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Groom your kid into a winner

Groom your kid into a winner

When the lives of 95 Harvard University students from the 1940s were followed up into middle age, the men with the highest intelligence test scores in college were found not to have been particularly successful in their careers. Nor did they have the greatest life satisfaction or the most happiness with friendships, family and romantic relationships.

It became clear that IQ offers little to explain the different destinies of people who start out with roughly equal promise, schooling and opportunity. Academic Intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil – or opportunities – that life’s vissicitudes bring. The brightest among us can founder on the shoals of unruly impulses.

Even though there is every indication that a high IQ is no guarantee of prosperity, prestige or happiness, schools and culture fixate on academic ability. In doing so, they ignore a more reliable guide: emotional intelligence — a new concept but one which research suggests can be as powerful, and at times more powerful than IQ.

Take the marshmallow test. Imagine you are four years old and an adult makes the following proposal: you can have one marshmallow now but if you wait until he returns from an errand, you can have two. It is a challenge sure to try the soul of any four-year-old, a microcosm of the eternal battle between impulse and restraint, desire and self-control, gratification and delay. The choice is telling: it offers a quick reading not just of character, but of the path the child will probably take through life.

A study of the marshmallow challenge with four-year-olds demonstrates how fundamental is the ability to restrain emotions. It was begun during the 1960s by Walter Mischel, a psychologist, at a nursery on the Stanford University campus, and tracked the four-year-olds through their school careers.

The children were offered one marshmallow immediately — or two if they waited until Mischel returned from an errand. Some four-year-olds were able to wait what must have seemed an endless 15 minutes for him to return. They covered their eyes to avoid temptation, or rested their heads in their arms, talked to themselves, sang, played games with hands and feet, even tried to go to sleep. These plucky pre-schoolers got the extra-marshmallow reward. But others, more impulsive, grabbed the one marshmallow almost always within seconds of the experimenter leaving the room.

Years later, those who had resisted temptation were, as teenagers, more socially competent, personally effective, self-assertive and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces under stress or to become rattled when pressured: they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. They were self-reliant and confident, trustworthy and dependable: they took the initiative and plunged into projects. And more than a decade later, they were still able to delay gratification in pursuit of goals.

The one in three children who immediately grabbed the marshmallow, tended however, to have fewer of these qualities and their psychological make-up was more troubled. In adolescence they were more likely to shy away from social contacts, to be stubborn, indecisive, and easily upset by frustration, to become immobilized by stress and prone to jealousy and envy; and to over-react to irritations with temper, provoking arguments and fights. They were also still unable to put off gratification.

What shows up in a small way early in life blossoms into a wide range of social and emotional competences later on: from being able to stay on a diet to completing a university degree course.

Some children even at four had mastered the basics: they were able to read the social situation as one where delay was beneficial. They were the ones who turned out to be more academically competent: better able to put ideas into words, to use and respond to reason, to concentrate, to make plans and follow them through and more eager to learn. In short, they were better students, their performances enhanced by their emotional intelligence.

At the age of four the marshmallow test proves twice as powerful a predictor of later academic prowess than IQ (which becomes a stronger indicator only after children learn to read).

A key set of characteristics makes up emotional intelligence — such as self-motivation and persistence in the face of frustrations: the ability to control impulse and delay gratification to regulate moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, to empathize and to hope.

Emotional life is a domain that, as surely as mathematics or reading, can be handled with greater or lesser skill and requires its own set of competencies. And how adept a person is at those, is crucial to understanding why one person thrives in life while another of equal intellect, fails.

There is a children’s joke: “What do you call a nerd 15 years from now?” The answer: “Boss”.

Even among “nerds” emotional intelligence offers an added edge in the workplace. Much evidence shows that people who are emotionally adept — who know and manage their feelings well and read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings — are at an advantage, whether in romance and intimate relationships or in picking up the unspoken rules that govern success in organizational politics.

On the other hand, people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional lives, fight inner battles that sabotage their ability to focus on work and think clearly.

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