The Importance of Existential Intelligence In Organizations

Big picture thinking in an exponential age

Tannya D. Jajal
Nov 9, 2020 · 7 min read

Of all the skills, values, and mindsets that we need in order to thrive in the future, perhaps the most underrated and unrecognized one is existential intelligence.

Existential intelligence is the intelligence of big picture thinking. People with existential intelligence tend to be critical thinkers who are unafraid to challenge the norm. These are individuals who have the ability to use metacognition (thinking about thinking, or being aware of ones awareness) to ask the big questions and seek answers to them.

Howard Gardner & Multiple Intelligences

Existential intelligence was first introduced by education expert Howard Gardner, who coined the theory of Multiple Intelligences.

According to Gardner, individuals have varying degrees of intelligence that documents the extent to which students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways. Gardner proposed that people may possess 7 different types of intelligence: Logical/Mathematical, Musical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Naturalist, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal. At the time, Gardner also toyed with the idea of including existential/spiritual intelligence.

In theory, this is a truly remarkable discovery. For the longest time, our society has upheld institutions that value only one kind of intelligence (logical-mathematical), meaning that those who fall short this area but excel in others rarely have the chance to succeed in society. The current education system, standardized testing models, and industry requirements for job seekers is modeled around measuring and hiring for cognitive intelligence. This industrial-era model is completely outdated and in desperate need of reform. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can be used to propel this reform.

Identifying Existential Intelligence

How can you know whether or not you have existential intelligence? And what purpose does existential intelligence serve in society?

Gardner defines existential intelligence as “a concern with ultimate life issues”. A candidate for this intelligence is based on the human proclivity to ponder the most fundamental questions of existence. Why do we live? Why do we die? Where do we come from? What is going to happen to us?

Some might assume that this sort of intelligence is only relevant within the context of philosophy or science — let the theologians, philosophers, and astronomers cultivate their existential intelligence while the rest of us focus on other things. But in a world of accelerating change, automation, and disruption, existential intelligence is becoming increasingly important — within the context of business, on the individual level, and for society at large. Arguably, it is the most important type of intelligence in the current era. Let’s consider a couple of points.

1. Existential Intelligence & Industry Skills

We live in a world where new-age companies like Uber, Instagram, Airbnb, and Netflix are able to disrupt traditionallly linear organizations like Blockbuster and Kodak — overnight.

We live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). As a result, industry trends are constantly being redefined. The successful corporate equation no longer involves perfect competition and passive price-setting. Established companies are changing their policies and their corporate strategy to keep up with these changes. Those that fail quickly find themselves at the bottom rung of the ladder. Meanwhile, several new-age, innovative companies that are information-enabled (like Instagram), are swooping in to take the crown.

In such an era, individuals who possess existential intelligence have an important role to play across any industry. Existential individuals have the following traits to offer:

a. Exponential Mindset

To be a successful leader in the current era of exponential technologies, it’s no longer enough to think linearly. For the longest time, analysts and predictors of future trends analyzed world events linearly. In fact, many of the organizations that have faced disruption were advised by leading intellectuals from companies like McKinsey. This is understandable, given that the linear way of thinking is intuitive to most of us.

But we now need leaders who can think exponentially — and the rise of disruptive organizations sheds light on how important this is.

Consider this short thought experiment proposed by serial entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis.

Suppose you give your child two choices:

Option #1: I give you $1 per day for the next 30 days;


Option #2: I give you a penny on the first day, two cents on the second day, four cents on the third day, eight cents on the fourth day, and so on for 30 days.

Obviously, option #1 nets you $30. This is easy to predict and is the definition of linear.

But option #2 goes from being deceptive to disruptive. If you choose open #32, the first 5 days will only get you 31 cents. But after 30 doublings, you would end up with a payout of an astronomical $10,737,418.24.

This is the promise of exponential growth. Thinking exponentially is critical in order to plan and predict the future of your business.

