I was reading the September 2015 issue of the Monitor on Psychology when I came across an interview with Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. discussing new ways to look at the concept of intelligence. His research has focused on what he calls “the engagement aspect of intellectual functioning.” I have given hundreds of IQ tests over the years and have witnessed the limitations of trying to predict achievement from the results. I often say that the young adults that I work with could arm wrestle over who has the highest IQ score. It doesn’t always mean as much as we think it should.


Dr. Kaufman then goes on to “. . . define intellect as the dynamic interplay of ability and engagement in the pursuit of personal goals.” For many young adults college is the first time that this definition has to become personally meaningful in order to graduate and have a career path.


Let’s look at the ingredients at what Dr. Kaufman calls “personal intelligence”: ability, engagement, and personal goals. Many young adults assume that they have ability as they have always been told all of their lives how smart they are. Ability is much more than good verbal or visual-spatial skills. Good executive functioning is necessary in order to direct basic abilities. There needs to be a plan, decisions made, impulses tempered, much like a fine-tuned orchestra in order to have that good brain be effective in problem-solving.


Engagement is the second ingredient. It is very difficult for young adults who may have enjoyed learning but never liked school to complete a college degree. These young adults often teach their parents how little they have control. I have seen many a parent insist that the young adult enroll in classes that were barely attended because the young person had no engagement in the process. The parents often do not find out about the lack of investment until the semester is over and time and money are wasted, once again. Young people are told to “find their passion” which sounds ridiculous and/or hollow if they don’t know what it means to engage.


Engagement looks like finding a topic of interest and turning it into a research paper for a class. It is the young person who is told to get a job and actually gets one. (Others who are not engaged are always looking for a job but never finding one). Engagement is seen in the student who watches videos about health care policies because she is interested and wants to know more before meeting with that professor who has it as a specialty. The young man who worked the scoreboard in junior high school now works the scoreboard for professional hockey teams. As a youngster, he became engaged in a pastime that continues to pay dividends 20 years later! Go figure!


Let’s go back to the definition which includes the phrase “dynamic interplay.” Personal goals, the third ingredient of Dr. Kaufman’s definition of intellect, evolve over time whether out of necessity to pay bills, for example; and/or, out of satisfaction and gratification in one’s own efforts. In my work with complicated launchings, it can take a long time for the young adult to determine real personal goals, not just the generic goals presented by society and parents. When you can observe all of the ingredients coming together, you often hear a sigh of relief because you know that he or she will figure it out. We don’t know what it will look like, but like the rest of us, they will figure it out.


soph 2015

Sophia Havasy, PhD

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