Beyond Wit and Grit: Rethinking the Keys to Success by Howard Gardner at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Howard Gardner at TEDxBeaconStreet

Here is the full text of psychologist Howard Gardner’s talk titled “Beyond Wit and Grit: Rethinking the Keys to Success” at TEDxBeaconStreet conference. 

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Howard Gardner – TRANSCRIPT: 

What does it take to be successful? If you’d asked me that question years ago, I would’ve had a simple answer. I would have said, “You’ve got to be smart and work hard.” Putting it a bit more crisply, you need to have wit, that means being intelligent. Here’s a man with a lot of wit, Albert Einstein And you need to have grit You need to work hard and persevere. Like an athlete, like this high jumper.

Of course, this old view of believing in wit and grit is something that I have been thinking about for a long time, and today I am going to trace the evolution of my thinking. Here is an example of a young man who we hope has wit and grit, otherwise he won’t do well in his test. Here is a somewhat older group. We really hope they have wit and grit, because this is the Situation Room in the White House and they have to make some pretty tough decisions. So we hope that they’ll have wit and grit as well.

Today I’m going to review research that I have done as a psychologist over the last 40 years or so. And I have really changed my mind about the importance of wit and grit. That is the story that I will be talking about. This is how I looked a few years ago, when I started my work. And at that time, I was a prototypical believer that intelligence was a single thing, with a single computer in our mind-brain.

If it worked well, we would be smart in everything. If it was sluggish, too bad, we would not be able to do anything at all. And of course, what I believed in at the time was the IQ test. Probably everybody here has had an IQ test. The IQ test purportedly tells you how smart you are.

Unfortunately, if it tells you you’re not smart, you are in big trouble because you think you are not smart. And that’s not a good idea to walk around with for the rest of your life.

What I did in my research is I worked with young kids, kids of different ages, different talents, different backgrounds. Watched them do all sorts of things, and I discovered that if a child was good in one thing, it didn’t necessarily mean that he or she would be good in other things. More dramatically, I worked with brain-damaged patients, individuals who had the misfortune of having a stroke, or some other kind of brain lesion.

The single most important thing about brain damage is where it occurs. Is it the left side or the right side of your brain? Is it anterior or posterior? And as you may know, the location of the lesion tells you what abilities are knocked out and which ones are spared. And you could have two patients who have absolutely opposite profiles: one being strong in the very area the other one is weak in.

This led me, in the early 1980s, the study of human development in different cultures, and the study of the brain and its very specialized regions. This led me to write a book called “Frames of Mind.” Subtitled: “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” often shortened as “MI Theory.”

And this is the work for which I’m still best known. And it was a big book, about 400 pages, but the nice thing about a big book is you can give a very short summary especially if it’s, a TED talk, and the claim of the book is that rather than having a single computer, we all have at least seven or eight different computers. And one computer can work well in one person, another computer can work well in another person. And that’s why we need to think about Multiple Intelligences.

So, let me introduce you to the computers with some photographs. Linguistic intelligence is the intelligence of a poet like Emily Dickinson or Edgar Allan Poe, or a journalist, a CNN journalist. Second intelligence is logical-mathematical: the intelligence of a scientist or a computer programmer. If you do well in language and logic, you will do well in school. And as long as you stay in school, you’ll think you are smart.

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If you ever walk out on the highway or let alone the forest or the jungle, you’ll discover the other intelligences are important too. Musical intelligence is one, the intelligence of the conductor, or of a great performer like Yo-Yo Ma. On the left you can see him as a young prodigy, and on the right the Yo-Yo of today whom we all venerate.

Fourth kind of intelligence is spatial: the ability to deal with local space, like a chess player, or much broader space the way a sailor or navigator would. Fifth kind of intelligence is bodily kinesthetic: the kind of intelligence of an athlete who uses his whole body or a craft person who is working with wood, or metal, or some other kind of material.

Sixth intelligence is interpersonal intelligence: understanding other people. Martin Luther King Jr understood a lot about how to motivate other people. He had interpersonal intelligence. The somewhat mundane level is a sales person who is trying to convince you to get a car you don’t want, for a price you don’t want to pay but that’s interpersonal intelligence as well.

