Forget IQ tests and labels. Here are the real reasons people succeed in building their dreams

The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly — that is what each of us I here for. — Oscar Wilde

Have you ever felt constrained by a label? Or been unfairly compared to others? I felt compelled to write this article because I’ve seen the destructive forces of labels playing out in the lives of many people close to me and I’ve felt them acutely myself. Labels put us into artificial boxes that don’t exist and they limit — or over-inflate — the way we feel about ourselves. Plus, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies in that what we believe about ourselves tends to become our reality. Labels can hold us back. By comparing ourselves to others, we feel less-than. And they don’t allow for the ever-changing nature of our authentic self to unfold and flourish.

As a coach, one of the biggest hurdles I experience when coaching people to unlock their full potential is their own internal beliefs about themselves. I see them get all excited and lit up by a vision they hold for their future, and then I see the fear and inner gremlins creep in that tell them they’re not good enough, or ‘smart enough’ to make it happen. In this article, I describe why IQ tests are not necessarily an indicator of your potential and the four real reasons why people succeed. I describe how you can apply these principles in your own life to thrive and love life.

“In the 40-plus years that I have worked with children, I continue to be in awe of each young soul whom I am privileged to get to know. I have learned a great deal about each Self. I’ve experienced their emotions, anxieties, joys, passions and ambitions, and I see that each Self is perfect in itself. It is only when we start comparing them to each other that we begin to see imperfection.” 
 — Annemarie Roeper, quoted in Ungifted, by Scott Barry Kaufman.

One of the most destructive forms of labeling is the way in which we label and separate children based on ‘intelligence’, starting at even the youngest age. I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about the concept of human intelligence ever since I can remember and the idea that some people are inherently more ‘intelligent’ than others. I’ve simply always felt it’s not necessarily accurate. I’ve always believed (and experienced) that we’re all equally intelligent, but in radically different ways. When I was about nine years old I was made to sit a test called PEAC (primary extension and challenge), based on IQ (‘intelligence quotient’) measurement. I was very surprised that I scored highly on that particular test, because I knew very well that I wasn’t any more or less intelligent than my classmates. I was under no illusion and knew that my classmates were very good at some things that I wasn’t, and vice versa. We were all different and clever in our own, very different way. My mind just seemed to work in a way that made me score high on this particular IQ test.

As a result, I was labelled ‘gifted’ and channeled into after-school extension classes. Suddenly my afternoons that were once filled with play time were spent sitting in a classroom learning about electronics, meteorology, ancient mythology and Italian. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I really didn’t enjoy those classes (except Italian, which I loved). It became a real source of anxiety for me to attend them. Plus, the label ‘gifted’ was very uncomfortable for me among my peers as well as at home among my siblings and created all kinds of unwanted tension. Comparison really is the beginning of all problems.

Then there is the story of Scott Barry Kaufman, author of the wonderful book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined [1], who at a very young age was diagnosed as having a learning disability based on IQ tests, and was channeled into special classes for the learning disabled. Like me, he knew that he wasn’t any more or less intelligent than the others, but his particular kind of intelligence wasn’t quantifiable in an IQ test. He tried and tried to escape the label of ‘learning disabled’, which affected him in immeasurable ways (as you can imagine), and it wasn’t until one particular teacher in high school took a chance on him and allowed him to enter her ‘normal’ classroom. Scott went on to prove his school psychologist (and countless others) wrong by graduating from high school and he eventually completed a Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Yale. He is now one of the most respected Psychologists in the field of human intelligence and is a wonderful example of how labels can be proven utterly wrong.

“We don’t have standardized minds, so why do we have standardized tests?”
 — Scott Barry Kaufman

Kaufman’s book highlights the real limitations of IQ testing. He discusses how the first modern IQ test was developed in France by Alfred Binet in 1905, who was given the task of inventing a test that would distinguish ‘fast learners’ from ‘slow learners’ in a school environment. The IQ-test that Binet developed was quite effective at doing so, but Binet himself knew the limitations of the test. After working with hundreds of children and their test results, he knew that the outcome of the test was not 100% reproducible and depended on a number of factors including the level of anxiety of the child at the time of the test, their current level of maturity, their environment, how motivated they were to do well in the test and the amount of stimulation they received until that point. He knew that it was not a direct sign of potential, which depends on a myriad of other factors. He said himself “With practice, training and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before”.

