Brilliance & Devotion

Yesterday I had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend, who will remain anonymous, about the concept of “brilliance”. I very much respect this person’s intellectual capabilities and achievements, although he/she is rather self-deprecating and feels that true brilliance is in another league entirely.

What is brilliance, truly? How do we measure and define it? It has often been identified by achievement in science, math, medicine, academia, literature.

Intelligence alone is an insufficient criteria. Brilliance is not a function of high test scores, talent or capability alone. Brilliance requires application. It requires hard work, perseverance, sweat equity, passionate devotion to a purpose.

On the subject of intelligence, however, the IQ metric has often been criticized as a culturally biased, one-dimensional measure of intellectual capacity. Harvard developmental psychology professor Dr. Howard Gardner argues that intelligence does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display, and proposes an alternate theory of multiple intelligences.

The eight, multiple areas of intelligence Gardner suggests include:

People with high verbal-linguistic intelligence are gifted with words and languages. They are typically good at reading, writing, telling stories and memorizing words and definitions.

This area has to do with logic, abstractions, reasoning, and numbers. People with this talent demonstrate reasoning capabilities, abstract patterns of recognition, scientific thinking and investigation, and the ability to perform complex calculations. This area correlates strongly with traditional concepts of “intelligence” or IQ.

Those gifted with visual-spatial intelligence have a strong ability to visualize, conceptualize and translate ideas into design. This type of intelligence tends to lend itself to art, design and architecture.

Bodily-kinesthetic talents include control of bodily movement, capacity to handle objects skillfully, timing and the ability to train responses so they become like reflexes. Those talented in this area tend to perform well in acting/performing, building, athletics, dance, law enforcement, the military, even surgery.

Musical ability includes high sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, music and may even include perfect pitch. The musically gifted are able to sing, play musical instruments, and compose music.

People who have a high interpersonal intelligence tend to be gregarious extroverts, sensitive to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations, and work well in a group setting.

People with intrapersonal intelligence tend to be introverts and are skillful at deciphering their own feelings and motivations, strengths/ weaknesses, reactions/ emotions.

Those with this skill are gifted with nature, nurturing and relating information to one’s natural surroundings.

I’d have to agree with this multidimensional picture of human capability. It shows respect for humans as many-faceted beings, with the ability to be brilliant, to be geniuses, in many different areas. The visionary artist, the star athlete, the consummate salesperson and the legendary philosopher are all brilliant in their own area.

Still, I submit that brilliance requires a combination of giftedness and devotion. The superstars in each area, the Nobel prize winners, Olympic athletes, National Museum artists, all wholeheartedly spend a lifetime pursuing their chosen profession.

I can say, without arrogance, that I have been blessed in the genetic lottery to be above average in a couple of the above areas. (linguistic and visual/spatial) Except where my profession is concerned, I am by nature a dilettante, so I have never devoted the time or energy to see what I am capable of.

Maybe I need to change that. Thanks, friend.

3 Responses to “Brilliance & Devotion”

  1. Janiece Says:

    I consider intelligence (in all its myriad aspects) to be very much like pr0n – I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

  2. Eric Says:

    The history of IQ is a fascinating thing. The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to say if it actually measures anything. And it’s been distorted far beyond its original design or intent: Alfred Binet’s original “intelligence quotient” was invented as a diagnostic test for under-performing French schoolchildren, to try to figure out what kind of educational approach might work best (i.e. if a 10-year-old child turned out to have a “mental age” of 8, perhaps the child should be given lessons suitable for an 8-year-old). It doesn’t seem like Binet ever really intended “IQ” to represent some actual, objectively measurable cognitive quality.

    Gardner’s approach might solve some of the problems with measuring whatever-the-hell-”intelligence”-is, but it creates others. It also, I think, starts begging the question of why we’re even bothering to measure “intelligence” beyond school age; that is to say, it might be useful to know what a schoolchild’s aptitudes are (that was Binet’s whole object to start with, within the context of turn-of-the-20th-Century models and approaches to education), and approach the child’s education by playing to the child’s strengths and buttressing the child’s weaknesses. It’s less clear that there’s any use in knowing that an adult is better at “Kinesthetic Intelligence” than at “Intrapersonal Intelligence.” Granted, it might be something a vocational counselor fixates on–except the fact an adult has an aptitude for physical motion doesn’t mean he or she didn’t spend a lifetime at a desk, let’s say; assuming for the sake of an argument that this adult has somehow naturally capped-out at a mediocre level because he or she has heavily invested themselves in something they have no natural gifts for, it doesn’t follow that they are somehow more employable or even that they would be happier or even better, for that matter, doing something that better suits their natural talents. Or, even if they would be any or all of those things, that pursuing those aptitudes would be practical (one might be happier and even ultimately more successful as a painter than an accountant, but that fact doesn’t pay the mortgage nor clothe the children in the meantime).

    Oh, and then there’s this unfortunate point in the Wikipedia article on Gardner’s hypothesis: “A major criticism of this theory is that it has never been tested, or subjected to peer review, by Gardner or anyone else, and indeed that it is unfalsifiable.” That, of course, isn’t a “major” criticism, but a fatal one.

    I’d have to agree with Janiece’s point. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. That doesn’t mean I don’t find IQ useful as a diagnostic when something is clearly wrong; in my line of work, being able to say that a thirteen-year-old (or a twenty-year-old!) is functioning at the level of a nine-year-old may be extraordinarily useful, even if one can’t put their finger on what that means in a kind of quantitative sense. But, you know, this leads to an interesting (sort of) thought, which is that in this context “intelligence test” becomes a misnomer that may be part of the confusion; what is being measured is really a functioning or maybe coping quotient, as opposed to the connotation we usually get from the word “intelligence.” Just a thought.

  3. Bill Says:

    I have to disagree with a connection between brilliance and devotion. I believe the most likely route to brilliance is devotion to the work at hand. I also believe that people show brilliance through great leaps in thought. These leaps in thought skip all the middle steps that most of us have to complete to come to the answer or new way of approaching something.

    The brilliant don’t always “show their work.”