Why Life Is One Big Creativity Test

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A conversation with Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted

Scott Barry Kaufman is one of those rare people who is truly passionate about what he does.  I’ve met a lot of people who are engaged by their work and enjoy it, but not many people who take their work and craft so seriously, and with so much energy and enthusiasm, and in such an unconventional way.  And as he openly told me when we were hanging out once, he doesn’t really need to sleep that much.

We first met face to face at the International Society for Intelligence Research annual conference, where I was finally able to meet the person whose articles I had been reading in academic journals and in public venues such as Psychology Today.  Scott is very articulate and able to present ideas clearly and creatively, in ways that make you want to read and learn more, as he is a very gifted writer.  Even though I had read a lot of his work and thought it was interesting and well done, I found myself disagreeing with his interpretation and perspective on many topics, and I let him know.

It is actually quite rare for people to get along in academia if their perspectives differ, precisely because many academics believe that the way they study a phenomena, although not perfect, is really the best way to go.  Academics very much divide themselves into camps, which sometimes go to war against one another.  And even though science is supposed to be an objective affair, oftentimes egos become tied to pet theories and perspectives, and differing views lead to personal differences.

So it was a delight to meet Scott, who I disagreed on so many things about, but who was willing to not take it personally, and to provide the alternative perspective.  I would argue that in many ways we tend to self-segregate ourselves increasingly with people who share our beliefs and values and who agree with us on so many things.  But we do this because it is much easier to be with others who do not provide critical feedback or alternative perspectives.  And I believe this is a certain recipe for lack of personal and intellectual growth.  Maybe even lack of growth in academia.

I had the opportunity to talk with Scott about his latest book, Ungifted, and as you will see in this interview, we have very different perspectives.  He’s very much an idealist, whereas I am more of a realist.  Yet I am thankful to Scott for helping expand my thinking over the years by providing an alternative, and quite compelling, point of view.  One that is clearly very personal to him and his life story.  I hope you will find it interesting as well.

JON: You were someone who did not score well on IQ tests but who was identified with potential thanks to your teacher.  My wife actually has the opposite story.  She was labeled as “slow” by her teacher until she took an IQ test which uncovered she was gifted.  So you would say that it was your teacher who uncovered your potential whereas my wife would say it was the test that uncovered hers.  Who would be right?

SCOTT: Great question Jon. I think it’s terrific that your wife’s teacher saw in her possibilities that others overlooked. I really don’t like the “slow learner” label. It’s quite offensive, and connotes that being slow is indicative of low intelligence, when it is not. Lots of highly intelligent individuals are very introverted and reflective, and can appear as “slow” or even unintelligent in the classroom environment. But back to your point: I would actually say that both my situation and your wife’s situation are illustrative of what’s wrong with our current educational paradigm. We rush to judgment about potential too quickly. The way I see it, there are multiple routes to intellectual giftedness— which is what I presume you are referring to when you use the word “gifted”. Your wife’s high IQ is a valid indicator of her intellectual potential, and I am happy to see that her intellectual capacities were eventually valued. But I do not think my lower IQ score was a valid indicator of my intellectual potential, and such a score isn’t the best indicator for many people. The way I see it, there are multiple indicators of intellectual potential all around us—including IQ test scores, academic achievement, quality of projects, quality of questions in the classroom, etc. To me, no single indicator is the true measure of intellectual giftedness. Once we move away from this idea that there is only a single path to intellectual giftedness, I think we clearly see that this isn’t a competition. You asked me “Who would be right?” In my worldview, that question doesn’t have meaning. Both the teachers who believed in me and your wife’s IQ score were right. They both gave people a chance to see great intellectual possibilities in us that others overlooked by probing the depths of our intellectual potential more fully and deeply.

James R. Flynn, in his endorsement of your book, writes “the author’s early life history…was a tragedy of misdiagnosis.”  I agree with Flynn.  In terms of raw numbers or fraction of the population, how many people do you think are like you who have been misdiagnosed?  For example, I really don’t think your true IQ is low because your level of accomplishment speaks for itself.  But ultimately, I wonder to what extent you are really an exception to the rule when it comes to IQ testing?  My understanding is that IQ tests are reasonably good measures of intelligence for the majority of test takers.

Thanks Jon. Unfortunately, there are a great many tragedies of misdiagnosis all across the globe every single day. I am by no means that unique of a story. In fact, that’s a major point of my book: such misdiagnosis happens far more frequently than we realize. Another major point of my book is that it’s possible for someone to have an average or even low “true” IQ score, and still be incredibly intelligent. I want to break away from such a rigid reliance on IQ tests as the only marker of intellectual potential for each individual. Of course, this doesn’t mean that children with extremely high IQ scores are not highly intelligent—because they are. What this does mean is that we must be much more flexible on a person to person basis in regards to what that person is capable of doing intellectually and creatively based on a consideration of a wide range of indicators.

