During a continuing ed course when I was an equity analyst at Merrill Lynch, the instructor observed, “You’re really good at math.”
For those of you that know anything about equity research, you'd expect that I wittily riposted with something like, “Darn straight, I am. I eat financial models for breakfast, spit out stock calls at lunch.”
Instead, after graciously (I hope!) saying thank you, my internal conversation went more like “Really? Could he be right? Could it be true that I’m good at math?” Because I can pinpoint the moment I started to believe I was bad at math. This script, so to speak, began in fifth grade, when math involved word problems. In sixth grade, when my teacher told me to stop asking questions and just figure the question out on my own, and I thought I couldn’t, I finalized the script. It read: “I’m bad at math.”
The “I’m bad at math” script wouldn’t be so problematic except that girls and women in the United States have a tendency to believe they are bad at math. Comparatively, boys and men don’t appear to be as intimidated by math. Meanwhile, we live in a society
whose systems and social structures value math skills. The script was especially problematic for me, specifically, because it wasn't entirely true.
But I digress.
For the sake of argument, let’s say it was true that I have always and will forever struggle with math. Would that mean I’m dumb? No, because none of us has just a single intelligence, nor is our intelligence fixed.
According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking theory there are at least eight different types of intelligence. The first two aptitudes, logical-mathematical and linguistic, are the most valued by our society; the others— including kinesthetic, interpersonal, musical, searchlight, spatial, and existential intelligence— are less so.
It is his theory, I believe, that accounts for success in uncommon ways. Why a music major like me, who having never set foot in a math, accounting or finance class as an undergraduate become an Institutional Investor double-ranked analyst? And quite possibly why you, with your unique, but unusual portfolio of skills, are rising to the top in your chosen profession.
In any field there are going to be “pay-to-play skills”, a hurdle you have to jump to be able to do the job, and are thus vital at the outset of a career. Early in my professional life, for example, it was apparent that if I wanted to play in the Wall Street sandbox, I had to pay by learning financial analysis, coursework not covered by my bachelor of arts in music. I also had to significantly improve my writing skills, to be able to persuasively communicate a ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ opinion on a stock.
But these pay-to-play intelligences are not what catapulted me to the top of the Wall Street heap. There were plenty of people who could calculate and communicate as well if not better than I could. What propelled me were the intelligences that many might consider non-essential, and even dismiss.
Musical intelligence, for example, isn’t just about playing an instrument, or learning a new language, though speaking a foreign language did come in handy working in the emerging markets. Musical intelligence is also about the principles of organization, whether a presentation, conference or event. Many of my clients and colleagues remember well a trip I organized to visit Ing. Carlos Slim. A conversation in his private library about his favorite books gave investors insight into what motivates one of the world’s billionaires, and the controlling shareholder of America Movil, one of the stocks I covered.
I also draw on searchlight intelligence, an intelligence that readily discerns connections across spheres and identifies opportunities to cross-pollinate. One of the key methods used by security analysts is the mosaic theory that involves collecting public, non-public, and non-material information to determine the value of a company, and then to make a stock call. My searchlight intelligence, no doubt, helped in becoming a well-regarded stockpicker.
There’s also interpersonal intelligence: the ability to look outward at the behavior and feelings of others, figuring out their motivations. Whether publicly traded or privately-held companies, I spend a lot of time analyzing the personalities of the controlling shareholders and senior management of the companies. One of my best stock calls of moving from a sell to a buy was due, in part, to making a determination about the personal motivations of a controlling shareholder.
Perhaps you, like me, are not notably intelligent in the traditional, academically, testable sense. But each of us is intelligent. And as we learn from the theory ofdisruption, success in your chosen field isn’t just about figuring out what you do well, but what you do well that others don’t. So whatever your discipline, do what’s necessary to clear the pay-to-play intelligence hurdle. But then, focus on your distinctive strengths. What you do outstandingly well. If the marketplace doesn’t recognize or value this particular intelligence initially, even better — that will become your competitive edge.
The most important kind of smarts, and each of us would do well to cultivate, because indeed we can get smarter says Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, is intrapersonal intelligence, or the ability to identify personal feelings, goals, fears, strengths and weaknesses. I have blind spots, like everyone does, and so very many failings, but the willingness to look at myself, and to doggedly improve, and to make just one more call, to write one more piece, has helped me to become a high-performer. Famed Spanish surrealist painter wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings.” In other words, intelligence with the ambition to improve, makes you uncommonly smart.