HOW SMART DO WE HAVE TO BE, OR WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SUCCEED ON THE JOB — AND IN LIFE?

By Paul

For decades, and probably even for centuries, people have been wondering what it means for someone to be intelligent.  In the early 20th century, the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, came up with a method to test for intelligence which, after a good deal of deliberation and discussion, came ultimately to be known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.  In its various iterations and permutations, it has come down to us today as the most recognized Intelligence Quotient, or IQ Test, we have.

The test has been widely used in a whole host of areas, everything from a tool for school placement, to military aptitude, to how well a person will perform on the job.  The way most of us have probably heard about it relates to where an individual falls on the continuum of scores of the vast number of people who have taken the test over the years. If, for example, a person gets an IQ score of 115, let us say, we now know that this means that it represents that she or he is in the 84th percentile, meaning that this individual has outscored 83% of the people who have taken the test. Most of us would agree that such a person must be considered “smart,” or at least smarter than an awful lot of other people (specifically, 83% of the population).

All of this is relatively uncontroversial these days. What is more questionable, however, is what exactly does such a score mean for success in the world? In one sense, it is merely a number. Note, for example, that the word “quotient” itself is a term taken from mathematics, where it refers to the result obtained when we divide one quantity by another. In more general everyday parlance, a quotient refers to the amount of a specified quality, such as an emotional quotient.  Etymologically, it comes from the Latin word “quotus,” which means how much or how many.

Yet a number of businesses use IQ scores as one, although only one, measure of whether given individuals ought to be hired in the first place, and as a projection of how well they will do on the job.  The theory is that a person with a relatively high IQ will be good at abstract reasoning, problem solving, and learning new material. Conversely, the assumption is made that people with lower IQ scores will show themselves less apt in regard to these qualities, which many companies feel are useful skills for their workers to have.  And while this may well be true, if in fact abstract reasoning and problem solving are traits that have paramount usefulness in a given workplace, are we to assume that all jobs, or even most of them, require such qualities in those who work there? As for the other characteristic, that of an ability to learn new things, it’s probably safe to say that this is a fairly universal trait that most employers would value.

My own experience with all this comes from the point of view of someone who was the supervisor of a relatively large office, varying in size anywhere from 15 to 20 people, for almost 20 years.  Of course, I found that intelligence was a good thing. It is usually, although not always, a pleasure to work with someone who is highly intelligent. Such an individual “gets things” immediately. You don’t have to repeat and repeat, or to show someone endless times how to do something.  Additionally, such individuals frequently see things that need to be done before a supervisor ever has occasion to point them out. Smart people can usually figure out how to resolve problems without someone having to show them. All this is to the good, and allows a supervisor to do other things than to watch over people to be sure that a given task has been done correctly.

But are there other qualities, other quotients if you will, that are equally as helpful and valuable in the workplace, aside from what we might call “mere intelligence?”  I believe that there are.  A workplace is almost always a kind of small, enclosed society, and in such settings getting along with those in the group is of paramount importance. Such traits as openness, tolerance, a willingness to help others, and I might even go so far as to say empathy and compassion, go a very long way toward making for a work environment where everyone can contribute and do well.   Conversely, gossiping, backbiting, or even subtle but deliberate sabotaging of others can cause anger, hurt feelings, and an oppressive and negative environment wherein people find it hard to concentrate and do their job properly.

All this is easy to say, but it can be difficult to bring about. Whoever the supervisor may be, it is up to him or her to do everything possible to create an environment where people can thrive.  And where individuals thrive, and where there is an open and supportive work environment, the chances of people being happier and more productive are that much greater. None of this is a panacea, of course, and there are countless examples of good managers who still have difficult and recalcitrant workers, just as there are excellent workers who have unsupportive, clueless, micro-managing, or even mean-spirited bosses, and who nonetheless do excellent work in spite of all.  Nothing is perfect in this world, but that does not relieve any of us of the responsibility always to try to make things better for everyone involved.  As a supervisor, and in my case an academic administrator, my first assumption with everyone I worked with, whether those individuals reported to me or not (and until, and unless, otherwise proven wrong), was that each person wanted to do his or her best, and that everyone’s ultimate goal was to figure out the most useful way to serve students and to help them succeed.  Naturally, a concomitant goal at a university must also be the generation of knowledge and creative activity, the fostering of problem solving and critical thinking, as well as knowing and experiencing other cultures and other ways of seeing the world.  Such activities on the part of both faculty and staff obviously also promote and advance the basic goal of student learning.

