The Glitch that High IQ Can’t Fix

Arianna Huffington’s signature “tough-love” intervention in her recent Open Letter to Elon Musk brings an important point to light. Lack of genius is not the reason why Elon’s leadership abilities are currently under fire. 

Arianna is well-known for leading Thrive Global’s wellness revolution by challenging negative cultural trends, such as the 24/7 work ethic mass delusion and lack of sleep. She takes issue that Elon typically applies his brilliant grasp of the latest science in resolving difficult work challenges, yet in regard to himself, relies on “a wildly outdated, anti-scientific and horribly inefficient way of using human energy. It’s like trying to launch us into our clean energy future (or into space) with a coal-fired steam engine. It just won’t work.” 

She is referring to the negative impact that 120-hour weeks, days-long stretches inside the Tesla factory without going outside or on vacations, and spending his last birthday at work, without friends or family, are bound to have on his overall well-being, clarity of mind and judgment, and leadership skills. They are dangerously not up-to-par with his grand visions for the world and the power he has to execute them.

The High IQ Illusion of Invincibility

At the root of this Elon’s blindspot — a phenomenon as big as the Bermuda Triangle among many of today’s leaders in every industry and field — lies a strong overemphasis on intellectual ingenuity and achievements, reinforced by social approval, unchallenged definitions of success, financial rewards, and performance awards. Formal education plays a big role in shaping these trends and the high IQ illusion of invincibility, which start as early as kindergarten and grade school and peak in graduate school.

In It’s not your IQ that matters,” Cornell University Professor Robert Sternberg and wisdom researcher, tells Joe Desena, bestselling author of the Spartan Race and host of top performance podcast, Spartan Up, about his efforts in shaking up this cultural trend and status quo. He consults with college admissions and creates programs to better select and cultivate real “future leaders who will make a positive and meaningful difference to the world.” In his opinion, this should be the responsibility and focus of good universities.

Sternberg advises teachers and university selection committees to place less emphasis on traditional IQ, standardized tests, academic performance, and grades, because these measures are poor predictors of true leaders. He points out that most of his brightest colleagues have disappeared and do not seem all that interested in applying their genius in making the world a better place.

Why? According to Sternberg, some obstacle probably got in the way and their high intellect was not able to overcome it. He notes that qualities related to emotional intelligence, creative thinking, common sense, wisdom, risk-taking, compassion, and ethics have been found to be far superior in overcoming life’s obstacles and succeeding in the broader sense of the word.

The Unhelpful Help I Received

While this is not a given, high intelligence can lead to narrow-minded, self-centeredness, which can either become an obstacle in and of itself or prevent other ambitions related to the greater good from emerging altogether. These tendencies can be self-propelled, but in my situation, teachers, academic advisors and mentors were very instrumental in promoting this unsettling mindset.

There are three pivotal moments in my life where trusted teachers and mentors misguided me because of their own biases. Despite knowing deep down that I disagreed with their opinions and advice, I was too impressionable to trust my inner truth. I struggled for years with self-doubt, alienation and heart-ache because of the derailed detours they led me on.

The first time was in high school. My Calculus teacher attempted to give us sound college advice by making sure smart cookies like us steered away from Mickey Mouse majors, such as psychology. The second time was as an undergraduate psychology major researching graduate programs. Letters and awards by prestigious faculty and institutions identified me as a “rising star” within the rigorous research-oriented specializations of psychology. The practical and healing fields that I was interested in were treated as second-class options. 

The more I followed my heart and my inner wisdom, the more ousted I felt in these “touchy-feely” and untouchable margins of my field. The third time happened after I got accepted into my clinical psychology program on the only and last full scholarship for ethnic minority students. In my ethics class, I realized that honoring my roots inadvertently meant going rogue, because the evidence-based research that my healing intuition needed to be in ethical compliance with my profession had not been conceived yet.