Seventh intelligence is intrapersonal intelligence: understanding yourself. A meditator may have intrapersonal intelligence. If you go through psychoanalysis, the goal is to have more understanding of yourself. I recently added as eighth intelligence the naturalist intelligence. It’s the intelligence that permits people to make distinctions in nature between one plant and another, or to communicate with an animal.

This is Jane Goodall talking to one of her favorite chimps. So those are the eight intelligences and I describe them in a book called “Multiple Intelligences,” and the key move here, I moved from “wit,” singular, to “wits,” plural. Now there are some takeaways. One is that all of us have these intelligences, that’s really what makes us human in a cognitive way. But no two people, not even identical twins have exactly the same intelligence in the same proportion.

That’s amazing. And the fact that we have different intelligences should affect what goes on in school, what goes on at work, and how you relate to other people. And importantly, how you think about yourself, because everybody has some intellectual strength. Nobody is a flat zero. So if you wanted to assess intelligences, what might you do? Many people ask me that.

And what you can’t do is use a paper and pencil test. Why? Because that’s just a language logic machine. If you’re good at language logic, you’ll do well in the test. You have to create environments where you can watch individuals, make use or not make use of their intelligences. So let me show you what we did with young kids.

We gave them a chance to take apart and put together familiar objects: spatial and bodily intelligence. We looked at their musical ability to see if they could create or if they could imitate melodies which they heard. Linguistic intelligence: learn new phrases, learn new languages, have the right tone of voice and prosody.

Looked at fine motor skills, if you don’t hold this carefully you make an awful buzzing sound. That’s a fine motor skill, but here if you don’t walk through the terrain, and you trip the wire, again, you make a very heinous sound.

Naturalist intelligence: what distinctions can the child make with a magnification or with the naked eye? And then here’s an interesting game. It’s a board game, and board games get at your numerical intelligence. But they also get at your interpersonal intelligence because if you’re young, and you understand other people don’t know what you know, you can cheat. And so until the age of four, cheating is a sign of interpersonal intelligence. Thereafter, we tend to discourage it.

So we created a website called “Multiple Intelligences Oasis.” It’s a deliberate figure of speech, because it’s a source of nourishment in the middle of what might be a desert, because in that desert are some misconceptions about multiple intelligences. For example, something called dermatoglyphics, – awful word – claims that you can take a look at people’s fingerprints and tell how smart they are. Total nonsense. So we talk about dermatoglyphics at the website.

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But this is a more serious thing that happened. Over 20 years ago, there was a state in Australia where they built a whole curriculum around Multiple Intelligences, and I was very flattered and I’m sure they were well motivated.

But then I discovered that as part of that curriculum they listed all the racial and ethnic groups in Australia and which intelligences they had, and which ones they lacked. And this really freaked me out, because it was such a misuse of my ideas. There was no evidence for it, so I went on television in Australia, and I said, “Sorry, please don’t use this,” and happily, they stopped using it.

But this led me to ask a question which many scholars need to ask. That is, we develop ideas, it’s great if people talk about them and use them, but let’s say they misuse them. What’s our responsibility? I began to realize that if I didn’t speak out in things like Oasis, I really couldn’t expect anybody else to do so either.

So we’ve been talking about cognition, thinking, intelligence, until now. But in the meantime, in many educational environments, there’s been a switch to thinking more about social, emotional, and personal traits.

And probably the new star, which I introduced at the beginning, is grit. Grit has been written about by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, named Angela Duckworth, and it became very famous when Paul Tough, a journalist, said: “If you want kids to succeed you need to have them have grit.”

Now, this sounds great, I mean, who would be against grit? I want grit, I’d like my kids and grandchildren to have grit, I’d like everybody to have grit. But, if you begin to think about it for a while, you realize that people like Hitler and his stormtroopers had lots of grit. That wasn’t their problem, but they put it to evil uses.

Then a somewhat more contemporary and less heinous example, are what we call “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” The people who develop a company called Enron, and it became a very valuable company, and they worked very hard, but they lied and cheated about how much money they had, and about what the price of energy was around the country, and when Enron collapsed, many people lost their jobs, many people lost their retirement.

Again, the problem was not wit or grit, it was the uses to which the grit was put. So, great to have grit, but what I’m interested in and what I’ve worked on for the last 20 years after “Multiple Intelligences,” is what it means to be a good person, a good worker, and a good citizen. It’s good to have some icons.