You write: “Is this book personal? Absolutely.  I want readers to see the world through my eyes.  This includes the early pain and confusion I felt at being labeled ungifted as well as the tremendous sense of victory and success I felt later when I defied everyone’s expectations of what was possible.”  I enjoyed your personal story and I felt pain along with you and rejoiced when you had your successes.  However, I wonder how important your personal narrative is when it comes to science considering it is an N of 1?

I used my personal story to illustrate many of the scientific findings I presented throughout my book, but by no means is my new theory of intelligence based solely on my personal experiences. In fact, I spent at least a decade trying to objectively study the nature and nurture of human intelligence while keeping my personal story a secret. I went into the scientific study of this topic with the attitude: “I’m going to discover the truth about intelligence, and be open to whatever I find.” After all, my Masters thesis was on the relationship between working memory and spatial intelligence—two abilities I totally suck at!

Recently, a few colleagues of mine have come up to me after reading my book and have said: “Wow, I had no idea all that happened to you.” I kept my personal story a secret precisely because I didn’t want my colleagues to treat me differently if they knew I had a specific learning disability as a child. But I also didn’t want them to think that my diligent collection of data and formulation of a new theory of human intelligence was influenced by my own personal experiences. I’d like to think that my entire story could have been left out of Ungifted, and just by presenting the findings I did throughout the book, my new theory of intelligence still would hold on its own.  

We both are interested in very similar things, for example, what it takes to become great at something.  You clearly became interested in this topic because you were mislabeled as a child and wanted to prove everyone wrong.  I, on the other hand, became interested in the topic because I found myself surrounded by people who were simply that much more talented than me, and I wanted to understand why.  How do you think our two very different approaches has influenced what we emphasize in our approaches to research and writing on this topic?  I know you told me when we were hanging out once that we simply had very different personal experiences.

Yes, we certainly have a lot of overlapping research interests! It also looks like we both became interested in this topic for very similar reasons: starting at an early age, we were both fascinated with how and why people differ from one another. In terms of approaches, I’m sure the particulars of who we are, our developmental trajectories, and our personalities, color what we focus on. I think personally going through an educational system that constantly treated me as though I was unintelligent gave me a certain outsider perspective on the issue. I personally interacted with lots of children in special education as well as those in the gifted and talented programs (once I was let into gifted education unofficially my senior year of high school)—many who became some of my best friends. I could clearly see their frustrations in an educational system that left them behind. This is why I like to look at all different perspectives, and am trying to come up with a more holistic definition of intelligence that casts a wider net so we stop losing potential. It’s happening at all ends of the IQ bell curve—both at the lower end but also at the upper end. Many children who are labeled “gifted” are left behind as well, because they aren’t being treated as a person. Instead, they are far too frequently treated as just a number—their high IQ score.  

You write, “Despite the high reliability of IQ test scores across most of the lifespan, IQ testing is not an exact science.”  This is correct.  However, I would add that IQ testing is one of the most rigorous tools we currently have in psychology, and this means that the majority of psychology is even less of an exact science.  Your thoughts?

IQ tests are absolutely one of the most valid and reliable tests in all of psychology. In fact, I mention that fact in Chapter 3 of Ungifted. At no point do I deny the importance of the cognitive abilities assessed by IQ tests. I even have an entire chapter on the general intelligence factor, in which I rigorously defend the factor against virtually all attempts over the past 100 years to discredit that source of variation. My book is not an anti-IQ manifesto. Instead, my aim was to lay out the many different kinds of minds that exist in this world—including the high IQ minds—and argue that we shouldn’t be so quick to hold up any particular mind as the most intelligent mind compared to the others. That there are so many manifestations of high intelligence all around us, if only we are willing to look past the labels and the numbers to see the person right in front of us.

You talk a great deal about how you didn’t pass the IQ test.  But that you did pass the seating test for the cello.  So why is the seating test any more or less fair than the IQ test?  Additionally, I think the ultimate test is not any IQ test when you are young, but the test of accomplishment in life.  In that sense, you have passed the ultimate test, considering your accomplishments.  Isn’t that right?  Even Arthur Jensen, who is a huge figure in the field of intelligence, said that he never really cared to know his IQ because what mattered to him was whether he could accomplish whatever goals he had, and knowing his IQ would not impact whether he would attempt them.  Your thoughts?

I don’t recall saying that in general, the seating test was any more or less fair than the IQ test. My point was that for me, personally, I was able to better demonstrate my intellectual capacities through a different mode of expression than the IQ test. Learning how to read music, keep rhythm, and play the cello, all requires higher-level reasoning and problem solving. Again, only if you hold the IQ test up as the ultimate indicator of intellectual potential do you see a conflict here. But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t see such a conflict.

I understand your SAT and GRE scores were not up to par for Carnegie Mellon and Yale.  And yet, you still managed to go to Carnegie Mellon and Yale.  So don’t you think that the system still worked for you in that doors were still opened for you and you found a way in?

