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The Truth About Your IQ

The richest aspects of intelligence cannot be assigned a number.

If you've ever thought twice about not having a high-enough IQ (intelligence quotient), here's the scoop.

Consider Elana. Before I saw her in therapy, she had carried around two decades of shame about her "low IQ." When she was 12, her father's friend, studying to be a clinical psychologist, had administered an intelligence quotient test. The results, as they were reported to her parents and then to Elana, stated that her IQ was in the "average range"–109, to be precise.

Before "fessing up" in therapy, as Elana put it, she had suffered in silence about "being 109." Whenever she had trouble learning or did poorly at something, she was convinced that her undistinguished IQ accounted for her difficulty. When she achieved success, she felt like a fraud whose underlying mediocrity might be discovered any minute. The number 109 haunted her. It was like a scarlet A branded to her chest, signifying "Average."

Most people don't know their IQ score, but many people secretly fear they're not as smart or competent as other people think they are and that eventually they will be discovered as impostors. Women often define "real intelligence" by whatever it is that someone else can do that they can't.

Elana believed, for example, that her brother, a gifted mathematician, was brilliant, even though he didn't notice when someone in the room was upset. She believed that her own ability to grasp the complex nuances of social interactions made her a good teacher, but that her abilities came under the umbrella of "emotional intelligence"–a category she saw as separate from true intellectual ability.

What helped Elana to get past her shame about a number that someone had assigned her 20 years earlier? First, she needed information to combat the myth that an IQ score reflects any objective truth about intellectual capacity. As a clinical psychologist who had administered IQ tests for much of my professional career, I could assure her that testing is useful in clarifying any number of important diagnostic questions, but not in measuring "general intelligence."

Intelligence comprises more facets than we can ever begin to quantify, including such complex and invaluable skills as the capacity for friendship, for empathy, and for being perceptive, caring, alert, and emotionally present in the world. The richest and most critical aspects of intelligence cannot be assigned a number or ever be captured by a concept as arid as IQ.

Our definitions of intelligence are also defined by the historical context we happen to live in, and what qualities have importance for the particular community or tribe we belong to.

For example, I happen to do work that is socially valued and economically rewarded in the mainstream culture. But some years back, when I joined some colleagues to lead a seminar for the Colorado Outward Bound Program, down the Yampa and Green Rivers, I learned how it felt to be the least competent person in a work group. I had no outdoor skills and was slowest to learn them. I had difficult mastering everything, from starting a fire to tying our gear securely into the raft to controlling my anxiety. Had it been an option, my colleagues surely would have voted me off the river.

As the week progressed, and the wilderness became my "real world," I understood that if I lived in this world on a daily basis, I would not see myself as a smart person. Had I been born in a different historical time, where the skills that were valued were the ones I didn't have, I would have to struggle so much harder to value myself. I might well have felt permanently inept and inferior, rather than just temporarily stupid in an area I could tell myself didn't really count.

Challenging false assumptions about IQ tests helped her to bring her once-shameful secret into the light of day. Elana began to tell her good friends about "the whole IQ schpiel." At her 33rd birthday party, her best friends presented her with a T-shirt emblazoned with "109" in huge red numbers, which Elana put on during the party.

She brought me a hilarious color photo of her friends gathered around her, making funny faces and pointing to the number on the T-shirt. "This is for you," she said, handing me the photo with a grin and a flourish. "You can put it in my chart."

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