Nelson Mandela, much-admired, brought South African warring groups together in a peaceful way. Eleanor Roosevelt, when she was growing up, she couldn’t even vote. But she became a leader of thinking in the United States and had a great positive influence on her husband, President Roosevelt.

And my personal hero, Mahatma Gandhi, who understood better than anybody else that people can disagree, but if we disagree violently, our whole world will collapse. So the nonviolent ideas of Gandhi are so important for our time and going forward.

So we set up something called “The Good Work Project” – as researchers we have projects – we eventually changed the name to “The Good Project” and I worked with many wonderful people whose names are on this slide. And of course you’re thinking, “What is good work?” 20 years, 1200 people, nine different professions, but as with MI, I can give it to you quite succinctly.

Good work is what you find from some lawyers and judges, from some scientists and doctors, from some chemists and teachers. And good work has three components. It’s excellent, it’s engaged and it’s ethical.

So let’s talk about teaching. A good working teacher knows his or her stuff, they are excellently informed, they are engaged, they care, they look forward to going to school, they love the kids, they want to work with them.

And what I’m going to focus on for the rest of my talk, good workers are ethical. They understand if they have difficult decisions to make and they work very hard to make the right decisions, and if they don’t do the right decisions, then they try to do better the next time. And we call this Triple Helix “ENA,” kind of playing on DNA, you all know the double helix of DNA, but a person doesn’t get the good work seal of approval unless he or she is excellent, and engaged, and ethical.

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And now, after two decades of work, we have again, a website and a source of information, The Good Project, where we talk about good work, good play, good citizenship, good collaboration, and we give people games and devices and tools to try to become good themselves and help other people attain the good. This is the GoodWork Toolkit, and I’m going to give you one example from the GoodWork Toolkit. It’s an example which is true but the photograph is not of the person, and the name has been changed.

It’s a story of Debbie. And if you’re a student or a teacher, you hear about Debbie and you have to decide, “What should Debbie do?” She is a journalist, a wonderful journalist, editor of her high school newspaper, and her grandfather was a famous reporter for The New York Times.

There’s a rape on campus. It’s Debbie’s job as the journalist to write about the rape and she proceeds to do so, but then the headmaster calls her in and says, “Debbie, you cannot write about the rape in the newspaper because next week we’re doing recruiting at the school, and if you talk about a rapist, nobody’s going to want to go to the school so I forbid you to write about it.”

Debbie has got an ethical dilemma. She goes home, and she sees her mother, and mother gives her a great hug and says, “Debbie, you’re wonderful, your grandfather would be so proud of you. You’re a terrific journalist, but you know your brother Teddy wants to go to the school next year. And you know if you publish the story, he may not get into the school, so you’ve got to think a lot about what you have to do.” This is an ethical dilemma because Debbie wants to be a good journalist, and that calls her to do one thing.

She wants to be a good member of her school community, but what does that mean? And then she wants to be a good person at home. She wants to do what her parents want and what’s good for her brother. So these are the kind of ethical dilemmas that we deal with when we are trying to understand what it means to be a good person, a good worker, or a good citizen.

You’re probably thinking, especially if you’re a philosopher, “Well, who decides what’s good?” Here is one answer: the Supreme Court, and they have some power, but if you’re like me you don’t always like what the Supreme Court says. So I have a better answer, we have a lot of research to support this. The better answer is to talk, communicate, with people in your world. This is a group of teachers with whom I worked for many years. When a problem comes up, we talk about it face to face, in person, try to decide what to do.

Make a decision, do it, and then if it doesn’t work out, try to do better the next time. We call this “creating a common space,” and it’s much better if the commons occurs in person than online, but it’s better online than not at all.

But if you want it to strain toward being good, you can’t do it on your own, you need to have people whom you know and trust, with whom you can discuss these very vexing issues. So after 40 years, two takeaways. Number one: people can be smart in different ways, and that should influence how we think about ourselves and others.

Second of all, grit alone is not enough. We have to decide how to apply grit, and work ceaselessly to make the grit in service of the good. Now I’m not going to give you a summary. Instead, the question is: could we tweet this? What do you think? Let’s try. We can pluralize “Wit,” and we can prepose “Good” in front of “Grit.” Multiple Wits, Good Grits. Thank you.

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