How do we know someone is intelligent? Is it their ability to ace tests or crunch numbers? Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg sees intelligence not as a narrow, monolithic quality that makes you good at chess or getting top grades, but as an interplay between the analytical, practical and creative aspects of your mind. He calls this “the Triarchic theory of intelligence.”

Analytical intelligence is what you probably imagine it is - the pure brain power with which you process information. It is invoked when you need to analyze something or solve problems. This is the type of braininess measured by IQ tests, which in Sternberg’s view are woefully inadequate in determining someone’s overall intelligence as they focus only on the analytical side. 

Creative intelligence comes into play when people need to think creatively and adjust effectively to new situations. This kind of intelligence is also responsible for synthesizing information and gaining insights. Another way to think about this is having the ability to use the knowledge and skills you already have to manage novel or unusual situations. 

Practical intelligence involves the ability to deal with daily tasks in the real world. You can call it “street smarts” that show how well a person relates to the external environment. It is also directed towards goals which seek to adapt to or transform the world around you. Intelligent behavior involves adapting to your environment, changing your environment, or selecting a better environment,” wrote Sternberg.  

When you measure this type of intelligence, you are looking not just for mental prowess, but factors such as emotion and attitude that also influence how well the person makes decisions. A leader, who has a strong ability to understand and motivate people as well as to delegate responsibility to the right individuals would score high in practical smarts. 

An important aspect of practical intelligence is the ability to learn. To gain knowledge, it’s not enough to have experiences, but to glean from them the key information that can be adapted in other situations. 

Sternberg, who is a professor at Cornell University, sees an intelligent person as someone who can find the right balance between the different mental abilities while they solve problems they encounter. Sternberg also believes that it’s possible to excel in more than one type of intelligence. Many people use all three at a high level. This can often be the reason for their success in life.

In an interview, Sternberg points out that people who reach success are usually the ones who “found something they do really well”. And that area of excellence can really vary from person to person. It’s also important, according to Sternberg, to identify what you don’t do so well and find help to make up for those deficiencies. 

Here’s how Sternberg explains his views on intelligence:

I prefer to refer to it as "successful intelligence." And the reason is that the emphasis is on the use of your intelligence to achieve success in your life.   So I define it as your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your sociocultural context. Meaning that people have different goals for themselves, and for some it's to get very good grades in school and to do well on tests, and for others it might be to become a very good basketball player or actress or musician. So, it's your skill in obtaining what you want in life within your sociocultural context [which] means that if you want to be an axe murderer it wouldn't count--by capitalizing on your strengths and compensating for, or correcting, your weaknesses.

While adapting to weaknesses is one smart thing to do, another is to know when to quit. Sternberg points out that to be “successfully intelligent means knowing when you're in the wrong place at the wrong time - the wrong job, the wrong relationship, the wrong place to live.” 

It’s also worth noting that being considered intelligent in one culture does not necessarily mean you're intelligent in another, according to Sternberg. Whatever your circumstances, you just have to find the best place and activity for you to maximize your abilities.

Initially driven by his distaste for tests in developing a broader model of intelligence, Sternberg developed his own measure of how a person uses intelligence under his model. Check out a study on the effectiveness of the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (STAT). You can also read Sternberg’s book on the Triarchic theory of intelligence.