The Rise of Wisdom Research

Fast forward twenty years. The Center of Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago opened its doors in 2016 and has become a central hub for wisdom researchers across the world. Their studies and collective reform movement are still considered to be in their toddler stages, but they are already making big waves. They are streamlining, conducting, organizing, and sharing research findings that support the teaching of wisdom skills to doctors, healers, psychologists, educators, and the next generation, and their efforts are gaining traction and notable attention in academia, business, and progressive think-tanks. 

The wide-spread acceptance of wisdom research is particularly refreshing because wise introspection and contemplation had been the preserve of philosophy and religion and kept out of psychology. Case studies or self-report were not rigorous enough to make it into the pool of evidence-based clinical interventions, which were primarily outcome studies requiring random and controlled samples and statistical analyses. Moreover, wisdom lacked a clear definition, and it didn’t help matters that psychology had until recently been treated as a bastard child of medicine, a wanna-be field of study who would never measure up to the rigors of hard science and the medical field. 

Clinical Psychology Research Carving its Unique Path and Worth

Pegging complex human behavior in neat empirical boxes is a mammoth task and perhaps not the wisest. Clinical psychology, in particular, is finally trailblazing and owning its unique path and research identity, based on its own merits and for reasons that Elon so poignantly demonstrates: human behavior is often not driven by logic. Self-care is cultivated by soft skills and traits other than intelligence that are in dire need of deeper and further study. 

The evidence-based wisdom project is an organization that translates academic research regarding the science and psychology of wisdom into understandable and helpful resources for the wider public. This research is also filling an important gap for mental health providers. My student life and professional trajectory would have been so much less stressful if I had this kind of research validation to support my holistic healing inclinations, instead of needing to rely on mantras from wisdom teachers, plastered all over my notebooks, to validate my resistance and help get me through my classes and day. 

The most current meta-analysis of 24 studies that focused on defining wisdom as a research construct has led to a composite of the following nine traits: Reflection/Self-Understanding, Pro-Social Behavior, Emotional Homeostasis, Social/Pragmatic Knowledge of Life, Value Relativism/Tolerance, Uncertainty Management, Spirituality, Humor, and Openness to New Experiences. 

May this rich knowledge about wisdom allow clinical psychology to establish and redeem itself as a legitimate and valuable field of study –– even though it’s veering more and more away from medical and pharmaceutical models of research ––, not just within the public-at-large, but also among leaders, academics, hard scientists, mental health boards, and those with high IQ’s. May this renaissance of useful research remedy the neglected areas that have stunted our growth as a society: by helping top leaders reconnect to what truly matters in terms of their health and wellness and by supporting the impressionable next generation in their quest for wholeness, meaning, and fulfillment.

                                      {Source: Unsplash Image by Gordon Williams}

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  • Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT

    I empower sensitive wise trailblazers with soul authority tools to heal from oppressive patterns and restore trust in their heart compass.

    Hello! I'm honored to offer my guidance in this forum and sincerely hope that it will help you BE (a) WELL so that your wellspring of self-love, wholeness and clarity spills over to everyone around you.   I'm a shamanic ecopsychologist, Depth Hypnosis practitioner, and author of Amazon Wisdom Keeper: a Psychologist’s Memoir of Spiritual Awakening. My second book, Soul Authority: Liberatory Tools to Heal from Oppressive Patterns and Restore Trust in our Heart Compass will be released in the spring of 2022 (North Atlantic Books).   I believe that the most effective way to heal and renature our spiritually-arid, denatured patriarchal world is to excavate and support our deep wells of wisdom, dreams, and game-changing missions. My two-decade devotion to awakening sensitive old souls has led to the empowerment of hundreds of trailblazers in psychology, holistic health, academia, the arts, social justice and entrepreneurship.   My work has appeared in Thrive Global, Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society, and Byrdie. I have presented and provided trainings to master- and doctorate level therapists and healers at the UC Berkeley Counseling Center, the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and the Native American Health Center. I've also enjoyed providing meditations and guidance as a guest expert for numerous podcasts, radio shows, and women’s groups nationwide.