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By neglecting spatial intelligence, how many Elon Musks have we missed?

elon musk
AP Foto/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Imagine what more could have been invented.
  • Jonathan Wai
By Jonathan Wai

Research Scientist, Duke University

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Peter Thiel famously said of the future: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” As innovative as Twitter might be, it pales in comparison to engineering feats that could truly transform our future. Think, for example, of the things Elon Musk has been dreaming about: the Hyperloop, a Mars colony, or a new energy source.

In his new biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic FutureAshlee Vance describes Musk as a “modern day alloy of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs”—someone who has a mind like a computer and the ability to endure failure in his quest to change the world through his companies. Vance, like a literary paleontologist, unearths aspects of Musk’s personality demonstrated since childhood, and the parallel traits he values in employees. As Dolly Singh, former head of talent acquisition for Space-X, told Vance: “We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.”

In essence, these are driven people who have extraordinary spatial talent, defined as “the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images.” But the people who have made it through the talent filter of one of Musk’s companies are those who succeeded in overcoming many earlier educational and occupational hurdles. They are the students who had enormous opportunity to develop their spatial talent and succeed in traditional school systems that value students who are good at reading, writing, and doing math. For some of those spatially talented students that made it, they may have had parents to encourage those visual talents, even if school did not. They also may have had extremely high math and verbal abilities in addition to their high spatial ability, which allowed them to perform well in school even those weren’t their primary strength.

Consider this: Ever since you were a kid, can you recall taking a standardized test in the US that didn’t have a verbal or math section? Pretty much all of them have math, science, English, reading, and maybe writing sections. What’s missing are measures of spatial visualization.

In some of my research (pdf) with colleagues David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, we demonstrate that spatial talent is linked with success in STEM disciplines—especially areas such as engineering. We also illustrate that when standardized tests include primarily verbal and math measures, the large group of students who are high on spatial but relatively lower on math and verbal talent are likely to be missed as being talented, whether that takes the form of an official talent search or a more personal judgment made by a teacher, educator, or parent. A full 70% of the top 1% in spatial reasoning did not make the cut on the top 1% of either math or verbal reasoning within a population level sample, showing that there is a large pool of students who are spatially intelligent but not as strong in traditional testing areas.

Talent cannot be developed properly if it is not identified properly, as illustrated in some of my research (pdf) documenting the importance of a consistent educational dosage over time for eventual adult achievement. For spatially talented students, this might consist of engaging in robotics competitions or being taught in ways that draw out their visual imaginations. The maker movement may be especially helpful for this traditionally neglected subpopulation.

In fact, Musk himself founded Ad Astra, a school for his own kids and Space-X employees that may focus on an education more suited to spatially talented kids. As Singh told Vance about the Space-X hiring model: “The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world building experience bending metal.”

Musk’s childhood was difficult, which led some of his colleagues to note that—beyond his brilliant mind and willingness to work insane hours—is his capacity to endure pain. We marvel and idolize someone like Musk who has overcome failure to become a success, yet we forget the many potential Musks who could have been, but who simply didn’t have the opportunity to develop their talent.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why we are not doing a better job of finding spatially talented kids at an earlier age and doing everything we can to engage and enhance their incredible ability to envision and engineer our future. What innovations have we already lost because of this? Perhaps if we do decide to help spatially talented kids, we might get something much more incredible than flying cars—and definitely something more useful than 140 characters.

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