that "memory deficit" gives me a freshness when watching the same sequence over and over.

  • Ann K.

    As a teacher of "mild-intellectually disabled" students in a self-contained room at the high school level I have found my students performance to be based on many of the "rules" listed above.  I do not treat my students as if they have a disability but encourage the "ability" that they do have.  They generally surpase any type of expectation I have for them (and expectations in our classroom are quite high) in their school performance and that allows the expectation "bar" to be continually raised a little higher, especially in the area of using current personal technology tools within an academic curriculum.  The topic of this book is extremely salient for everyone, especially when educators are attempting to move away from  "teaching to the test" and instead trying to guide, differentiate, and impart "learning" as a life long tool for better living. Can't wait to read the whole book.