alex petralia

2017-09-04 (last updated: 2017-09-15)

adaptable intelligence

Many of us probably recognize the following character portrait: John is highly intelligent with strokes of brilliance and ingenuity, but has a manifest inability to work with others. He parses abstruse technical concepts with relative ease, often supplying unconventional and “surprisingly simple” solutions to otherwise difficult problems. But here’s the rub: he’s unpleasant to work with. Colleagues don’t get along with him - they may even be intimidated - yet they all respect his raw intelligence.

"He's smart, but he's an asshole," they say.

Just how costly is this tradeoff? Would you hire the disagreeable savant or the competent professional?

The information pipeline

A rudimentary model of problem-solving[1] can be described as:

* Capture
* Integrate
* Output

People capture information from their environment (ignoring noisy, low-information signals along the way), integrate it into their models of the world, and finally output individual actions and communications via decision-making.

In the conventional sense of the word, “smart” people excel in the integration of new information - they are fast learners and deep thinkers. But “smart” doesn’t necessarily concern capture or output. We are all familiar with smart people who are exceedingly stubborn or poor communicators. They are certainly “smart,” but something seems amiss when we try and discern their problem-solving ability: indeed it is because they often struggle to accept new information, convert that information into actionable next steps or communicate what they’ve internally figured out. Intelligence alone seems incomplete as an explanation of cognitive ability[2].

Adaptable intelligence

Great problem-solvers excel in the three items above. Certainly we appreciate the open-minded, intelligent and charismatic leader with the ability to “get things done” and communicate effectively. This requires more than just high intelligence - it requires adaptable intelligence.

Adaptable intelligence, as I define it, is the ability to not only understand and integrate new information, but also be open-minded to accepting that information to begin with. Adaptable intelligence spans both capture and integration. It requires intellectual flexibility - the ability to hold opposing ideas in one’s head in a dialectical tension and flip between one being absolutely right and the other being absolutely wrong, and then vice versa, at the drop of a hat.

While genius in solitude can create new ideas simply by combining and mutating old ones, the vast majority of us cannot do this alone. We take the ideas of others, twist and contort them, and ideally transmute them into something almost entirely derivative but somehow better than before. We need to listen (actually listen) to others, bounce ideas off them and ask dumb questions. Information capture then is a social enterprise.

Adaptable intelligence (along with output, though out of scope for now) is what businesses really care about. There is however perhaps nothing more antithetical to this than…


Ego is the feeling of pride in one’s own identity, beliefs & ideas. The ego prevents us from being open-minded to new information, rejecting that which does not conform to our reality. This information can come from a book, or lecture, or friend or results from a science experiment - no matter the source, ego composes the membrane which filters this information. Ego rationalizes our pre-existing worldview, represses cognitive dissonance and engenders confirmation bias. Ego is what keeps us on the path that got us here.

Our ego prizes our subjective “being right” (probably better described as “feeling right”) over the objective truth - but performance requires the truth. Toward this end, ego is the enemy.

Not all of us are genetically endowed with savantish intelligence - it is beyond our control. But we do have control over our ego. Through deliberate practice, we can subdue the need to be “right,” encourage child-like curiosity and naiveté, and embrace letting go. By weakening the ego, we can better update our priors as the evidence so demands. “Letting go” need not be a spiritual mandate for enlightenment - it can also be merely a tool for knowledge acquisition and performance.


[1] I base this on principles from personal knowledge management.
[2] The idea of EQ, however unsubstantiated, may very well be borne out of a desire to explain problem-solving ability beyond simply IQ. A better explanation may simply correlate IQ with integration, but neither capture nor output. These of course are essential for performance in problem-solving.