Sign Out: Intelligence doesn't equal smarts

July 1, 2005

We're smart, right? On the way to becoming physicians, we've navigated college, medical school, and residency admissions, and the innumerable exams that are part of the path to independent practice. We were selected for our intelligence and our future promise. But let's reconsider what it really means to be "intelligent."

Traditionally, intelligence has been measured in academic terms. Factual knowledge is emphasized. Intelligence is defined by our IQ, or intelligence quotient. But what does IQ really mean and does it have any relevance to our success and happiness?

In 1994, Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman published a groundbreaking book entitled "Emotional Intelligence," which had a profound impact on me. Goleman's premise is that academic intelligence has little to do with emotional life, professional success, or happiness. He believes that at best, IQ contributes only 20% to the factors that determine success in life, leaving 80% to non-IQ factors, ranging from emotional intelligence to just plain luck.

Society, and medicine in particular, places great emphasis on academic intelligence (IQ) to predict professional success. However, academic intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil or opportunities that life's vicissitudes bring. We as a culture undervalue emotional intelligence. Yet in reality, people with emotional intelligence (often defined as "character") who know and manage their own feelings well and deal effectively with other people's feelings are the ones at an advantage in life.

There are countless examples of individuals who were considered academic failures in school, yet went on to contribute to their fields and society because of their gift of understanding people. Emotional intelligence is often preferable to intellectual intelligence. This applies whether one is considering success in romance and personal relationships, or navigating the course for a productive medical career within a university department, practice partnership, or organization. How many times have we heard about the importance of bedside manner? Our patients, peers, and families deserve someone who can balance academic intelligence with emotional intelligence. In addition, people with emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their own lives.

In some of us, emotional intelligence is natural, inherent. For others, it must be learned. It is my belief that as educators and physicians, we have a responsibility to teach both academic and emotional skills. According to experts, though, the attributes of emotional intelligence are most easily taught to the young. So, we must focus our efforts early, with our children-and our students-to help them develop into the kind of individuals we value.

Can you recall someone that you worked for who truly inspired you as a leader or boss? Why were they so effective? They probably possessed many of the 10 tools or characteristics that Dr. Steven Covey says are the hallmark of a principle-centered leader: persuasion, patience, gentleness, teachableness, acceptance, kindness, openness, compassionate confrontation, consistency, and integrity. Aren't these also components of emotional intelligence? As educators, I believe we must strive to become emotionally intelligent and principle-centered leaders. By our actions, we are role models for our students. Our choice to live by a set of principles and be trustworthy serves to perpetuate these qualities in our students and our children. We then become the most effective physicians, teachers, parents, and individuals we can be.