For example, being aware of exponential trends in technology might deter us from using a particular technology, or might encourage us to speed up the go-to-market for a product in an era where disruption is just around the corner. It might also encourage a leader to strategically utilize an exponential technology for the development of his or her organization. Those who think exponentially also value the power of radical change, can tap into crowds and are unafraid to take risks. Though many traditional organizations today still tend to be risk-averse, in the long-term, the cost of not being experimental as an organization can have dramatic repurcussions on your future success.

b. Big Picture Thinking and Risk-Taking

Being able to zoom out, take a cosmic perspective, and view decisions against the backdrop of the bigger picture is an essential component to ensure future success.

In his 2006 book, “Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice,” Gardner gives the hypothetical example of “Jane,” who runs a company called Hardwick/Davis. “Whereas her managers deal more with the day-to-day operational problems, Jane’s job is to steer the whole ship,” says Gardner. “She must maintain a longer-term outlook, take into account the conductions of the marketplace, set a general direction, align her resources and inspire her employees and customers to stay on board.” In other words, Jane needs to see the big picture; she needs to envision the future — the future needs of the company, customers, and marketplace — and guide the organization in that direction. That ability to see the big picture may be a distinct intelligence — the existential intelligence — says Gardner.

Those who can take a big picture perspective also tend to be unafraid to challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions and take risks. Failure, when viewed against the context of an entire lifespan of opportunities, seems less daunting to an existential thinker.

c. Collective Values and Compassion

Salim Ismail, author of Exponential Organization say that any company that hopes to have a chance of survival in the future must have a Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP).

Unlike a mission or vision statement, an MTP is an organization’s highly aspirational tagline that tries to solve a global issue. Examples are:

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading

Google: Organize the Worlds Information

XPrize Foundation: Bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity

Singularity University: Positively impact one billion people

An individual with a high degree of existential intelligence will be able to identify an MTP that aligns with the values of billions of people, draw more people into the narrative of the organization, and ensure that an organization lives up to its MTP.

This is because existential thinkers are able to view progress — within an organization or society at large — as a unifying force. They tend to be able to truly comprehend the forces that unite humanity in order to propel forward in the long-run. My guess is that individuals with existential intelligence are less concerned with day to day anxieties and disagreements, and instead more drawn to the bigger picture impact that a decision can have on the large collective of people. Moreover, because of their natural propensity to ask the big questions, these individuals will be able to focus on purpose, or as Simon Sinek says, “start with why”. Asking the “why” behind your motivation to do something — be it in your career or personal life — can be a really powerful mechanism for positive change.

They also tend to be more compassionate because of their desire to be an outsider while at the same time showing a strong interest in society and those around them.

2. Existential Intelligence in a Post-AI, Post-Automation World

Aside from the positive traits that existential thinkers bring to society, this is a greater need for humanity as a whole to cultivate this skill.

We live in a world of accelerating change. Exponential technologies are ushering in the 4th industrial revolution, which is not only disrupting industries but also changing the way we live and work.

According to McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, 45% of the tasks that human beings do today can be automated using existing technology alone. In a world where everything that can be automated will be automated, we might ask ourselves, what will human beings do? How will we co-exist in a world with intelligent machines? Moreover, how can we ensure that we’re preparing future generations to ethically and responsibly live in the technology era?

Education expert Rohan Roberts draws a connection between A.I. and Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. According to Roberts, the hardest skills to automate — for which A.I. does not exist — are existential intelligence, pedagogical intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence.

If we want to thrive in the future, we need a complete overhaul of the current education system. Currently, schools do not focus on any of the above intelligences — least of all existential intelligence. In other words, the education industry is bound to be disrupted to align with our future needs. As of now, the only organization that is disrupting this industrial-era model is Awecademy.

Awecademy — like any organization of the future — has an MTP: to empower the next generation of cosmic citizens to create civilization-level change.

Tannya D. Jajal

Written by

I work @VMware. Philosophy, Psychology, Technology, Ethics, Policy


Exponential technologies and disruptive innovations are ushering in a world of accelerating change. Awecademy prepares learners, educators, and industry leaders for this exciting future.

Tannya D. Jajal

Written by

I work @VMware. Philosophy, Psychology, Technology, Ethics, Policy


Exponential technologies and disruptive innovations are ushering in a world of accelerating change. Awecademy prepares learners, educators, and industry leaders for this exciting future.

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