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.
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.
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.
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.
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.