How Tall is Your Stack?


I recently came across the topic of practical intelligence in my studies and I was intrigued. Practical intelligence is defined as, “the ability that individuals use to find a more optimal fit between themselves and the demands of the environment through adapting to the environment, shaping (or modifying) the environment, or selecting a new environment in the pursuit of personally-valued goals” (Sternberg, 1995).

It started me thinking, what is practical intelligence and how can we improve our practical knowledge and better prepare ourselves as leaders?

What is Your Stack?

Imagine that every experience in your life is a card in a stack. The richer your life with different experiences, the taller your stack. Great leaders know that taking risks often leads to new creativity which can fail miserably or be an extraordinary success. But the more times that you take risks, challenge yourself to try new things — the taller your stack of experiences. Those who have really tall stacks have a distinct advantage. Not only have they had an opportunity to have a diverse set of experiences in life, but they also make more confident and stronger leaders.


Build Your Stack

Now imagine that you are facing a new situation at work. What most of us do when given a new project or task is to go back through our lifetime of experiences to see if we have anything that we can leverage that will help us in this new situation. If you are someone who is constantly challenging yourself with new experiences, chances are when you go looking through the stack of your life, you will find 2 or 3 cards that are similar to the new situation; not an exact fit — but similar enough that you have the confidence that you can face the new situation and be successful. Why? Because you don’t see a risk in tackling something new. You have done two or three other things that are similar — and thus the new situation instead of being seen as a challenge becomes easy to tackle.

If you are someone with a shorter stack, when you face that new situation — you will go through your life of experiences and realize that you don’t have any cards that will help you face the new challenge in front of you. Most people in this situation will plan carefully. They will take in as much information as they can, develop a plan, and when they have found a comfortable place they will begin the new task. Imagine how this appears to others. As a leader you seem hesitant, you struggle to develop a plan of action, it takes you time to prepare to tackle the new task. You will not seem as confident.


In your career, you should strive to have a very tall stack of life experiences – thus building your practical intelligence. Don’t just keep trying the same things and get really good at them. Your stack doesn’t get any taller, all you are doing is writing on the same cards over and over again. It is important to challenge yourself in new ways. Explore other areas of knowledge, not just those that you studied in school. If you are a computer scientist, learn about art. Are you an artist? Learn about psychology. If you are a logical and methodical person, try something that forces you outside of your comfort zone. Learn a new language. Volunteer in your local community, play sports, take up new hobbies, learn to rock climb. Expand your mind in as many ways as you can. Each and every experience will add a new card to your stack and empower you to be more successful and confident when you face something new whether at work or in your personal life.

Many years ago when living in England I decided to learn more about gardening. I spent a long time reading about how to grow the right plants in the right climate, how to harvest seeds for next year’s garden. I especially was interested in growing plants that attract butterflies. At the end of my first year, I had a beautiful garden that I was very proud of and lots of butterflies. I used those self-taught gardening skills later in my life to tackle the volunteer role of Beautification Chair at my son’s school in Virginia. From that position, I became PTA president the following year which then led to me leading a technology integration project in a local school. I also had the confidence to write an article for a major gardening magazine on how to use software to map out your garden using my gardening skills and knowledge, along with my computer science background. What I learned 10 years earlier became a skill that I used to tackle problems years later — it opened doors that I would have viewed as closed. But because I had that card in the stack, I was confident that I could take on a new challenge.

Focus on Practical Intelligence

Building your practical intelligence should be an ever-present focus. Learning in another unrelated domain of knowledge can stimulate new ways to think in your chosen field. Try to learn using other senses. For example, if your career requires that you think and make decisions, try to paint or read poetry – something a near opposite of your current skillset. Practical intelligence is not something you learn by studying it is something you learn by doing.

Steve Jobs referred to this as connecting the dots. His lifetime of experiences prepared him for his successful career. He didn’t know at the time that he was doing things that would help him later in his career. But he was curious and learned about many things that later when he looked back he could see the connection between what he did years ago and how that allowed him to accomplish what he did later in his life. If you have never seen his commencement speech at Stanford University, I highly recommend it. It is now a very popular TED talk:

We don’t have the luxury in our lives to know which experiences we will need later in life. But one thing is for sure if we don’t take risks and try new things now, then when we do get into the later years of our careers our stacks will be very small and the ability to take on new challenges with confidence will be diminished. Tomorrow, next week, next month, later this year — take a chance to try something new. Take a risk and volunteer for a new project. Start a committee to tackle a problem in your local community. Add something completely different to your stack of life experiences. You will not only invest in yourself today, but you will be preparing yourself for success later in your career.

Most people define failure as when you take a risk to do something and it doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to. I believe that failure is to have never tried at all.