brain gearssmImage courtesy of the University of Michigan Health System.

In the past few decades educators and psychologists have been making an effort to understand intelligence and achievement on a more nuanced level than in the past. When Alfred Binet developed his “intelligence” tests in the early years of the 20th century, he revolutionized the educational field by providing tools to measure and predict students’ success. Unfortunately, standard tests came to rely almost exclusively on the sort of intelligence revealed by these instruments: the kind that correlates highly with success in typical Western school systems but not necessarily with real world achievement.

While no one would argue that “school smarts” and the ability to excel at the kinds of skills measured by these tests are an advantage, they are not the only one. And they may not even be the most important advantage when it comes to success in life. While Cognitive intelligence refers to such abilities as understanding information, solving problems, and making decisions, Emotional intelligence is more subtle and does not always go hand in hand with these skills. These abilities include understanding the needs and feelings of oneself and other people and responding to others in appropriate ways. It was named in 1990 by two scientists, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who described it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”

Another pioneering psychologist, Howard Gardner, has studied the idea of “multiple intelligences” as a way to understand the different way students learn. The idea of emotional intelligence was most widely popularized by Harvard’s Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. In her book published this year, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth has identified grit as a strength that often correlates with success.

While we all know stories about the “odd” scientist or entrepreneur who succeeds because of his brilliance alone, they may be the exception rather than the rule. Men like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, who are known for having volatile personalities, may have succeeded in spite of the fact that they lacked “people smarts.” People like this often need partners or even agents with the skills they lack if they are going to get ahead. The history of inventing is full of stories of brilliant minds that were outmaneuvered by more ambitious types who stole their ideas and worked the system better. Tesla and Edison are an example. Tesla is thought to be an even more brilliant innovator than Edison, his former boss. But he had personality problems and neurotic tendencies, while Edison was better at understanding how their inventions would fit in the modern world and managed to get many more patents.

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