If you want to expand your intellect, start with your practical intelligence

When people talk about intelligence, they often seem to be focused on the type of knowledge and insight that people gain from formal education, reading books, and other forms of study. Some may even reference the type of intelligence associated with creative thinking and innovation – that outside-the-box thinking that powers societal advancement. But what about practical intelligence? How important is that type of intellect? For that matter, what IS practical intelligence?

In this post, we'll define practical intelligence and explain why it's so important. We'll also provide some important tips that you can use to develop your own practical intellect, in ways that can help you to enjoy greater success in your career and home life.

What is practical intelligence?

Have you ever heard someone described as having “street smarts,” despite having little by way of formal education? If so, that description was an acknowledgment and recognition of practical intelligence. You may have also heard this type of intelligence referred to as “common sense” or simply an ability to learn from experience. People who possess a great deal of practical intelligence are able to effectively apply the things they learn in ways that solve real-world problems.

A practical thinker tends to focus primarily on how knowledge can help them to accomplish a goal. They enjoy solving problems, like to be involved in implementing ideas, and derive satisfaction from completing tasks and missions. They also tend to learn better in environments that allow them to acquire hands-on experience. Practical thinkers are often recognized for their ability to think on their feet to resolve problems that can't always wait for deep analysis or creative brainstorming.

The triarchic theory of intelligence

While much of the public conversation around intelligence may focus on things like IQ or educational credentials, academics, Psychologists, and other researchers continue to debate the true nature of intellect. Some continue to believe that intellect is a general skill, or that it's genetic. Others believe that there are different types of intellect, and that a person's intelligence is the result of environmental factors.

Robert Sternberg's triarchic theory, formulated nearly four decades ago, has gained popularity in many circles due to its attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for intelligence. This approach to understanding intellect is based on the identification of three different aspects of intelligence. In addition to practical intelligence, Sternberg argued that people also possess various levels of analytical and creative intellect.

Analytical intelligence

This is intelligence based on pure brain power and the ability to analyze the data and information that you acquire. It is also the type of intellectual power associated with standardized intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. You use this intelligence whenever you engage in analytical thought, as you consider available information, break it down into manageable data points, and make sense of it all. That analysis helps you to process the world around you and devise solutions to any challenges that come your way.

 Creative intelligence

Creative intellect is the ability to think outside the box, crafting novel solutions to problems or adapting to new and unexpected situations. This flexible thinking is used in most brainstorming activities and often requires the creative thinker to make inferences that close the gap between available data and unknown factors. It is also an important component in many forms of innovation.

Everyone possesses some level of all three intelligence types

Those who have studied the triarchic theory believe that everyone possesses all three of these types of intelligence, to varying degrees. Some people may be more analytical and less creative, while others might rely more on practical thinking. Sternberg apparently believed that the most intelligent people are able to achieve balance between these three types of mental activity. He also believed that many of the most successful people in the world manage to excel in all three areas of intelligence.

Examples of practical intelligence

If you're still wondering how practical intelligence is used in the real world, consider the following practical intelligence examples as demonstrated in various occupations and life settings. People with well-developed practical intellect often excel in these jobs and situations.

Customer service

Common sense is one of the most important traits to possess when you want to deal effectively with people on a regular basis. After all, you not only need to be able to quickly understand what other people are saying, you also need to know how to handle their concerns in a way that coincides with your employer's interests. Practical intelligence can help you to do that, by allowing you to find a solution that satisfies everyone involved.

Project management

Successful project management requires more than attention to detail and strong coordination skills. You also need to have a feel for managing people and competing interests. Practical thinking skills are essential for balancing work quality, deliverable deadlines, delegation of responsibility, and resources. Whether you're managing budgets, tasks, time, or risks, you'll need to ensure that you're making common sense decisions that reduce the friction that can impede your project's progress.


Whether you're coaching a sports team or a group of employees, common sense thinking can be vital for achieving your goals. You'll need to be able to identify your teams' strengths and weaknesses, the duties for which they are best suited, and the strategies they'll need to employ to find success. Practical intellect can help you to teach them what they need to know to maximize their potential and assist them as they adapt to new challenges and changing situations.

