Practical Intelligence & the Trouble with Geniuses
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Inspired by The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Ten years ago, a biology professor at Stanford University, Paul Ehrlich, published a book on human evolution called Human Natures. The book offered research on human DNA and discussions on whether we are the product of our genes or of our experiences. As much as genetic coding is important to who we are,  the book suggests that genes don’t necessarily shout commands at us, but at the very best, whisper suggestions. Paul Ehrlich argued that cultural and environmental factors may actually play a bigger role to how we are, than our DNA. 

Ten years later, Malcolm Gladwell brought up a similar question, but in the context of personal success. Why are some people more successful than others? Is it their IQ or is it their ability to get other people to do what they want, a skill he calls Practical Intelligence. In a fascinating story from his book, The Outliers, Gladwell looks at two individuals who were incredibly smart and yet, had incredibly different levels of success. 

One of them is Chris Langan, who is the smartest man in the world, judging by his IQ score. The average person has an IQ of 100, Einstein’s IQ was 150. Chris Langan’s IQ is 195! Chris was an exceptionally gifted kid, who aced his SAT, even though he fell asleep at one point while taking the test. In a foreign language class he would skim through the textbook for for a few minutes before the exam and then ace it. Even though he missed half of his classes at school, Chris would inevitably ace his tests, barely having studied at all. With such natural talents one would expect Chris to be rich and famous, enjoying the lifestyle of a successful individual with a brilliant career. Surprisingly, he spent much of his life working as a bouncer at a bar in Long Island in New York. 

When he finished high school he got a scholarship to Reed College. But after the first semester he lost that scholarship because his mom forgot to turn in his financial aid form. He left Reed College to go back to Bozeman, Montana, where he worked in construction and as a firefighter in the forest. Then he enrolled at Montana State University, but after one semester the transmission of fell out of his old car. He did not have the money to repair it. He asked be transferred to the afternoon classes, because he couldn’t make it to the 8 am classes without a car. He request was denied. At that point Langan decided to drop out of school for good. 

The other person whose life Gladwell studies for clues to success in life, is a guy with some shocking stories in his past. His name is Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who famously led the development of the nuclear bomb during WWII. Oppenheimer went to Harvard and to Cambridge University for his doctorate in physics. At Cambridge, Oppenheimer completely inexplicably took some chemicals from the lab and tried to poison one of his teachers. What happened later was even more inexplicable. He was acquitted by the school committee and put on probation, on condition that he would see a psychiatrist for special treatment. 

What? He tried tried to kill his teacher and they just let him go? 

We have two brilliant individuals whose careers at one point were hindered by life’s challenges. Chris Langan’s mom forgot to turn in a financial aid form and his scholarship was taken away, which forced him out of college. And Oppenheimer tried to poison his teacher, but he only had to see a psychiatrist to make up for it?! Oppenheimer’s intelligence lied in his ability to get the rest of the world to see things his way. That’s the practical intelligence of knowing what to say to whom, how to say it and when. 

So why how did Oppenheimer have with more practical intelligence than Langan? Chris Langan came from a very poor family. His mom had four sons, each one from a different father. He and his brothers had one set of clothes, their shoes and socks had holes in them. They lived on peanut butter and cornmeal. Oppenheimer on the other hand came from a rich family. He attended a prominent school and was encouraged in independent work. He was raised with the idea that it’s OK to challenge professors and negotiate with his parents and his teachers. Chris Langan, by contrast, had a drunken stepfather. He naturally resented authority   and had distrust in people with power. He did not grow up with the entitlement of the rich kids that would try their best to negotiate their way out of tight spot. 

This is not a story of the rich kid doing better than the poor, because he was better at talking. Rather, it’s a story about two different kinds of smarts. Our innate analytical abilities and our social savvy. The first we are born with and the second is knowledge. Practical intelligence is the set of skills we learn through life to get others to see things our way.