What is Spatial Ability? Do You Have It or Not?
Cracking the Talent Code, Part 1
Greg is a bright and likable guy who worked his way into a large, prestigious law firm. He despised the job but made due, the money was really good. After a decade of grinding along he started to flame out. His interest in mergers and acquisitions and the law in general fizzled out. Something was way off course but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He camouflaged his mind-numbing boredom for as long as he could, but he eventually was relegated to doing undesirable grunt work assignments. At age 39, when the economy went south last year, his firm let him go. Greg was actually happy to get fired, he was ready to say goodbye to all those years as a JD.
Highly accomplished by 36 with a PhD in economics, Mari was working with the best in her field and at the top of her game. Unfortunately it was the wrong game. She’s brilliant and excels at whatever she goes after, but she lost enthusiasm for academic research; it just wasn’t tangible enough. She was successful and well respected by her colleagues, but she was disengaged and stressed out. Pretending to like her job was killing her from the inside out. She started telling her friends that something was wrong and she needed to make a change, they thought she was going nuts.
Rosa was a respectable head and neck surgeon. Although she was good at it, the work was too detailed and mechanical for her. She tried a new path in medical research at the National Institute of Health (NIH), but quickly realized that she couldn’t stomach experimenting on mice. After some soul searching she decided to specialize in plastic surgery, which meant a four year commitment to get more highly specialized medical training. She got accepted into one of the top surgical training medical schools in the country. Rosa has an artistic side, so she thought that plastic surgery would bring together her aesthetic eye with her medical career. Five years later she was physically exhausted and emotionally distraught; something went terribly wrong. At age 40 and several advanced medical degrees under belt she was ready to face the truth; she’s not cut out to be a surgeon and has serious doubts about staying in a medical career at all.
Greg, Mari and Rosa all went to top schools; they are highly intelligent, very determined and conscientious people. They each had a career vision and worked tirelessly to achieve it, they are not slackers or complainers. For a lack of specific words to name their problem, they all described a gut hunch that they had chosen the wrong career and had a vague sense that they would be much better at some other career “out there.” Their instincts were right. The careers they chose didn’t fit their natural abilities, particularly, their level of spatial ability.
It’s not their fault. They didn’t know they had “natural” talents. They considered themselves smart enough to do whatever they wanted. But they were wrong. Comprehensive aptitude testing revealed that Greg and Mari have aptitude profiles for career fields that are in a different talent ballpark altogether from what they studied in college and grad school. Specifically, they both scored high in a very important cognitive talent—spatial ability—a natural ability for mentally turning and rotating 3-dimensional images in your mind’s eye.
Greg didn’t have many opportunities in his life to test drive his spatial ability or talent. Although he scored in the top quartile in the spatial ability among highly educated people, he had no clue he had this talent until he had his aptitudes measured with a comprehensive career aptitude test. He did recollect back on a summer camp experience as a young teen, where he taught himself how to fix motorboat engines (to the astonishment of the adults around him), but that was the only clue he had in over 20 years. One of his strongest talents went unnoticed and “dormant.” So how can he be so high in this aptitude having never applied or developed it? Here is a good example of what it means to be “naturally gifted” at something; the spatial ability is a stock component of the human brain, we all have it, and for some of us the volume knob is preset to high—the raw potential is there from day one. Keep in mind that natural talents still need to be developed, practice really does make perfect.
What is spatial ability good for? Go to a great cathedral and look up at the spectacular arches soaring above. This is an example of the work done by highly spatial people, such as architects and engineers, who imagine, design and build the physical wonders of the world. Physical sciences, engineering, technology, mathematics, medicine, and architecture are fields that engage the mind’s 3-D reasoning aptitude. It’s nearly impossible to thrive in these fields without high spatial ability.
About half of men and one quarter of women measure high in spatial ability. The higher the ability—the more the pull or itch you’ll feel to scratch it. Greg had been daydreaming of a career in dentistry for the last few years, a highly spatial field for sure. His dental fantasy was a clue that an untapped aptitude was tugging at him but he didn’t know how to decipher the code. Interestingly, dentistry still isn’t quite right for Greg. He scored too low in manual dexterity, an aptitude to manipulate small tools and objects with your fingers, and do it with speed and precision. Nobody wants a fat-fingered dentist. Fortunately, he’s also curious to explore the spatial domains of engineering and construction management as longer term possibilities. In the short run he found a clever fix within the field of law. He went through the side door into patent law, the one little known niche of law where lawyers are also trained as engineers and spend a great deal of time examining 3-D drawings of technical patents. Albert Einstein was a patent examiner before he became one of the world’s most idealized, spatial geniuses. An anatomical study of Einstein’s brain was conducted after his death to see how it differed from the average bear. His brain’s spatial (parietal) lobes were 15% larger than average. Spatial ability, like other aptitudes are actual biological “circuits” or physical entities that reside in the brain. Aptitudes are literally hard-wired mental constructs. MRI brain scans of people solving 3-D problems show their parietal lobes light up.