And yet despite his public statements about the limitations of the test, the test was fervently adopted for measuring human intelligence worldwide. Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the USA was smitten with the Binet test and with some modifications developed the Stanford-Binet test in 1916, which went on to propel the IQ-test forward as the gold standard for human intelligence testing and remained America’s test of choice for half a century (Kaufman, 2013). Terman and his team believed that intelligence is fixed, enduring and hereditary (which we now know is not the case). His labels influenced a whole new generation of IQ classification schemes. Interestingly, as Kaufman discusses in his book, Terman’s impact surprised even himself. As he noted about fifteen years after the first edition of his test was published “I knew that revision of Binet’s tests was superior to others then available, but I did not foresee the vogue it was to have an imagined that it would probably be displaced by something much better within a few years”.

Well, as Kaufman says, it wasn’t. It’s still the basis behind most intelligence testing used worldwide today.

In Ungifted, Kaufman refers to research by Kevin McGrew which showed that IQ tests are “fallible predictors of academic achievement.” He explains how for any given IQ test score, half of the students will end up obtaining final achievement scores at or below their IQ score. Conversely, and frequently not recognized, is that for any given test score, half of the students will end up obtaining final achievement scores at or above their IQ score [2]. So as you can see, IQ tests are not a be-all-and-end-all summary of your potential. They simply “measure an important but limited slice of intellectual functioning in a very limited test environment”, as Kaufman says.

So what is intelligence then?

I’m a big fan of Nicholas Lore’s definition of intelligence in his book The Pathfinder: How to choose or change your career for a lifetime of satisfaction and success. Lore says:

“Intelligence is a natural gift for doing anything well.”

We all have a natural gift for doing something well. And therefore, we are all intelligent. Each of us is unique, with a very distinct and particular zone of what I call natural genius; a particular set of skills, gifts and talents that are unique to us. And who are we to judge whether one set of skills and abilities makes us more intelligent than someone with a completely different set of talents and abilities? I call the things you do naturally well your natural genius because I believe that the term genius shouldn’t be reserved only for those who become successful and wildly famous because of their specific gifts. It should be acknowledged that we all have a specific kind of genius, and the only things that separate you from a well-known ‘genius’ are these following things:

· The right conditions, environment and support to nurture and develop your particular zone of genius;
· The belief that you have a very unique and particular zone of genius;
· An attitude of ‘grit’, a term gaining popularity to describe “A passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (defined by Angela Lee Duckworth);
· A passion and love for something that allows you to sustain and fuel an attitude of grit, which in turn allows you to develop and express your genius to its fullest extent.

In her famous book Wishcraft [3], Barbara Sher discusses how we’re all born with a ‘seed’ of genius that contains the maximum potential of our fully expressed life; a bit like the acorn contains the blueprint of the fully developed oak tree. But that acorn will not become a fully developed oak tree unless it is nurtured in the right conditions with nutritious soil, water, sunshine and air. Your natural genius needs a special kind of nurturing too with regards to the environment you grow up in and live in. Sher explains that all accomplished ‘geniuses’ received the right conditions to nurture their particular genius, including support from their environment, encouragement, stimulation and opportunity. Kaufman (2013) says that a nurturing family environment is a necessity to help a child flourish, just as a fish needs water to swim and survive. And one of the most important discoveries in recent years is that the environment you’re in triggers gene expression. This means that some talents lie dormant in all of us, waiting for the perfect environmental conditions to trigger them. So a supportive and stimulating environment is critical to the development of your own unique intelligence.

To understand whether your own zone of natural genius was nurtured as you were growing up, try to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following questions [3]:

Was your natural genius carefully nurtured while growing up?

