The Sum of Success: IQ + Creativity + Practical Intelligence

In Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina quoted The Journal of Happiness Studies which stated that “People who make more than $5 million a year are not appreciably happier than those who make $100,000 a year”. “Money only increases happiness only when it lifts people out of poverty to about the mid-five figures. Past $50,000 per year in income, wealth and happiness part ways.”

According to Outliers, it appears that the relationship between IQ and real world success is similar. “Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.” Once an individual is “smart enough”, that individual is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as someone with an IQ of 180. Malcolm Gladwell tells us about Chris Langan, a man with an IQ of 195. With such a high IQ, you would think that Chris Langan would be a household name, but how many of us have ever heard of Chris Langan? Until I read the Outliers, I didn’t even know he existed. In comparison, Einstein’s IQ was only 150, yet most people have heard of Einstein.

A great quote from the Outliers highlights this point:

“Knowledge of a boy’s IQ is of little help if you are faced with a formful of clever boys.”

So beyond an IQ of 120, what differentiates individuals from being successful? To illustrate the difference, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted a couple of examples in Outliers. The first came in the form of a question from a divergence test:

Write down as many different uses that you can think of for the following objects:

  1. a brick
  2. a blanket

Here’s one answer from a student at a top British school:

(Brick). To use in smash-and-grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, turn and throw—no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.

(Blanket). To use on a bed. As a cover for illicit sex in the woods. As a tent. To make smoke signals with. As a sail for a boat, cart or sled. As a substitute for a towel. As a target for shooting practice for short-sighted people. As a thing to catch people jumping out of burning skyscrapers.

And this is the answer from a prodigy with one of the highest IQs in his school:

(Brick). Building things, throwing.

(Blanket). Keeping warm, smothering fire, tying to trees and sleeping in (as a hammock), improvised stretcher.

Clearly, the first answer shows a lot more creativity than the second. And if you were to place a bet on who would be more likely to win a Nobel Prize, I’m sure you would be betting on the person who wrote the first answer even though his IQ is lower. Just because an individual has a high IQ doesn’t mean he can come up with creative ideas.

The other differential highlighted by Gladwell is termed “practical intelligence”. He gives an excellent examples of practical intelligence displayed by Robert Oppenheimer who had a mind equally as sharp as Chris Langan but because of his practical intelligence, he was able to turn the most impossible of situations to his favour. Robert Oppenheimer knew “what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect”. These are two of the life skills that Ellen Galinsky talks about in her book Mind in the Makingperspective taking and communicating. These are life skills that must be taught. Given Chris Langan’s upbringing, it is understandable why he never had the opportunity to learn these skills.

How do you teach these skills to your child? Ellen Galinsky offers lots of practical advice in her book “Mind in the Making“.


  1. MieVee – Yes, it was like that for me in Australia, too. All the books that I read were from the public libraries. I hardly had any books at home (aside from school books…) I really miss that. It is so different here in Malaysia.

    I have come to know about two libraries but I don’t know how well stocked they are. There is one in Taman Tun – but I have yet to see it. The other is in the area around UM, I think, but I hear the librarians are really strict and it’s very stressful being in there when you have children. Almost makes me wonder why they have a library at all.

    Oh, there is another. It’s the British Council Library in Wisma Selangor Dredging (diagonally opposite KLCC). The range of books is limited though.

    LM’s Mum – Our public service here is very primitive. It’ll be a long time before we ever have a system as advanced as the library system in London over here.

  2. One thing I can’t complain about here in London is libraries. You can have an online access to your account and can reserve any book you like over the Internet. If it is not listed in your local library’s catalogue, it can be sent over from another library of London Libraries Consortium and once it reaches your library, a text message is sent to you asking you to come and collect it. The selection of books is huge. I also saved a fortune not having to buy books for LM!

  3. Oh… Maybe that’s why Singapore Borders is closing but not yet in Malaysia. I know I’m drifting but just couldn’t help pointing out the differences.

  4. Taking about libraries: Singapore has super-accessible and well-stocked libraries. (Accessible = library within or next to shopping mall!) As a child, I hardly had to buy books for leisure reading. Easily borrowed many good books every few weeks. And that’s 20+ years ago! Here in Malaysia, we’re spending a small fortune on books. I don’t even know where the public library is. Ha!

  5. MieVee – yes, in other words whole brain development. And those are great ideas for developing practical intelligence. They are also listed in Mind in the Making (or something to the same effect).

    LM’s Mum – yes, excellent reading! You’re so lucky to have libraries to be able to get these books. I have to buy everything over here!

    Irene – totally. I’m so glad I picked these up.

  6. Irene Ng says:

    What an eye-opener!

  7. Just placed two reservations with my library, for “Mind in the Making” and “Outliers”. Sound like interesting reads!

  8. Essentially the equation summing up success refers to effective whole brain development and application. Many individuals with high IQ are unable to communicate their thoughts effectively to others (or “sell their ideas or themselves”), which can limit their success.

    E.g. Fail an interview due to poor dress sense and lack of speaking skills. Such individuals can hold highly technical positions but may not be able to lead and manage a team well, so are unsuitable candidates to be CEOs.

    The practical intelligence part can be learnt from lots of opportunities to interact with others. I’d certainly teach my children selling skills, which is critical in many situations towards success. For instance, run a games stall at a school funfair and aim to raise the most amount of funds. That’ll need a good deal of creativity and practical intelligence.


  1. […] And they don’t mean IQ. They want people with the ability to “process on the fly” and be able to “pull together disparate bits of information”. It’s not just about being clever. It’s about having practical intelligence. […]

  2. […] There was an article I read recently titled: “Why Creativity is the Most Important Quality You Have” and it relates creativity to having a purpose in life, being driven, fulfillment, and happiness. Creativity ensures greater success and helps you stand out from the crowd above and beyond simply having a good resume and academic transcripts. Creative people are the problem solvers of today and that opens opportunity doors that would otherwise be closed. In a nutshell, if you have nothing else, at least be creative. Indeed, some time back, there was another paper that investigated the relationship between creativity and high IQ and they found that being creative can compensate for low IQ. When it came to academic performance, there was no significant difference between individuals with high IQ and those with high creativity. When all things are equal, creativity will be your trump card. […]