New research reinforces the idea that intelligence is not fixed--and therefore can be strengthened. Here's how to put those findings to use.
When I was a 7-year-old growing up in rural Austria, I had only one dream, one shared by probably 90% of all other boys in my home country: to become a world-class soccer player.
This is probably the equivalent of football here in the U.S. or ice hockey in Canada. And playing soccer was all I did for the next 10 years. I slowly climbed my way up, making it into football academy and playing for bigger teams. And yet, after being injured and slowly developing some doubt in my abilities, I dropped out and went to a normal school.
When I tried again to climb to the top of a different ladder, with startups (and it’s going great so far with Buffer), there was one thing I told myself that isn’t going to happen: It’s not going to come down to my character, intelligence, talent, or any personal trait that will determine whether I fail or succeed.
So, naturally, I’ve been obsessed with are things that most of us deem innate. The most common ones I’ve found are intelligence, talent, character, numerical brain, and linguistic brain. We’ve been told over and over that these are things we are born with.
But none of these are fixed. And the latest research reveals exactly why they aren’t.
Intelligence isn’t innate
When educational psychologist Lewis Terman invented the IQ test in 1916 in his publication “The Use of Intelligence Tests” at Stanford, little did he know that he would influence the thinking of many generations to come.
The one central message was: You are born with a certain level of intelligence that remains that way for the rest of your life.
In the last few decades, a few scientists have set out to question that long-standing paradigm. The most interesting one comes from Stanford researcher Carol Dweck:
Dweck took 400 7th graders and separated them into two groups. She gave each group an easy puzzle to complete. One group, after completion was praised for their innate intelligence with “You must be smart at this!” and the other group was praised with “You must have worked really hard for this!” Now, each child was given the chance to pick another puzzle to solve: Either another easy one, or a harder one that would be a great learning experience, so the teachers said.
Here are the results: More than half of the children praised for their innate intelligence chose the easy follow-up puzzle. And a staggering 90% of the kids praised for their hard work chose the difficult one.
The meaning of Dweck’s work: You can teach yourself to become smarter.
How our brain cells and genes can be changed proactively
David Shenk, in his book The Genius in All of Us is another prominent voice stressing that intelligence is not innate, but acquired. Especially concerning our genes: “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses, and other genes.”
Shenk stresses that genes are not fixed, so neither is our intelligence, which can evolve over time. The fact that this especially applies to our brain cells was recently made clear by researcher Dr. Geoff Faulkner. Whilst researching how and if brain cells change over time, he made a peculiar discovery:
“This research completely overturns the belief that the genetic make-up of brain cells remains static throughout life and provides us with new information about how the brain works.”
How exactly your brain cells are being altered isn’t 100% clear yet, says Faulkner. Some theories say that the above cell elements get thicker to transport more information, others assume cells are changing altogether.
The burning question remains: What can we do to make ourselves more intelligent? The simple answer both Shenk and Dweck offer is persistence. Relentless persistence is what makes us more intelligent, rewires our brains, and helps us succeed.
Persistence is the one thing we should focus on. And here are 3 of the best ways to become more persistent at anything:
Master the art of habits: The key to develop persistence is to make it a habit. A lot of the research on habit formation explains that you can see it as a muscle--your habit muscle. And it needs exercising to get stronger. Stanford researcher BJ Fogg developed the Tiny Habits method to achieve exactly that. Get started doing something for less than 60 seconds every day. Gradually, it will turn into a habit and ultimately changing your behavior and brain.
Percentage thinking (the law of averages): Say you want to get 10 customers for your business to be profitable. If you focus on 10 meetings, to get 10 customers, the first one that falls through will mean you have failed. Percentage thinking helps you to find, with whatever you want to achieve, the percentage you need to succeed. I learned the hard way that we needed 10 investor meetings to get one person to put money into Buffer. And as soon as we figured out our 10% ratio everything changed. We knew, we had to get 100 meetings (we ended up with 150) to get the number of people and raise funds successfully. Whatever you do, don’t focus on succeeding or get sidetracked by your failures; find your percentage rate first.
Start working out--the cornerstone habit: The last tip to get your persistence to the level of altering your brain is to start working out. If nothing has motivated you to work out yet, maybe the fact that it will make your smarter will. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg reveals that the habit of working out is different from any other habit, a "cornerstone habit" that can align any other habit to help you achieve the things you want.
If anything, I find it extremely comforting that intelligence is something we can alter at any time with the right amount of effort and persistence. I’m curious to see where science takes us in this field.
I’ve long been skeptical of listening exercises. The purpose and benefits of what is frequently referred to as “active listening” seem obvious: Demonstrate respect, allow people physical and psychological space to say what they want, and don’t hog communication. When a colleague suggested that we add a listening exercise to a program we’re developing for the Annual Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction at Baruch College, I hesitated, wanting to know: To what end?
Within a week, I lost my voice due to severe laryngitis.
