It used to be that cognitive intelligence was the king of the hill in terms of importance. Then emotional intelligence showed up. But now Cornell University's professor of human development, Robert J. Sternberg, says "successful intelligence" likely matters more than all the other intelligence types you've heard about.

Exactly what is this new kind of smarts?

Successful intelligence is a "new" psychological theory Sternberg actually introduced way back in 1996. He defines it as "the ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one's life, given one's cultural context."

According to Sternberg, if you're successfully intelligent, you can think well in four areas as related to goals:

  • Creatively
  • Analytically
  • Practically
  • Wisdom-based (Ethically)

You think creatively to come up with new ideas that are useful. You then analyze those ideas to see if they're worthwhile or good. You think practically when you apply your concepts in ways that make sense for everyday life and convince others to jump on board. Lastly, you consider whether the way you're implementing your ideas will benefit everyone and follows accepted ethical rules. All these types of thinking rely on higher order executive mental processes such as recognizing a problem.

What makes successfully intelligent people different?

Successfully intelligent people, according to Sternberg, accomplish goals by determining which strengths and weaknesses they've got and, as a great mentor might tell you to do, capitalizing on the strength or compensating for the weaknesses. To do this, they're willing to seek out mentors and other people to help them. They also look deeper than face value and take a second look at what's "known"--they're not mentally rigid in the way they think or view the world. They create their own opportunities if need be, and they're fantastic at correctly identifying problems. Because they can determine what the problems are so easily and see the bigger pictures around them, they have a keen sense of when to quit and when to keep on trying. When successfully intelligent people manipulate their strengths and weaknesses well, they have enormous power to choose, accommodate, or shape their environments.

Successful intelligence as a fluid measure

If you feel like you come up short given the description of successful intelligence, don't fret. Like other forms of intelligence, successful intelligence, according to Sternberg, is something you can work at and develop. He maintains that this development can start early, when kids are still in school, by creating curricula that go beyond the typical focus on analysis and memorization. This is important to consider because, at least in the United States, standardized testing has come to dominate the classroom. At the same time, there's much less of an emphasis on practical or creative skills like the arts, shop, or home economics. This very well might leave the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders less prepared to formulate and follow their own innovative paths. In fact, Sternberg himself has noted that current school systems need better ways to teach and assess practical, creative, and wisdom-based skills.

Sternberg was awarded the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Psychology earlier this month for developing the successful intelligence concept. His colleagues assert that his work is shifting the way we think about intelligence and forcing us to see it within a broader cultural context. With cognitive intelligence, we might look at the person, with emotional intelligence, our relationships and interactions--successful intelligence requires us to look much more deeply at how we live, influence one another, and establish or adjust norms. In the end, that picture of the larger mandala might be much more fulfilling, productive, and beautiful than the single arms we've focused on in the past.