Intellectual Athleticism (IA)

★ An Important Trait for a New Era of Work

Intellectual Athleticism (IA)

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Today’s newsletter is all about readying yourself for the complex future that lies ahead in work and life, where flexibility and adaptability are key.

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Strikeouts. Missed free-throws. Dropped passes. These were some of the hallmarks of my early athletic endeavors.

Short, mildly overweight, and sparsely graced with coordination, I lacked the trademarks of a chosen athlete. And yet, year after year, I continued my athletic pursuits.

Despite my struggles, I figured there might be a day when the road got easier. I tried new teams, changed positions, and even exercised more. Slowly, but surely, it did get better.

But it wasn’t because I stuck it out. It was because I learned how to adapt.

The path to improvement wasn’t linear. I had to try multiple different sports before I could find my strengths, and so it was in the changing of sports that I learned what the real advantage was: adaptation.

Playing multiple sports helped me improve in other sports and activities. What I learned in weight training was easy to see expressed physically in tennis. Additional leg strength made running easier. Shoulder strength my serve in tennis. Grip strength made hitting the ball and swinging a racket/bat easier.

With every physical change came a mental change as well. Testing my skills and abilities is what allowed me to know my boundaries, which is what allowed me to push through them.

For years, I imagined what it might be like to do this for my career. If I could improve my skills physically through hard work and determination, why couldn’t I do the same at work?

As I’ve previously written, there are a lot of similarities between work and sports. If we treat work as a sport, we set ourselves up for a new training regime and increase our overall athletic ability.

When we honestly assess ourselves, we quickly learn that we all have strengths and weaknesses that we can focus on. Whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional shortcomings — we’re riddled with imperfections.

Just like an athlete who wants to improve, the best way to deal with our weaknesses is to analyze, address, and train.

But becoming an elite athlete is not easy. Professional athletes train for years and years for a chance to compete with the best. They push themselves to the limit each and every day. And for what? For the chance to live out their dream and reach their potential.

So what defines athleticism?

Intellectual vs Physical Athleticism

There’s a rich, albeit debated history of athleticism and society’s attempts to accurately test and analyze it. If we simply combine the definitions, the definition would look something like this:

ath·let·i·cism: the physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness, and agility.

To better understand and compare physical and intellectual athleticism, I’d like to break that definition into smaller parts, starting with physical qualities.

[Physical] Qualities — The definition selectively calls attention to multiple physical qualities, which is important to note for our intellectual definition. It’s not a single measurement that only includes one physical quality or trait. Instead, it requires that an athlete be, what many would consider, “well-rounded.”

Similarly, the intellectual athlete should harness intellectual qualities across verticals and domains. Cognitive abilities are the skills that make up our general intelligence. In the past, most definitions looked at a single ability, but modern analysis looks at a combination of abilities.

Next, let’s look at the characteristics mentioned: strength, fitness, and agility.

Strength — Strength in physical athleticism typically refers to raw power, or one’s ability to exert power. For the intellectual athlete, “power” is more about raw horsepower, or the ability to address complex problems across diverse situations.

Fitness — Athletic fitness looks at an athlete’s condition of being physically fit and healthy. Note that healthy is the operative word in this definition. For the intellectual athlete, health is just as critical as being fit. An unhealthy mind is unbalanced and cannot perform optimally.

Agility — Athletic agility typically refers to one's ability to move across domains with ease. This is our closest correlation to intellectual athleticism, which also requires a high degree of intellectual and cognitive agility in order to move across environments with ease.

The Intellectual Athlete’s Advantage

Year after year, new innovative technologies change the competitive landscape of intellectual and physical performance. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one particular technology that is rapidly evolving, and finally starting to make its way into our intellectual competitive field.

Take GPT-3 for example. Last year, GPT-3 was released and it shocked the world. Part of the panic was because, for the first time in history, AI felt like it was nipping at our heels.

Those who work in tech or AI know the limitations of the current iterations of GPT-3, but it’s clear that technology may soon eat our lunch. And if we’re simply a few steps ahead of AI, what can we do to ready ourselves for a future where work is automated?

The answer is simple: Build intellectual athleticism.

Not only will technology come to take our jobs, but remote work will unlock a slew of new opportunities to redefine and reinvent “work.” More work will come online, new jobs will be created, and the best jobs will not be structured. Those who fit neatly into a particular title or role may see their job automated away by a combination of machines and junior workers.

Just like in sports, the most competitive jobs will go to the top athletes. Those who let their muscles atrophy and train in a single modality will find themselves with limited opportunities.

The Passion Economy and the future of work are ushering in new opportunities for intellectual athletes and creating a world where intellectual athleticism will be the defining factor at work. Those who wish to thrive should understand the benefits and learn to operate like an athlete.

Assessing Your Intellectual Athleticism (IA)

In the past, measuring intellect was about the overall depth of knowledge. If, for example, you spend your entire life studying biology and can speak intelligently on the subject, you could be considered intelligent.

But as technology has changed the way we access and retain information, intellect is more about adaptability, context, and time to understanding. If we want to increase our intelligence, we should expand domains in which you are able to understand and contextualize the information.

To do this, an athlete will need experience in a wide range of subjects, while also harnessing the three main areas of intellectual athleticism:

Genetics/natural abilities – natural, genetic abilities. Both at work and in sports, this is typically the easiest to articulate and measure, but the least likely to predict success. Our natural abilities act as accelerators for intellectual athleticism, but only if applied to the right subjects. This is the limiting factor for intellectual athleticism. If not paired with the right subject, an intellectual athlete may be wasting time strengthening the wrong muscle. For example, an athlete with a naturally strong throwing arm may find themselves completely out of sync if they attempt to apply these skills in soccer. The same principle applies to intellectual athleticism.

Talent/skills – ability to perform a technical skill. When we start learning anything, we lack context. We have to walk through the steps and processes to both understand and improve our understanding of the skill we’re learning. While genetics may expedite this process for some, it does not fully account for our ability to acquire a particular skill.

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see."

— Arthur Schopenhauer

Mentality/grit – work ethic and ability to handle complex environments. This is the most important factor in determining success. It’s much more than work ethic; it’s adaptability and a beginner’s mindset, paired with hard work and determination. Where genetics and skills create a foundation, mentality builds the scaffolding that supports the structure.

While these are not perfect measures, they act as a proxy for an overall assessment of skill and aptitude. An athlete that is incredibly skilled that lacks the right mentality has limited growth potential. Conversely, an athlete who has the mentality and physical qualities but lacks skill will likely also fall short of reaching their athletic potential.

Our goal as intellectual athletes is to develop ourselves in ways that will allow us to continue growing and learning, without locking us into one particular path. So, what are you doing to strengthen your IA?


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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,

— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)

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