1. When you were a child, were you treated as though you have a unique kind of genius that was loved and respected?
2. Were you told that you can do or be anything you want, and that you would be loved and admired no matter what that was?
3. Were you given real encouragement in finding out what you wanted to do, and how to do it?
4. Were you encouraged to explore all your talents and interests even if they changed regularly?
5. Were you allowed to complain when the going got tough, and were you given sympathy?
6. Were you rescued when you got in over your head, without being punished or reprimanded?
7. Were you surrounded by happy, fulfilled people who were pleased when you succeeded?

If you answered ‘no’ to four or more of these questions, then it’s likely your natural genius wasn’t provided with the optimal conditions to fully unfold and develop. It’s possible that you don’t know what your natural genius is and perhaps you feel skeptical about even having one. On the other hand, if you answered ‘yes’ to four or more of these questions, it’s likely that your natural genius ‘seed’ was nurtured very well and allowed to germinate, perhaps grow into a seedling, or perhaps even into a fully developed tree. It’s likely that you have a clear and healthy sense of your own abilities and your unique gifts and talents. That’s a wonderful thing; you’re very fortunate!

If you’re not sure what your particular genius is, I cover tips and strategies for uncovering this is my free E-Book Pathfinding: How to find and start living that special calling that you are uniquely designed for. One of the best places to start looking to uncover your natural genius is in your childhood. What are the things you loved doing as a child, what did you naturally gravitate towards and what would others say you were naturally good at? And what do you love doing? The seeds of your natural genius will be hidden in there.

“Who you are isn’t passive or static or unchanging. It is a vital design that needs to unfold and express itself through the medium of your whole life. And the unique pattern of talents and gifts that lie hidden in the things you love doing is also the map to your own life path.”
— Barbara Sher, Wishcraft

There are many, many different kinds of intelligence, and an infinite number of ways in which these types of intelligence can interact and complement each other within each of us. Commonly referred to as ‘talent stacks’, different combinations of talents can result in very different and powerful abilities. Thankfully today there are numerous approaches, systems and tests for discovering your own particular innate strengths, which can help you understand the best professions and environments that suit and nurture your particular genius. I’ve highlighted just some of the many different ways the innate abilities can be classified in Table 1 at the end of this article. What’s important is that you recognize that you have a zone of natural genius. In her book Coach Yourself To A New Career, Talane Miedaner says “Our inherent abilities are so much a part of our makeup that they can be like breathing; we may take them completely for granted and not even recognize them as special talents and abilities”.

You will know you’re operating in your zone of natural genius if:

· It feels fun and easy;
· You can do it for hours and you are more energized afterwards, not less;
· Time collapses around you — you lose track of the hours when you’re engaged in your natural talent;
· You create superior results with less effort;
· You add value effortlessly to those around you;
· It is easy to be successful;
· You are happy and fulfilled;
· You feel fully alive and self-expressed (Miedaner, 2010).

So how do we realise our maximum potential and full self-expression?

Grit. Support. Belief. Passion.

Potential, Kaufman says in Ungifted, is a constantly moving target. The more we engage in something, the more we develop our brain capacity in that area and the more our potential grows. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina describes how what you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like — it literally rewires it. So you can absolutely develop intelligence in an area, depending on how much time you dedicate to it.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
- Stephen King

In her compelling TED talk, Angela Lee Duckworth describes how in study after study, she found that the most telling factor for success was grit (passion and perseverance for long-term goals). Talent and success are usually unrelated or even inversely related. She argues that it’s all about perseverance and follow-through. She says “There are lots of brilliant people but it’s the ones who stay true to themselves and follow through that make it. The key to success is setting a goal and pacing yourself. It’s staying true to that goal even when life gets messy and when it’s inconvenient.”

This brings me to what I believe is the number one essential ingredient for developing your potential — PASSION. Passion is what fuels and sustains grit and follow-through. When you’re passionate about something, it means you care very deeply about it. But being passionate about something doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always feels upbeat and joyful. In fact, in Joseph Campbell’s famous book The Power of Myth he explains that the Greek root of the word passion translates to suffering. Annabelle Parr describes beautifully that “Following your passion means choosing a vocation that is so important to you, so vital to your being that you’re willing to suffer for it.” She goes on to define passion as being “where fulfilment, growth, joy and change exist”. Your passion will push you to your growth edge and force you to fully develop and express your gifts which can feel scary, challenging and very difficult at times. But through this unfolding of your full potential, while being in service to something you care about, you’ll naturally feel deeply fulfilled and satisfied throughout this process of growth and change. Many studies have shown that people who feel most fulfilled are those who are giving their gifts in service to something larger than themselves. Find your passion and you will discover your capacity for grit, which will allow you to develop your intelligence and proficiency to follow your dream.

