Saturday, October 04, 2014

When mere intelligence is not enough

Not too long ago, I watched a TED talk video of Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania who has been conducting ground breaking studies on 'grit'—the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals. More recently, I read a TIME magazine story about the "Single Most Valuable Personality Trait" that determines 'success': conscientiousness, which to me sounds like "grit" in a starched white shirt. (Personally, I prefer "grit"; conscientiousness seems to imply something boring, clean, kosher and fingernails that are much too well manicured, although I agree the meaning of the two lie in the same ball park.)   Every now and again, the business world (and some of us) looks for the single magic word that describes everything there is to know about success (whatever the hell that means), and today's word is conscientiousness. Example, read the story in Business Insider Malaysia (30 April, 2014): 'The only major personality trait that consistently equates with success is conscientiousness.' QED.

Although, "conscientiousness" has become the new flavour of the week (or month) among the business types, it has been the object of study for several years. A Psychology Today report in 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufmann says, "When it comes to achievement, Conscientiousness is a great thing. All else being equal, the person who has tenacity, persistence, stamina, and grit will be more successful then the person who is lazy and unmotivated. Over 25 years of research supports this common sense view: Conscientiousness is the most consistent and best predictor of both job and academic performance. Clearly, long-term planning and self-control is useful when one is directing his or her self toward a standardized form of achievement."

The operative word here is "standardized". Parents and teachers love "conscientiousness". They call it "intelligence", with all the implications of genetic and cultural superiority. So when we hear, "My son/daughter is intelligent," we know exactly what is meant. It also implies that their super babies are on his/her way to degrees in medicine, engineering, law, accounting, or the like, will make plenty of money while serving a life sentence of drudgery, and (certainly for Asians) will look after the parents when they're old. I know of many who desperately want to escape this prison. Granted, some doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants are absolutely brilliant, but many have become chefs, writers, dancers, painters, actors, etc., because they want to do something "meaningful", and some have become scoundrels to get rich quickly.

Intelligence and brilliance

Creativity, on the other, appears to be best defined by what it is not. It is one quality parents, teachers and employers like to believe (and announce loudly) that they like, but actually hate. It is way too troublesome. Fashion dictates that they side with creativity (as in 'Steve Jobs was so-oo creative') and we want to be part of the hip movement. But in reality the pull is in the other direction: "Why are you being so difficult? Why can't you be like everyone else?" Creativity is something best seen and (possibly) admired from afar, something that is best swiftly beaten out of children, students and employees.

Is creativity the difference between mere intelligence and brilliance? Millions on Facebook and other social media try so hard to look clever even if they only post pictures of the slice of cheese cake they had for dessert in a fancy restaurant, or cute kittens. Thousands flounder about trying to become writers and poets. The media loves the magic of creativity, and not just because their readers do. Creativity is so damned sexy. Open any newspaper, magazine or internet browser and see.

But, hey, all is not lost. In another story, Psychology Today in 2012 says, "When it comes to creativity, there's good news and very good news. The good news is that the mysteries of the creative process are finally giving way to a rigorous scientific analysis. The very good news is that, with the right skills, you can boost your own creative output by a factor of 10 or more. Significant creativity is within everyone's reach -- no exceptions. What's more, greater creativity breeds greater happiness. The creative process is itself a source of joy for most people. And with new creative powers we're also better able to solve the little problems that beset us daily."

Imagine when conscientiousness and creativity work together. The choice is yours. As I challenge my writer's-workshop participants: do you want to be brilliant, or merely intelligent?