Forget Intelligence. Aim for Mental Complexity.

In reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary over the course of a year (a mere 20 volumes and 21,730 pages!), Ammon Shea was asked by NPR host Tom Ashbrook about some of the more compelling words he learned.

Shea mentioned “apricity,” which is the warmth of the sun in the winter. As he says:

“[Apricity] is a word that I sincerely hope I will never work into general conversation…I am not a fan of using big words for their own sake. However, I do find now that in the [wintertime] as I am bathed in that warmth of the winter sun, I am more cognizant of the fact that it’s happening, knowing there is a word with which to describe it” (Shea, 2008).

After learning the word apricity, Shea began to experience the world with more cognizance. You’ve likely had the same experience in learning a new concept about workplace dynamics. Perhaps you’ve learned about personality dimensions such as introversion-extraversion or how power dynamics can be at play in subtle ways. After learning these new ideas you experience workplace dynamics with more cognizance. You see more and experience more—just like Ammon Shea experiencing the warmth of the winter sun.

However, when trying to explain any kind of mental development, we often attribute that development to an increase in “intelligence.” Researchers in the field of adult development discuss a different form of intellectual competence—mental complexity (see Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Mental complexity is the variety of perspectives, concepts, and vocabulary we have to make sense of the world. With greater mental complexity, we can perceive more and take more effective action. We expand our action repertoire. As, “No one is ever free to do something he can’t think of” (Weick, 1979, p. 193).

Of course, there have been many critiques of intelligence that have tried to take it off its explanatory pedestal. Most notably is Keith Stanovich’s (2009) impressive work on the rational thinking habits that are dissociable from traditional measures of intelligence. In addition, Carol Dweck (2006), with her research on having a growth mindset, has helped us question our assumptions about intelligence. In particular, how our implicit belief about intelligence as a fixed quantity limits whether we seek challenges and persist, because challenges might reveal what is innately lacking. Instead, if we view the mind as a muscle, and capable of growing, we are more likely to pursue challenges to expand our “intelligence.” As important as this may be, we are still trapped within frame of intelligence.

If, however, we seek to expand our mental complexity, we can forgo any implicit assumptions we might have about intelligence. Instead, by aiming for mental complexity, we can more freely expand our cognizance of what we are experiencing and what is occurring in the organizations in which we work.

What does this mean you should do? Increase the number of educational actions you take: read more, persist through confusion to try and explain what you are experiencing with a more nuanced vocabulary. Do this—not to increase your intelligence—but to expand your mental complexity.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Shea, A. (2008, August 9). Reading the OED. On Point with Tom Ashbrook. [Audio Podcast] Retrieved from

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Ryan Smerek is an assistant professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.

Photo Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash


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