So please, if you ever feel those inner gremlins creeping in that tell you haven’t got what it takes to fulfill your dream, I am here to remind you of this:

· You are a genius in your very individual, unique way. Don’t let an IQ test result, or anything else for that matter, stand in the way between you and your dream;
· The world needs your specific gifts.
· The way to develop and express your full potential is to forge ahead with grit, perseverance and belief in yourself.
· Find your PASSION and let it fuel and sustain your grit and perseverance, and take you to the most fully-expressed, happy and fulfilled version of yourself you came here to be.

“Greatness is not born, but takes time to develop, and there are many paths to greatness.” — Scott Barry Kaufman

My passion is to help you find your calling, make it a reality and to thrive and love life in the process. If you’d like to stay in touch and receive future blog posts, please sign up here.

In service to helping you find and live your unique calling,

Katie De Jong, Ph.D
Career Strategist & Founder
Whispering Heart Coaching

[1] Kaufman, SB (2013) Ungifted: Human Intelligence Redefined — The truth about talent, practice, creativity and the many paths to greatness (New York, Basic Books, Perseus Books Group)

[2] McGrew KS (2005) The Cattell-Horn-Carroll Theory of Cognitive Abilities: Past, present and future, in Contemporary Intellectual Assessments: Theories, tests and issues, ed. Flanagan DP, Harrison PL, 2nd ed (New York, Guilford Press), quoted in Ungifted: Redefining Intelligence (Scott Kaufman)

[3] Wishcraft, Barbara Sher (1986)

Table 1: Different classifications of innate abilities

Nicholas Lore, in The Pathfinder:
Problem-solving talents (diagnostic reasoning or analytical reasoning), visual orientation (spatial, tangible or non-spatial orientation), results orientation (abstract, mixed or concrete results oriented), rate of idea flow, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, sensory perception abilities (intuition, sensing or visual dexterity), memories (associative memory, number memory or design memory), mathematical ability, language ability, practical (hands-on) ability, artistic and musical abilities, body kinesthetic ability.

Clifton Strengthsfinder
Innate abilities include: adaptability, analytical, arranger, activator, achiever, belief, context, communication, command, consistency, connectedness, competition, developer, discipline, deliberative, empathy, futuristic, focus, harmony, include, ideation, intellection, individualization, input, learner, maximizer, positivity, relator, restorative, responsibility, self-assurance, strategic, woo. These individual abilities fall under four different domains: Influencing, Strategic Thinking, Relationship Building, Executing.

The Thinking Talents app, Levo Career Suite
Innate ‘thinking talents’ include: Collecting, fixing it, focusing, get to action, goal setting, having confidence, humour, including, innovation, love of learning, loving ideas, making order, optimisim, particularise, peacemaking, precision, reliability, seeking excellence, standing out, storytelling, strategy, taking charge, thinking ahead, thinking alone, thinking back, thinking logically, wanting to win.

Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs type classification of innate abilities and preferences
Sixteen different basic personality (and innate ability) types based on your inherent temperament, depending on your particular combination of these 8 basic qualities: extroversion vs. introversion, intuition vs. sensing, feeling vs. thinking, perceiving vs. judging. Jung named the 16 different personalities and innate abilities: ISTJ (Inspector), ISFJ (Protector),INFJ (Counselor), INTJ (Mastermind), ISTP (Crafter), ISFP (Composer), INFP (Healer), INTP (Architect), ESTP (Promoter), ESFP (Performer), ENFP (Champion), ENTP (Inventor), ESTJ (Supervisor), ESFJ (Provider), ENFJ (Teacher), ENTJ (Field marshal).
Take a free (unofficial) Myers-Briggs test here.