I was recently asked to prepare a two minute talk on a topic of my choice, for a small audience of about 10 people. Hereâ€™s what I came up with.
This is a one dollar bill [holds one up].
[Picking out two people in the audience] Alice and Bob â€“ later in this talk Iâ€™m going to use the word â€œpointsâ€.
Can I ask you to pay close attention to what Iâ€™m saying, and when you hear me say â€œpointsâ€, stand up from your seat?
Will you do that for me?
Just to make it a bit competitive, Iâ€™ll give the first of you to stand up the dollar bill.
Many of us, myself included, often think of a personâ€™s intellectual capacity as something thatâ€™s fixed, a feature of their innate makeup.
Intellectually, we may know that this is not so, but we take it so much for granted that itâ€™s built into our language. We say â€œsheâ€™s very cleverâ€ or â€œheâ€™s a bright guyâ€ to describe people who we believe measure up when it comes to intellectual capacity.
A very different point of view has been put forward by the computer scientist Alan Kay. Kayâ€™s saying is this: “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”
[We have a winner! Gives out the dollar to Alice]
Hmm. “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”
This is a saying that repays thought.
I just showed you in a very small way that it’s true: by changing Alice and Bobâ€™s perspective on my talk, Iâ€™m betting they paid much closer attention to what I was saying. Itâ€™s not an 80 IQ point boost, true, but itâ€™s still magical: a tiny shift in perspective can help us focus better. [* – but see footnote below, added in response to feedback]
It tells us that intellectual capacities arenâ€™t innate, they can be dramatically changed by shifts in our perspective. And we can consciously develop strategies to shift our perspective. I donâ€™t have time to review strategies for doing this, but I can mention one meta strategy, due to the musician Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt. They made up a card deck of oblique strategies. Itâ€™s a deck of blank cards on which theyâ€™ve written many different strategies for solving problems. Most of the strategies are ways of changing perspective: “What would your closest friend do”; “work at a different speed”, etc. When stuck on a problem you can draw out a card, and get a a new perspective.
I think we should all make up our own decks of oblique strategies that we can use to get new perspectives, and to give our own intelligence an occasional boost.
[*] A commenter on Hacker News makes the good point that offering a dollar may cause some people to screen out everything except the word “points” – they may end up effectively stupider. Unfortunately, I can’t ask my audience members “Alice” and “Bob” if this is the case, because after preparing the talk I was asked instead to give an extemporaneous talk. But the talk can be modified to take account of this observation. Suppose instead that I’d offered a dollar to whoever provided a better summary of the talk at the end of my talk. I’ve been in analogous situations in the past, and know that it made me focus a lot better.