By Annie Murphy Paul, published on May 1, 1998 - last reviewed on May 21, 2012
To hear Robert Sternberg tell it, his life has been one mistake afteranother. And a good thing, too. "Most of the work I've done stems from my own insecurities and failures," says the Yale psychologist, almost proudly. "Many of my ideas come from the things I think I don't do well—which are a lot of things." I.Q. tests, for one. The low scores Sternberg achieved as a child led later to his theory of practical intelligence—and a book by the same name—about the kind of smarts that matter in the real world. Relationships, for another: a failed love affair was the spark for Love is a Story (Oxford University Press), the most recent of the more than fifty books Sternberg has written or edited in his twenty-three-year career.
Self-deprecation aside, Sternberg has turned his shortcomings to impressive advantage, creating sweeping theories about the nature of knowledge, intelligence, and love. Love is a Story collects the narratives we all impose on our relationships; Thinking Styles (Cambridge University Press, 1997) describes our varied mental patterns. Many of his books explore the different ways we approach the same endeavors. "There isn't one best way of doing things, something our society very much needs to learn," says Sternberg. "We're a society that wants things to be black and white, a, b, c, or d. What other country has such a preoccupation with multiple-choice tests? Life really isn't that way."
If others in the field are offended | by Sternberg's views on the limited value of intelligence tests, that's all right with him. "It's okay to defy the crowd," he says. "Scientists, contrary to lay views, are even more conformist than other people. They want to be part of a group, and they follow whatever the fads are." He says he's learned to ignore such trends, since "science isn't done by majority rule." Still, being an iconoclast has its costs: "You have to realize that you'll be unpopular with a lot of people. I've never been good with elections, and I've never been invited to a lot of parties."
And yet Sternberg thinks his maverick style has served him well. "People who are serious about their work give it a sort of trademark," he muses. "I don't worry too much about people stealing my ideas, because I have a way of doing things that I think people would recognize." And what is that way? "I'm not one of those super-creative people who overturn existing patterns. I wish I were, but I'm not," he says. "What I do is pull a little from here, a little from there, change it a little, and put it together."
The result is a vision of human nature that may remind the reader of Sternberg himself: individual, idiosyncratic, and resistant to classification of any kind. The way teachers teach and lovers love must be tailored to each individual, he says, or else we lose the glorious variety that makes us human. Though he will, in irreverent moments, compare the dissemination of his theories to the selling of soap, Sternberg is more likely to speak of "making a difference," a phrase that comes up again and again in his conversation. He wants his ideas to leave the page and enter people's lives, and he's disappointed that none has made the leap to his satisfaction. "I hope there's one thing I do before I pop off that really makes a difference, and I don't think I've done it yet," he says.
He may yet have his chance "The problem I'd most like to crack," he says, "is wisdom. I've totally failed at it so far—well, not totally. Ninety-eight percent." He's still working on a definition of wisdom, and would like one day I to develop a scale to measure its achievement. "I'm probably not wise enough yet to do it," says the 48-year-old Sternberg, chuckling. "I'm hoping that one advantage of becoming an old fogey will be that I'll become wise and see it better than I do now."
Asked whether wisdom might continue to elude the efforts of psychologists to pin it down, Sternberg answers that while wisdom "will never be fully encompassed by psychology, there are things we can do to understand it. "When we haven't been smart enough to figure out how to study something, we'll often say that it can't be studied," he observes. "What we should say is, `Well, I haven't figured that out yet—but there's always next week.'"