Exactly how flawed and fallible human beings go about achieving such lofty goals is the question.  The most basic thing, the sine qua non, must always be to start with a staff that is treated fairly and paid equitably for their work, as well as for their training and experience. Beyond that, those in a managerial or supervisory role should make every effort to create an environment wherein people can succeed and thrive, and each individual whoever they may be, whether president or grounds keeper and everything in between, must do their utmost to advance the basic goals of student growth and learning.

Intelligence is more than the ability to calculate, to remember, to synthesize, or to reason.  True intelligence, what we might also call mature intelligence, is the ability to do these things in a way that also supports, nurtures, and cultivates the gifts and talents of others. I don’t know of any percentile number that can be given to this quality, but over the years I have been privileged to see it in operation.  And that, in its own right, is always an honor and a profound learning experience. Smart people are interesting to work with, if sometimes challenging, but it’s from those with a well-rounded and fully developed maturity that we learn grace, and even perhaps a bit of wisdom. And in the end, isn’t that really the intelligent life that each of us is reaching for?

ST. PUTIN AND THE DRAGON

By Paul

Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in Ukraine, but the world is right to feel very nervous about the possibilities.  In Russian iconography, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of images of St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess.  (St.) Putin these days appears to consider himself the modern counterpart thereof, willing to go to battle against the western dragon to save the maiden princess of the east.

Just a day or two ago, I would have written that I see no way right now that Russia will willingly “give up” the Crimean peninsula.  Today, in fact, the local Crimean parliament has (no doubt with Putin’s blessing) voted to join Russia once again.  There are, to be sure, historical and geopolitical reasons that could be pointed to for this, mostly because Crimea was part of Russia for so long (and only “given over to Ukraine” in 1954), and because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed there.  On top of all this, Crimea has for decades been considered a kind of odd semi-autonomous republic, even under Ukrainian rule, and many (although by no means all) of the people who live there speak Russian and consider themselves Russian.

But the real looming question of the moment seems to be what to make of Vladimir Putin.  What are his goals?  What are his fears?  What propels him to act, and to act especially in ways that seem contrary to the usual pushes and pulls of western political calculations?

It has to be said that Russia itself has long been a mystery to the west.  Even during the time of the Czars, European rulers puzzled over what Russia would and would not do to support various political goals espoused by Europeans.  Russia, too, has wondered over the centuries what makes Europe tick, and now what it is that the United States wants.  In the end, I fear that we continue to miss each other’s intents, to say nothing of one another’s hopes and fears.

Russia has for centuries considered itself “exceptional.”  Even during the Middle Ages, and continuing now into the 21st century, it has seen itself as the mystical Orthodox leader of Christianity, the country with a “soul,” as opposed to the corrupt, secular, anti-religious west that chases after materialism and the things of the body.  When I was in Russia many years ago (this was in 1971, during the Soviet era), spending a summer there studying the language, I once witnessed a striking example of this.  An American friend of mine and I were walking into a library in Moscow to see if we could check out a book.  Two old women were standing nearby, the classic “babushkas” with headscarves and fat, rosy cheeks.  They looked at us with, I have to say, some level of disdain, and – obviously not thinking (or not caring) that we could understand them, one said to the other:  “Ah, these foreigners!  They are trying to steal our Russian soul!”

