A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.
— Alan Kay
When talking about ultra-successful people, we like to tell ourselves that they have something we don’t. More often than not, we call this something ‘smartness’. Or brains. Or intelligence.
While some very successful people are actually quite smart in the conventional sense — the Silicon Valley savants come to mind — the correlation doesn’t always hold in the other direction. If smarts were all it took, you’d have the Forbes richest list overrun by PhDs and Nobel Prize winners.
No, what is more rampant among the ranks of the rich, and made men and women is a leverage of another kind: a point of view (POV). Or rather, a different point of view. A perspective on the world that makes up for what is understood as conventional intelligence.
The example of Jobs and Wozniak is as tired as an ultra-marathon runner forced to do laundry after a 21K, but it’s apt because it’s so true. Apple is what it is today because of Jobs’ POV on what it a tech company should be. The image of the bitten-into fruit is so powerful not because it belongs to a company with the smartest engineers, but because of the world view it represents.
The argument therefore, is this: the ability to see things from a different POV can be as (or even more) effective than simply having a high IQ. This is exactly what Alan Kay, the legendary computer scientist, was trying to get at when he uttered that quote.
What’s the fuss about IQ?
IQ is a widely-accepted, albeit controversial, proxy for intelligence based on your performance on a bunch of standardised tests. The IQ score measures what we think intelligence should be: the ability to apply rules, detect patterns, focus attention, and stay motivated.
Most problems we encounter in the real world need us to display exactly these qualities. Which is why psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman says that “(IQ tests) measure a set of skills that are important to society”.
While the definition of intelligence has expanded in recent times to include other types of mental ability, the label ‘intelligent’ still conjures up visions of raw computing power.
This type of intelligence is especially handy when a problem is known. With all the variables in hand, you can just enter them into a powerful computer and out comes the answer at the other end. The key component of this kind of intelligence is familiarity: the more exposure you have to a certain kind of problem, the faster is your ability to solve it in the future.
A higher IQ is then simply a better mousetrap when you know that catching mice is the end goal. But what do you do with a mousetrap when you don’t see any tiny rodents?
A perspective is simply how you see a situation. Most people take reality at face value, not realising that what we perceive is simply an interpretation of what is out there. Our experiences, biases and models of the world have a huge role in determining what we see and hear. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be individuals with different opinions and preferences, but automatons rolling off the assembly line.
A new perspective is like a crowbar that can force open an obvious situation and reveal what’s underneath. This isn’t to say there’s something like one ‘right’ perspective that one should always aim for. No. It’s more about developing a habit of not giving up unless you’ve examined a situation from all sides.
However, a change in perspective doesn’t necessarily have to be about finding a new way to solve a problem. It could be about reframing the process of problem-solving itself and realising that you don’t always need a perfect solution to move forward. If progress is the goal, an above-average IQ can often get in the way with its insistence on not moving unless the correct solution is found.
If your interest lies beyond just acing tests, you can see why a change in perspective can bring you benefits which are usually ascribed to a high IQ. Raw computing power is great where the problem is neatly defined, but most problems outside of textbooks don’t come with brightly-painted signs saying ‘start solving here’.
An IQ-led view of the world begins with the question ‘how?’:
‘How do I solve this problem?
‘How do I get from point A to point B?
The alternative view is about asking what and why:
‘What problem do I need to solve?’
‘Why should I solve this and not that?’
Why it’s so difficult to have a different POV
If having a different perspective is so useful, why is it so hard to generate one? Maybe a high IQ is actually needed to see things others don’t see. Maybe, but the more likely cause is a mixture of laziness and fear. Since our brains are highly energy-efficient systems, they won’t spend any extra effort than to ensure we stay alive. So if we want to see around corners, we need to make the brain sweat a little.
But an even more subtle obstacle is the fear of being ridiculed, or worse, ignored. Since a new way of doing things will rarely get a red-carpet welcome, you have to be mentally strong enough to take the criticism and indifference. Most people decide it’s not worth the bother and stick to what they know will be accepted.
Seen this way, having a different perspective is like a mini-revolt against the established order. That’s why a new point of view is indispensable to entrepreneurs, artist, rebels and reformers.
However, to see things differently is not about being contrarian for the the sake of being contrarian, nor is it about taking wild bets. Developing a different perspective is less about being imaginative than it is about knowing what you don’t know. A change in perspective that arises from an awareness of our limitations is more deeply rooted in reality and has a better chance of leading us closer to success.
In contrast, when you over-rely on your intelligence, a fresh perspective seems like a needless and distracting hack. After all, why should you waste time picking the lock when you feel you can just blow open the door?
A POV is at the core, an interpretation of reality. When we’re willing to change our viewpoint, we open ourself up to the possibility of stumbling upon a more accurate model of that reality. However, the first step is to accept that our present understanding might be incomplete.
All the same, we must have confidence in our decision to take a different tack or to entertain a novel worldview. This is because a perspective is the sum of all our multiple intelligences — social, emotional, psychological — some of which are even subconscious.
What this means is that when you see something differently, you are not just shooting in the dark, but bringing your entire experience to bear upon a situation. It is the whole you versus just the quantitative part of you. And that is why a change in perspective can often be worth a lot more than an increase in IQ points.