What Is Practical Intelligence? And How You Can Improve It?

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Ritch Flynn
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What Is Practical Intelligence? And How You Can Improve It?
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Highlights: Practical intelligence is one of the best predictors of your success in life. Here's what it is and how you can develop it.

Practical intelligence isn’t as common as you’d think. A lucky few are born with it. But what about the rest of us?

What exactly is practical intelligence? This question may be tougher to answer than we previously thought.  

In the 1900s, scientists reduced intelligence down to a single digit: the G Factor. And it’s from these tests that our modern IQ tests emerged.

Let’s be honest, measuring a person’s intelligence with a single number seems pretty limiting. And that’s exactly why Robert Sternberg came up with an entirely different approach: the triarchic theory of intelligence.

In this article we will answer the following questions:

  1. What are Sternberg’s three types of intelligence?
  2. What is practical intelligence in psychology?
  3. Which test is used to measure practical intelligence?
  4. How do you develop practical intelligence?

Let’s begin!

What Are Sternberg’s Three Types of Intelligence?

For Sternberg, intelligence is much more than a number. In fact, Sternberg’s theory of intelligence goes beyond books and abstract thinking to offer a more concrete approach.

For decades, Sternberg has worked to find a predictable measure of lifelong success. The standard IQ test was not a great predictor of one’s success because it can only measure a narrow range of analytical abilities. And according to Sternberg, success in life is based on a completely different set of skills.

Sternberg believes practical intelligence is the best indicator of lifelong success. And practical intelligence is just one component of his theory. The triarchic theory of intelligence incorporates three types of intelligence, including:

  • Analytical Intelligence: the ability to analyze, critique, and evaluate. Learn more about analytical intelligence.
  • Creative Intelligence: the ability to discover, invent, and create new solutions.
  • Practical Intelligence: the ability to apply, use, and implement what you know.
practical intelligence

What Is Practical Intelligence in Psychology?

Practical intelligence is the intelligence of common sense reasoning. Some people call it street smarts. It’s the ability to think on your feet in everyday dilemmas that require immediate solutions.

This form of intelligence also helps in navigating tough negotiations and embracing challenges on the fly. Those with practical intelligence are adaptive and reflexive. They change their approach to suit the requirements of the environment and situation.

Those with strong practical intelligence stand out. This form of intelligence can also translate itself as social savvy — the ability to communicate well and build a good rapport with teams.

Which Test Is Used to Measure Practical Intelligence?

To measure practical intelligence, Sternberg uses something he calls: tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge has three characteristics:

  • It incorporates the practical knowledge of how to perform tasks
  • It’s intuitive and gained from experience not easily transferred or written down
  • It’s personal and intimate to the user, often learned without instruction or guidance

Sternberg’s tests of tacit knowledge are based on the common challenges we face in the real world. The more expertise you’ve acquired in your chosen field demonstrates that you’ve acquired tacit knowledge.

Those who are skilled in developing tacit knowledge perform well in roles that incorporate management, sales, academia, and psychology.

a girl enjoying a sunny day

How Do You Develop Practical Intelligence?

Some people are born with a natural predisposition for practical intelligence. But even if you feel your street smarts are lacking, there are things you can do to improve them.

Here are two crucial habits that will help you grow your practical intelligence:

1. Openness and flexibility

For centuries, Buddhists have demonstrated that one of the major obstacles to learning is fixed thinking. Fixed thinking is the belief that we already know all that we need. When your glass is full, there’s not much you can add, right?

Instead, try working toward what Buddhists call the beginner’s mind. Let go of all you think you know and allow yourself to start fresh. This is the best way to free yourself from old assumptions. You may even discover a blind spot or two that has been holding you back.

Learning is the best way to develop your practical intelligence. And the ability to learn with efficiency is itself a skill worth developing.

It’s not how smart you are, but how you are smart. If knowledge is power, learning is your superpower.

– Jim Kwik, trainer of Mindvalley’s Superbrain Quest

2. Solution-focused thinking

Sometimes, it feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. With so much to deal with, it’s not always easy to find a solution.  

This mental habit is called problem-focused thinking. And one way to tackle this is by changing the scope of your focus.

Instead of focusing on your problems, set yourself the challenge of focusing on potential solutions. Focus on the things you can change. Focus on the things in your life that are positive and make you feel good.

If you can’t change something, see if you can change the way you feel about it. You may not always have control over your external circumstances, but you do have control over how you choose to react to what’s happening around you.

Develop your practical intelligence by developing a beginner’s mind and practicing solution-focused thinking. You may surprise yourself with just how much these simple mental practices can change your life.

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Ritch Flynn

Ritch Flynn

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