I don’t think the system worked for me at all. The whole point is that I had to repeatedly, over and over again, figure out some creative way of demonstrating my intellectual potential precisely because the default system, and its overreliance on standardized academic tests as the only measure of intellectual potential, was not working for me. It would have been very easy for me to give up on my dream of studying cognitive science at Carnegie Mellon since they rejected me due to my SAT scores. But instead, I went for Opera singing (which had a less stringent SAT criteria), and transferred to psychology after I was able to show them my stellar academic record. Many stories like that are sprinkled through the book. There are so many points in which I could have easily given up. Unfortunately, so many people in my situation do give up. Which is why I hope my story inspires those folks to devise better strategies to realize their dreams, even if it requires constantly taking an alternative path like I have had to do.

You also note that you got a nearly 0 percent on the analytical reasoning portion of the GRE but when you took the writing section, you got a nearly perfect score.  So this means you perform well on certain sections of standardized tests.  And given how talented you are as a writer, this makes perfect sense to me!  So why wouldn’t you think your other subtest scores were adequate measures of your ability level in those domains?

Thanks for saying I’m a talented writer! Look, I felt as though the analytical reasoning section did not give me a chance to fully express my analytical reasoning capabilities. I emailed the good folks at ETS, and they specifically told me that the Analytical Reasoning section and the Analytical Writing section measure the same skillset. But clearly that wasn’t the case for me, and isn’t the case for many others. Especially those—who like me—don’t do well in situations where we have a limited chance to express our ideas (i.e., multiple choice questions), measured in a decontextualized way, with the clock ticking down furiously. I’d like to think that my writing demonstrates I’m better at analytical reasoning than the bottom 10%. Now, I’m surely not claiming that I’m a genius at analytical reasoning, but I’d like to think that my horrible performance on the analytical reasoning portion of the GRE was not the best expression of my analytical reasoning capabilities, even if it may be a good indicator for many others.

You write: “My point is that when we apply arbitrary thresholds without taking personal goals into account, we limit possibility.”  I agree, however, I wonder if each student should have a reasonable idea what their probability of success in various areas are so that they might be able to invest their time in an area where they might enjoy the most success?  For example, let’s say despite the fact that Kobe dunked on you, you just loved basketball with all your heart and just knew you wanted to become the next Michael Jordan.  At what point should someone point out to you that this is probably not a great idea?

I don’t think educators are in the business of dashing dreams. In my view, there is never a point in which we should tell a child to quit trying to reach their goal (unless, of course, the goal is destructive to themselves or others). In my view, it’s up to each individual to choose on his or her own at what point they should shift attention to investing in other resources.  Because the truth is, you never really know what someone is capable of achieving (certainly not in the first 18 years), until you engage in the domain for an extended period of time, and at least attempt to overcome your perceived limitations. Also, who are we to say what is a life worth lived? For many people, spending an entire life engaging in what they love—regardless of how far they go—is a life worth lived. If anything, I think we should be helping all students get closer to their personal goals—no matter how big or how small—by arming them with a set of skills and characteristics that they can use to achieve their goals throughout their lives, even if the goals change widely as they develop (as they often do). If a student does come to the decision to switch fields and invest elsewhere, all that time spend in the other domain wasn’t wasted— important skills were learned that can be transferred. Everything is a learning experience if you have a growth mindset. Under a growth mindset, there is never a state labeled “failure.”

You write: “The comparison isn’t with others; it’s with your former and future selves” and “we should encourage all people with a love for a specific domain to engage in what they love.” You go on to write that “This suggests we should encourage children to dream the impossible, to think beyond the standard expectations, to dare to be unrealistic.”  I agree with your sentiment, but the reality is we live in a world where we are constantly competing with others and this is not going to go away.  So for those of us who have the appropriate talents to succeed highly in a given field, going for the unrealistic goal is probably not a bad idea.  But if someone really doesn’t have much talent for a domain (say they are a poor singer and want to be the next American Idol), at what point should a parent encourage their child to be realistic and pursue something that would fit them as a person?  Won’t many kids eventually find out they can’t cut it anyways once they face the cutthroat competition?

Oh Jon, will you please stop it with your realism already! Just kidding. You’re right, we do live in a highly competitive world. But here’s what I think: those who are great— who revolutionize an entire field and show people that what seems impossible really is possible—are those who sidestep the competition as much as they can and travel their own path. They are the ones who do only compare their past development with their future development. They create their own unique niche, which is often driven by their own unique vision. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am being too unrealistic, too utopic, in my conceptualization of human intelligence. I admit that’s certainly a possibility. But this much I can say: if I spent my earlier life being “realistic,” and stopped striving to reach higher academic heights, I would most certainly not be in a position to have this interview with you today.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

Tags: creativity, education, intelligence, learning, science, scott barry kaufman, ungifted: intelligence redefined

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