The concept of the Russian soul, so called, is not a thing to be taken lightly.  It is part and parcel both of this feeling of exceptionalism, and of the common belief among Russians that they have always been under some kind of attack by the west.  This attack has taken not only military form, to utterly devastating effect, both by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Hitler in the 20th, but intellectual and cultural forms, as well.  If you will indulge me, here is another story that illustrates the latter point.  The small group from SUNY New Paltz that I was part of that was spending the summer there studying Russian also spent a short time in Sochi, the city of recent Olympic fame, although forty or forty-five years ago it was a much sleepier summer resort.  Two young men, fellow students of mine from the group, decided one warm afternoon to go down to the Black Sea beach for a swim.  However, they made the mistake of wearing cut-off jeans to do so.  First of all, at the time no Russian man would dream of walking in the street in shorts, especially jagged-edged cut-off shorts.  People made fun of them as they walked to the beach. Some said, “If you can’t afford a pair of pants, WE’LL buy you some!”   And then, once they got to the beach, the police actually came and arrested these two young American students.  They were kept in jail for several hours, until our accompanying professor finally got them released.  However, shortly afterwards, the police came to our hotel, gathered all of us Americans together (a dozen or so of us), and gave us a very stern lecture.  With literal wagging finger, we were told in no uncertain terms: “We will not tolerate your corrupting our Russian youth with your western ways.  If ANYTHING like this happens again, you will all be summarily sent out of the country!” And all of this for wearing cut-off jeans!

So, we see that Russia has long considered itself a country under siege, sometimes for very good reason, and sometimes for not such good reason. But that mentality continues to be at work when Russians look at so many of the countries of the old Soviet Block (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of course – Hungary, and let us not forget Ukraine) and see them “turning toward Europe.”  Most of these countries, with the exception of Ukraine, are now either part of the European Union, or have applied for such status, and some are also part of NATO.   This makes Russia extremely nervous and, given Russia’s history vis-à-vis Europe, maybe we ought to try to understand that from their perspective there may well be very good reason for this nervousness.  Now, Russia sees Ukraine, a country with profoundly deep ties to Russia, attempting to do the same thing.  Let us not forget that Ukraine was part of Russia (not just part of the Soviet Union) for many centuries, and the Russian Orthodox Church, that bastion of the Russian soul itself, was actually founded in Kiev.  There are many Russians living in Ukraine, and lots of Russian men have Ukrainian wives, and Ukrainian women have Russian husbands.  For Russia to contemplate Ukraine “going to the west,” against all of this history and all of these cultural and economic ties, is almost unthinkable.

I believe that it is time for everybody to step back and take several deep breaths.  First of all, Ukraine, for all of the totally legitimate reasons why it deposed its former highly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, must try to remember these long-standing ties their country has with Russia, and not purposefully antagonize their powerful neighbor to the east.  The United States and Europe, for their part, too have to come to grips with these historical ties, as well as with these fears and aspirations felt by Russia, and make an attempt to realize that some of them – certainly in Russia’s eyes – may be legitimate.  Finally, Russia too has to give a little.  It must let go some of its anger towards and mistrust of the west, and see that the only way forward is through political and diplomatic channels.  You do not win the hearts and minds of people, whether they be Ukrainians, or Europeans, or Americans, through saber rattling, or military bluster, or worse, actual on-the-ground aggression.

Pres. Obama is in an extremely difficult spot right now.  The Republican saber-rattlers like John McCain and others are screaming at him to “do something.”  They are accusing him of being at the heart of the problem because he has somehow shown himself to be “weak” in international affairs.  How they get that is a mystery to me, and I believe it is enormously unfair to so accuse him.  But the President somehow has got to not anger these GOP hawks too much in such a way as to lose credibility at home, while making some attempt to understand Russia’s position, while supporting the very real and totally legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and also while getting the European Union behind him as they have never been before.

Maybe, now that I think of it, it is St. Obama we ought to be talking about, not St. Putin.   Or another way to put it, what is really needed is St. Obama, St. Putin, St. Hollande, St. Merkel, St. Cameron, and let us not forget Ukraine’s St. Yatsenyuk.   God knows, we’ll need all of them to slay this great and very dangerous dragon that threatens the very peace and stability of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world, too.