Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Question of Smart...

A great analyst can understand a complex system by progressively breaking it into down into smaller and smaller parts. This is a reductive process requiring analytical skills and the ability to see what is and understand it.

A great inventor, on the other hand, can take a collection of small parts and build a useful complex system by assembling parts into greater and greater wholes. This is a creative process that not only requires an understanding of how all the parts work, but also the ability to see what is not and create it.

It seems to me that analytical skills and creative skills are distinctly different. They seem to be related but running in opposite directions in the same respect that deduction and induction are related but running in opposite directions.

They don't seem to necessarily go hand-in-hand. I've seen individuals with amazing analytical skills shrug in the face of great creativity and mutter, "I could never do that..." Likewise, who hasn't run into an amazing artist who is befuddled by mathematics and systems analysis?

Without turning this into a post about hiring engineers, I'd like to note that I believe the greatest engineers are blessed in both areas. There are really good engineers that can identify and fix the most formidable bugs; and there are really good engineers who can dream up perfect solutions; but a great engineer, I think, is one that excels both analytically and creatively. (If I had to guess, I'd say Apple understands this better than any other company creating software nowadays. Adobe seems to understand it pretty well too.)

Time after time, I've seen articles and blog posts proclaiming the importance of hiring people who are "smart," but I'm perpetually at a loss when it comes to defining what "smart" is.

People with great analytical skills often seem to equate "smart" with possessing great analytical skills. Likewise, people with great creative skills seem to equate "smart" with possessing great creative talent. All too often, "smart" seems to be a function of the particular cave in which one dwells. I share skepticism with Howard Gardner on this issue.

I've rambled on about this, because it's a question that has long intrigued me. Maybe I should add it to the slowly coalescing list of running themes in this blog.

Prompting me today is an article in BBC News titled Grey power: Battle of the Brains:

"But what about 'creativity'? It is not really tested by an IQ test.

Robert Sternberg, from Tufts University, Boston, maintains it's essential: 'Creativity was a tool for the high flyers - the Einsteins, the Darwins, the Newtons. But now the world has changed so much that creativity is now a vital part of intelligence for everyone'

We assessed creativity by using a test developed in the 60s: 'Name as many uses as you can for a sock in 10 minutes.'

The results were interesting. One of the high scorers on the IQ performed poorly; the other, extremely well. The creatives in our group also did very well, as you would expect."


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