Smarts of a Different Sort: The Power of Multiple Intelligences

It used to be that intelligence was largely considered as being of one type: the mathematical and linguistic skills that traditional education has long valued. This notion was rocked to its core in 1983 with the publication of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist and professor. How we think about how we think has never been the same. And I think that’s a good thing.

Later this month, I’ll be teaching another CoreNet course, this one called “Design Thinking @ Work.” It’s one of my favorites, in part because of the ground I cover about intelligence and its impact on how we work. With so much deserved attention on the critical importance of collaboration for business success, Gardner’s multiple intelligences concept remains especially relevant and powerful.

Gardner has helped many people appreciate that a traditional view—that there is but one kind of intelligence we summarize as “IQ” — is too narrow. Instead, Gardner proposed eight types. His theory doesn’t suggest that we each have one of the eight, but that we possess multiple intelligences to varying degrees based on genetics and experiences.

Here is a very high-level description of Gardner’s eight intelligences:

  • Musical(“sound & rhythm smart”) People who think in sounds and patterns and who display good rhythm are strong in this intelligence. They typically play one or more instruments, and they easily remember lots of songs. These are the people can “name that tune” in just a few notes.
  • Logical-Mathematical (“number/reasoning smart”) Those strong in this intelligence excel at logically approaching problems, especially mathematical ones. They are comfortable with abstract ideas and enjoy reviewing the data that science experiments generate. These people are your “mathletes.”
  • Interpersonal (“people smart”): Those strong in this intelligence are “people persons.” They are comfortable interacting with others and do it very well. They accurately sense the feelings and emotions of others and respond accordingly. They are also skilled at managing conflicts in group settings. These people display an abundance of empathy.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic (“body smart”) These people know how to move their bodies with precision, speed and grace. They’re athletes and dancers. The best of the best with this intelligence play for our favorite pro sports teams.
  • Linguistic-Verbal (“word smart”): Those who appreciate words in both their written and spoken form are strong in this intelligence. These people enjoy reading, telling stories and describing things and situations.
  • Intra-personal (“self smart”) These people know themselves well: they’re in tune with their emotions and grasp clearly what they want — and why. They enjoy self-reflection and are often daydreamers.
  • Visual-Spatial (“picture smart”) These people are adept at visualizing things. They interpret charts and graphs with ease, are moved by the visual arts and pick up on patterns that others may miss.
  • Naturalist (“nature smart”): Gardner added this intelligence after first coming up with the other seven. Those high in this intelligence enjoy the outdoors and are more “in tune” with their natural surroundings and even other species.

Gardner suggested that there could be yet other intelligences — perhaps spiritual intelligence (“religion smart”), existential intelligence (“life smart”), and moral intelligence (“right and wrong smart”).

Gardner’s theory isn’t universally embraced; it has its critics. (Much of the criticism has to do with whether or not Gardner’s intelligences are actually intelligences, versus, say, personal strengths and preferences.)

Nonetheless, many educators rely on Gardner’s work to inform their pedagogies and interactions with students. I always encourage business leaders to consider the multiple intelligences theory whenever they’re assembling teams to tackle a big problem over months or just to brainstorm for an hour or two.

The odds of solving tough problems and generating breakthrough ideas are bound to increase when you have different types of minds pondering the challenges at hand. Someone who ranks high in, say, mathematical-analytic intelligence is going to come at the challenge in a much different way than someone who ranks high in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

These different ways of thinking — you might even say different ways of being within the world — lead to different ideas and solutions, often stunningly so. When multiple intelligences come together and collaborate, it can be like vinegar hitting baking soda: positively energetic and transformative.

Every business faces challenges of various types, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Efficiently and successfully overcoming these challenges almost always takes more than one brain — or more to the point, more than one type of brain. Yes, two brains are better than one, but, as Howard Gardner has helped us appreciate, eight is, by far, better still.