I grew up in a family of very smart people. My mom was a thoughtful intellectual who created an environment of cultural, although not at all snobbish sophistication in the family. My Stanford Law School graduate and high-powered lawyer father set a high bar for academic achievement. Although I wasn’t exactly slow, I spent much of my childhood fumbling along in the intellectual shadows of my brainy parents and three super bright older brothers.
While I struggled through grammar and junior high school, managing to get very average grades, my brother Chris, who was closest to me in age, was the MGM (mentally gifted minor) student who was always being praised by his teachers for his mental gifts. Even today, when I recently visited Chris at the company where he works, the CEO of the company commented to me that “your brother is wicked smart!”
Although my parents placed a heavy emphasis on academics, they devoted an equal amount of energy and attention to creating a loving and nurturing family environment in which we kids were able to develop solid feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. I think it was this latter emphasis that I drew on the most in my early development.
My brother Chris continued to demonstrate his smarts at a private high school, York School, which was (and still is) known for its rigorous academics and for sending its graduates to some of the best universities in the country. I decided to attend York for a different reason – I had a crush on Katie Scanlon, a family friend who was also attending the school.
Although my original motivation for attending York was suspect, the decision to pursue my high school education there ended up being fortuitous. The teachers were excellent and dedicated to helping the students learn how to learn. Of course, attending a high school known for its intense focus on academics meant that I again found myself surrounded by a lot of “wicked smart” people, many of whom ended up going on to schools like Stanford, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Harvard, etc. But I worked hard to keep up and, along with a lot of help and encouragement from some amazing teachers, I ended up doing pretty well.
When I graduated from York, I was not the valedictorian, didn’t win any academic awards, and wasn’t wooed with scholarships by the top schools in the country. However, I was surprised at the graduation ceremony when I was called up to receive an award that was created that year by the faculty specifically for me. It was called the “Teachers Award,” and my recollection is that the York teachers decided to create the award in recognition of a different kind of intelligence that they felt was of equal importance to the school’s hallmark of IQ and book smarts – that is, a sort of emotional intelligence. (On the other hand, maybe it was a consolation prize created for the student who wasn’t crazy brilliant and didn’t have the top colleges drooling to get him in their programs.) Whatever its real meaning, receiving that Teachers Award from the school faculty some 30-odd years ago was a huge honor and left a lasting impression on me.
I was reminded of this award and the interplay between IQ and emotional intelligence in reading a book by New York Time editorialist David Brooks, called “The Social Animal.” In a section of the book, Brooks describes research indicating that IQ actually predicts only about 4 percent of variance in job performance. He writes, “There is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” He later writes, “Wisdom doesn’t consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”
Of course, given my childhood environment of being surrounded by a bunch of people who were far smarter than I (and as luck would have it, I am now surrounded by wife and kids who are all “wicked smart”), there was a certain amount of comfort and validation that came in reading what Brooks had to say.
I was exposed to another angle on emotional intelligence in listening to an audio book by Brené Brown, called “The Power of Vulnerability.” What I have called emotional intelligence Brown describes as “whole-heartedness.” In her audio book Brown makes a convincing argument (backed up by extensive research) about how a person’s inability to embrace vulnerability in their lives will dramatically impair their ability to access not only empathy and love, but also innovation, creativity, authenticity, and accountability. (I highly recommend this audio book to anyone reading this Weekly Reminder.)
My point in sharing my own story is not to tout my own heightened emotional intelligence (or “whole-heartedness”) any more than I would argue that I have a troublingly low IQ. My point is that it is not so important how smart we are or how much we know, but what we do with what we know. There are a lot of wicked smart people out in the world who can’t function because they don’t know how to interact with the rest of the world.
Combining the commentary of David Brooks and Brené Brown, I think we all could become more effective, more creative, and more innovative if we spent a little more time embracing our vulnerability, including letting go of our ego-driven need to always be in the know and always know the right answer, and pursuing our work with more curiosity and openness to new and different ideas and new and different approaches to doing the work before us.
Have a great week.