The ability to ace a job interview

Practical intellect can come in handy during job interviews, since it can help to keep you grounded as you answer the interviewer's questions. A job candidate with strong levels of practical intelligence will be able to assess the interviewer and adapt their responses accordingly. This can help to create rapport and put the interviewer at ease, while ensuring that every answer is delivered in the most compelling way possible.

Conflict resolution

Most conflict resolution specialists have a high level of practical intellect that helps them to find common sense solutions to even the most challenging problems. While they might also need to use their analytical and creative intelligence to ensure that they properly assess the situation and explore every viable option for resolution, their practical thinking is almost always involved in identifying the best solution.

Any leadership role

A practical intellect can also help you to remain calm even in the direst of emergencies, respond to challenges with common sense solutions, and always be a stabilizing force for those around you. As a result, this type of intelligence is a common characteristic shared by most successful leaders.

How to develop your practical intelligence

Of course, all of that leads us to the really important question: is practical intelligence something that you can develop? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “yes!” You can, in fact, develop stronger street smarts and common sense, even if that type of intelligence has never been your strong suit. Below, we've included some of the best and most effective tips you can use to develop your practical intellect and enhance your overall intelligence.

1.      Learn to Code

“Learn to code” is more than just a cute internet meme or sarcastic advice for those whose industry is threatened by innovation. It's actually an effective way to develop your logic and problem-solving skills by stimulating your brain. You may have no desire to become a computer programmer, but that doesn't mean that you can't benefit from learning more about how computers do what they do. By studying programming, you can gain that insight.

More importantly, however, you can expand your mental capacity and develop your instinctive ability to solve problems using a common sense approach. In fact, research over the last few years has shown that code comprehension may engage areas of the brain that are responsible for reasoning, logical thinking, and mathematical skills. While much of this research has been focused on developing machine language tools that mimic human brain activity, the results suggest that learning to code does have a positive impact on brain activities that can positively impact practical thinking.

2.      Take stock of your strengths

Like everyone else, you have certain areas of strength in your life. It's important to take time to identify those strengths. That knowledge can then be used to identify ways in which your strengths can be applied to develop other areas of proficiency. The key objective here is to expand your expertise and ability to handle a variety of different challenges and unique situations. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you work to identify your core strengths:

  • What successes have I found at work and in life?

  • What positive impact did those achievements make on those around me?

  • How did others respond to my efforts?

  • What skills did I use to accomplish those tasks?

  • How did I feel when I achieved those goals?

  • What other skills would have made the job easier?

That thought process can help you to become more self-aware and gain a better understanding of how you use your best attributes to get things done. To optimize the process, create a journal or other type of document that you can use to track your efforts, achievements, and skill usage. This type of self-analysis can help you to gain the confidence you need to apply your practical thinking skills in every area of your life.

3.      View experiences as learning opportunities

Many people go through life believing that things just happen to them, and never take the time to learn from each experience. That's unfortunate, since every experience – whether good or bad – has the potential to teach you something valuable about yourself and the world around you. All of those lessons can add to your store of practical intelligence, especially if you make a concerted effort to seek insight from your experiences.

The good news is that you can use that journal we discussed in the last tip to draw out these lessons. As you write down notes about your experiences, think about what you learned. Consider how you might have made different decisions that would have affected the situation in a different way. Is there something that you could have done better? Were there any missed opportunities? This thought process can help to build your practical intelligence and ensure that you make the right decision in the future when similar situations arise.

4.      Explore new methods for completing old tasks

One way to expand your practical thinking process is to try new approaches to complete routine tasks. While you might think that your usual approach is the most efficient way to achieve your objective, you can never be truly sure until you've tried other options. One way to begin this process is to sit down and think about the tasks that require the most time to complete. Create a plan to work on them using a different approach.

This can increase your practical thinking skills by forcing you to push beyond your comfort zone and experiment with new techniques. Even if the experiment fails, you'll gain greater insight into why your normal approach is the best way to work. Of course, there's also the chance that you'll identify a new way to be more efficient, effectively solving a problem that you didn't even know existed – and that's always a good thing, right?

