Saturday, August 21, 2010


When I was a medical student there was a fellow student who stood out by being older. He was a dentist who had decided to retrain as a doctor to fulfil his ambition of becoming a facio-maxillary surgeon. He was in his thirties, drove a smart car and always had money that the rest of us couldn't imagine. He had an expression that he used whenever any of the year behaved as 'medical students' (drinking, partying, going to bed at dawn). He would murmur with disdain, "Top two per-cent."

What he was getting at was the fact that the exam system weeded out those with the top two per-cent of IQs to go to medical school. However, having a higher yet IQ doesn't win you any coconuts. You need a certain threshold IQ (say 120), but above that, other things mater for success in life.

Christopher Langan, with an IQ of 200, (my IQ is apparently 163 according to my parents; Einstein's was only 150) is supposed to be the cleverest man in America. He came to fame as a winner on the TV show One versus One Hundred. From a very young age he read and re-read ever more complicated books. He put in the 10,000 hours required to make himself an expert. Ask him anything and he has the answer.

Yet Chris Langan is a failure in life. He has never achieved anything of note during his lifetime (apart from winning quiz shows). He has twice dropped out of College. His background was terrible. His mother had four boys with four different fathers. The man who stayed with her longest was a drunk who beat up both mother and children. He won a scholarship, but lost it because his mother was too indolent to fill in the forms. He lived in poverty which caused him to miss classes and he was insufficiently persuasive with the college administration for them to make allowances for him despite his high intellect.

Robert Oppenheimer was a similar child prodigy, but he came from a privileged background. There were books at home, intellectual conversation, and a social mores that taught you how to behave. He went to Harvard and the as a PhD student to the other Cambridge University in England. In England he deliberately tried to poison his tutor, Patrick Blackett (who would later win the 1948 Nobel prize for physics). Oppenheimer was carpeted, but after protracted negotiations he was put on probation and booked into sessions with a Harley Street psychiatrist; not the usual punishment for attempted murder in England (which at that time retained the death penalty).
Later, Oppenheimer went on to head up the Manhattan project which produced the first two nuclear devices. He was a long-shot for this post. He was just 38, junior to many of the scientists he would have to manage. He was a theorist in a job that called for experimenters and engineers. He had many communist friends. He had no administrative experience. He was very impractical, he walked about in a funny hat and knew nothing about equipment. one of his colleagues said, "He couldn't run a hamburger stand."

What he did have was charm. He could charm the birds from the trees and his charm worked on General Groves, the rather stiff and disciplinarian engineer whose approval he needed to implement his ideas.

The particular skill that enables you to talk your way out of an attempted murder rap is called by psychologists, 'practical intelligence'. A lot of politicians have it. It includes knowing what to say and to whom, when to say it, and how to say it with maximum effect. Analytical intelligence is largely genetic, but social savvy is a learned behavior. That's where wealth, good schools and privilege come in. You can't improve analytical intelligence much, but you can improve practical intelligence. You can also improve your ability in divergence tests. Here is a test for you. In the 'Comments' write down how many uses you can imagine for a] a brick, and b] a blanket.

The ideas in this article come directly from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers


Anonymous said...

Blanket--for warmth, for use as a towel, for use in burning if warmth is needed, as a decoration on the wall, to divide an area by hanging, to applique a personal ditty on, to put in a pet's cage, to mop with, if needed, to cut up and make bandannas or other outer wear for 2-3 people. To use as a dry eraser, to wrap broken dishes in or unbroken dishes, to sit on when you are at an outdoor event, to put on the end of your bed, to cover a table.......way too many other ideas for blanket.

Brick????? Hmmmmm---to build with, to pave with, to heat up and cook pizza on the brick, to throw at something or someone, to boost a piece of furniture that is toppling, to have many, if you are speaking of bricks of gold.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how appealing the concept of IQ is to the general public, and also, unfortunately, to some specialists.

Stephen Jay Gould meticulously shreds this bizarre pseudo science in his The Mismeasure of Man