Losing my voice for several days was a fascinating exercise. I gleaned empathy for people who cannot speak, express themselves immediately, or yell for help. My biggest epiphany was around questions: I was distressed that I could not ask my husband about his day, what he was reading, or what he was telling me. I thought a lot about how questions express interest and how they also influence conversation. I realized that questions are about helping the person questioned be heard and better understood; they can also be about selfishly amplifying the voice of the questioner.
A question can shift focus and power: By asking a question, I may be expressing my thoughts, desires, and opinions. Asking a question can be an infiltration of power: I may, with a question, steer the conversation or story in a direction that I want it to flow, not necessarily the direction in which the speaker was headed. It can be a grab at control: When we ask a question, we are somewhat assured of the general frame of the response.
Granted, it is difficult to keep quiet and refrain from asking questions; we’re taught that expressing interest is commendable. We may very well be expressing a generosity to share information: You tell me, and I will tell you equally. But interrupting others to ask questions can be less an expression of interest and more of an expression of status. In fact, if we allow another to speak, we may feel subordinate. In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock acknowledges the cognitive effort necessary for inhibition in conversation. Rock says that both keeping quiet and truly listening demand extra energy to suppress and process “the lack of autonomy you might now experience because someone else is making the choices” in a conversation.
The Preambler’s windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often intended to box conversation partners into a corner. Preamblers use questioning to steer the discussion, send warnings, or generate a desired answer. I remember a meeting with one Preambler, the chairman and CEO of a medical complex, who (by my watch) spent 15 minutes posing slanted questions and making rhetorical assertions that all supported a recommendation he wanted to make to his board. Such behavior epitomizes one-way communication.
Upon regaining my voice, I participated in a listening exercise during Exhale’s National Pro-Voice Tour that focused on creating more supportive, respectful conversations about abortion and other topics on college campuses. Without uttering a word, I had to listen to someone I just met speak for three minutes. It was really interesting to not know where the speaker was going. In fact, it was a joy to cede control and not anticipate what was coming next!
Listening, I have learned, can take us someplace too.
A counselor for the Exhale Talkline also explained to me the difference between clarifying questions (making sure you understand what the person is telling you and checking assumptions) and curiosity (which is about satisfying you, the listener, and has nothing to do with the person who is speaking).
I had always thought of questions as being solely an expression of interest and generosity. Now, I am beginning to better understand that questions—even seemingly benevolent inquiries—can be a subtle source of control. We simply can’t listen if we’re talking, even if we are talking by questioning.
Google Drive is seen by many as "Google Docs, plus some other stuff." It's time to get to know that "other stuff."
Most productive people with a mind for the web know what Google Docs are about. Then Google Docs became Google Drive, with all kinds of storage space and collaboration folders and connected webapps. Most people just noted the new icon and kept on writing meeting agendas and filling small spreadsheets.
Now, however, would be a good time to pay Drive some mind. Google has done impressive work making it easier to keep your files organized, share any file with anyone, and keep everything in your work life one search away. Very specifically, these are the things Drive can do for you at no cost, and requiring just enough effort to remember Drive can do that.
Your email attachments are only as useful as the lamest inbox to which you send. Some antiquated mail systems can't accept files larger than a megabyte or two, and some are limited to sending even less. And in any inbox, it's often easy to lose track of which attachment is the most recent, working version of a file.
Google Drive and Gmail really, truly want to fix this. So now you can insert Drive “attachments” into a Gmail message, up to 10 GB in size. Gmail also checks that the file you attached is open for access to everybody in the message. If you jump into Drive and change the document, spreadsheet, presentation or whatever, no matter--that one email with the Drive link is still current.
One caveat: You need to be using Gmail's "New Compose Experience" to insert Drive attachments. So if you haven't already done so, click "Compose" in Gmail, then click the link to "Try out the new compose experience."
Google makes a Drive app for iOS devices, a Drive app for Android, and a kind of “app” for Chrome browsers. Installing these apps gives you the ability to create and edit documents while you’re connected to the web, and on a Chrome browser, you can also edit text-based “Docs” while you are offline. And on mobile devices, you can view documents online or offline, and even edit spreadsheets that others are working on at the same time.
Google has spent years learning the most precise way to turn images of text into edit-ready computer text. Those odd little word puzzles you have to decipher to log into certain sites? Google acquired that technology in 2009, and uses it to digitize old books and newspaper text. And, if you want, Drive will read your own paper scans and otherwise non-copy-ready PDF files and index every word in them, along with your other documents.
With the Drive app installed on your phone or tablet, you can snap a picture of handwriting and, faster than you think, pull up a converted text document from the app. If your stuff is already scanned or written out, you can simply drag and drop an entire folder from your system into Drive and wait for it to convert over for you. Drive wants to be the stenographer you rudely ignore while piling paperwork on their desk.
If you ever need to make a single-serve website, or test out some new web stuff you’re fiddling with, Google Drive has some spare server space they’re willing to donate to your cause. You just have to upload your files and grab the right link.