5.      Learn new skills

The more skills you have, the easier it will be for you to use practical intelligence to overcome challenges. Since this type of intelligence is all about being open to learning, it's important to never stop expanding your skill set. Each new ability or enhancement of an existing skill will help to make you a more effective problem-solver. It will also expand your boundaries and your ability to use common sense in more areas of your life.

We mentioned coding earlier. You can find a host of free resources online to help you develop those skills. But don't stop there. Learn a new language, study videos to learn how to repair appliances, cars, or your home. Choose your area of interest and set some concrete goals to help you maintain your focus on the learning journey. Once you learn a new skill, pick a new one and start the process all over again. Become a lifelong learner and watch your practical intelligence grow by leaps and bounds.

6.      Ask more questions

One of the biggest impediments to the development of practical intelligence is the failure to ask questions. Have you ever been in a situation where you assumed you knew what to do, only to find out later that you should have asked for more information? That has happened to just about everyone at one point or another, so chances are that you've experienced it too.

The problem for most people is that it's easy to get comfortable with an existing knowledge base. Unfortunately, that comfort can cause you to take things for granted and miss out on real learning opportunities. The good news is that you can avoid that missed opportunity by teaching yourself to ask questions wherever you are. It might seem silly, but if you try it there's a good chance that you'll almost always learn something new.

You can practice this querying in almost any environment. For example, if you're taking your kid to the zoo, ask the staff questions about the animals, their eating habits, general care, and so on. Are you heading to the grocery store? Take the time to acquire some information about the store's restocking schedule, where they get their produce, or their relationships with local growers. You get the picture.

7.      Build something

If you want to really get down to practicalities, try building something. Whether you're constructing something from wood, metal, or just cardboard and glue, that activity will engage a variety of problem-solving skills and give you some hands-on experience in applying thought processes to a real-world situation. People who tinker around with various home construction projects or hobbies often excel at identifying simple, common sense solutions for their challenges.

If you've never constructed anything in your life, there's good news: you're on planet Earth at exactly the right moment in history! YouTube and other websites offer a whole host of videos and tutorials that can teach you to build just about anything your heart desires. Do you need a new shelf or cabinet for tools in the garage? Find a tutorial and build your own. Has your kid been begging for a treehouse? Now's the perfect time to make that dream come true.

If you get in the habit of pursuing projects like these, you'll develop a better practical feel for managing resources and time while pushing the boundaries of your own mental limits. Those benefits will help to expand your practical intelligence and ability to create common sense solutions for new challenges.

8.       Focus your mindset on finding solutions

Your mindset may just be the most important aspect of practical intelligence. It is easy to get so caught up in analysis or creative brainstorming that you never take the time to focus on identifying viable solutions to problems. Remember, practical thinkers tend to be laser-focused on solutions, which is why they also tend to find the most common sense and practical answer for any problem. To increase your practical intelligence, you need to ensure that your mindset is geared toward the solution instead of the problem.

Adopting that mindset requires you to teach yourself to look beyond the problem and envision it as already solved. Ignore the things that you cannot change, so that you can focus on factors that are within your control. For example, if your car breaks down, you don't spend all your time thinking about the negative implications of that breakdown, do you? No, you instead focus on making the repairs necessary to get it up and running again. Adopt that same mindset whenever you encounter any challenge.

9.      Give it time

You should also understand that your practical thinking skills and intelligence will change throughout your life. As you get older, experience new things, and learn from your successes and failures, your common sense and practical thought processes can expand dramatically. Moreover, there's no real limit to this type of intelligence since it's based solely on your ability to learn from experience and apply those lessons in every area of your life. Be patient and give yourself permission to take all the time you need to achieve your intelligence goals.

10.  Apply what you learn

Finally, make sure that you focus on applying this intelligence whenever you can. Like other types of intelligence, practical intellect is something that's honed through practice. Whether you're learning lessons from experience or consciously developing new skills, they'll be all but useless if you fail to apply them in other areas of life. Common sense would seem to suggest that you use those new advantages to your benefit, wouldn't it?

Increasing practical intelligence can expand your success

Your effort to gain greater practical intelligence can benefit you at work and in life, since the ability to use common sense thinking to solve problems never goes out of style. Taking the time to increase your own practical intellect can help to expand your own overall intelligence, achieve greater career success, and meet any challenges life has to offer.

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