I’ve met hundreds of unhappy lawyers who were too spatial for law and almost none of them understood the gravity of the sleeping giant spatial ability in their heads. Some had found small ways to tinker around the house doing fixer upper projects, but most were unable to connect the dots as to how far off course they were in a law career.
Law is a highly “non-spatial” field that sits on the other end of the world of work where people play with concepts and linguistic ideas, as opposed to physical things like colliding atoms, spiraling DNA strands and space shuttle flight plans. Lawyers apply social sciences, which are largely abstract behavioral subjects that rarely require 3-D thinking. People who thrive in the social sciences measure among the lowest in spatial ability. To use visual metaphor, we all travel down a wide superhighway when we begin our career journey and the first major fork is where many of us take a wrong turn. Should I be a doctor or lawyer? We don’t realize that these careers are on different forks in the road. We should be asking, am I spatial or not?
Mari also turned her career down the wrong fork; an economist is a non-spatial, social scientist. Latent all these years, her spatial ability is extraordinary; she measured in the top 1%. Again, well into mid-career she had little to no practice applying this ability, it was sitting idle and causing much of her boredom. Discovering this ability blew her socks off; suddenly her restless angst vanished.
Going through life without knowing your innate talents is like driving your car with 40/40 vision but never realizing you have bad eyes, you get used to living in a blurry, confusing and anxious world. This is one of the main reasons why many people stay stuck in the wrong career, they’re fearful of taking a wrong turn. If you don’t know what you are—you’re flying blind, and this causes a lot of quiet desperation. Once Mari realized she’s high spatial, as well as introverted, tribal, imaginative, mathematical and artistic, her career direction got crystal clear; she’s now studying to be an architect and is just beaming with joy. Mari reported that her class of architecture students started with about 20 people but quickly dropped to half that. She said, “I could tell that the students who quit weren’t spatially inclined, they struggled with the 3-D spatial design projects.” Just a year into her program the professors have already singled her out as the exceptional; she’s “the natural” that mentors fall all over.
On the other side of the coin, non-spatial people encounter the same dilemma. Lots of people take a turn down the spatial fork that shouldn’t have. I’ve met many engineers, physical scientists and doctors that don’t have enough spatial ability, despite decades of practice “trying” to develop it. I made this mistake; I have a BS in electrical engineering that I’m not using. None of it stuck, I can’t even fix a lamp. Even after five years of constantly exercising my spatial brain gears, I still scored in the lowest quartile on the spatial ability test. Although our brain has plasticity and can change with repetition and practice, we can’t dramatically increase a low aptitude. Plenty of non-spatial people don’t know they “lack” the 3-D spatial ability, but painfully forge ahead to get advanced degrees in engineering, science and medicine. We can teach a chimpanzee to use language, but it will never become as proficient as even a 3 year old human child. We can teach a non-spatial person to become a surgeon if they work hard enough, but they’ll have a very difficult time keeping pace with doctors who are innately high in spatial ability. How much you want to bet that many grumpy doctors aren’t very spatial?
This is the wall that Rosa bumped up against. Through pure will she made her way into the big leagues of surgical medicine. She measured at the 50th percentile in spatial ability, which is moderate but not enough to excel in a highly 3-D spatial field like surgical medicine. Once Rosa realized that her strength was working with people’s behavior, rather than their physical anatomy, the light bulb came on. She’s got the aptitude profile pattern of a social scientist, not a spatial life scientist. This explained, in part, why she’s more interested in developing people’s minds rather than giving them vanity boob jobs. Unfortunately, once you make it this far into medicine it’s hard to turn your back on it. With two decades of momentum in a field, and even though it doesn’t suit her, she plans to bite the bullet and do some freelance surgery until she can pay off her debts and regroup.
You can’t sustain a severe mismatch with your aptitudes without consequences. It will eventually catch up with you and either burn you out, make you physically ill, or bore you into depression. Spatial (and non-spatial) ability stands out as one of the most important aptitudes to satisfy in your work. If you have it, it’ll drive you nuts if you’re not using it. Likewise, if you don’t have much of it, stay clear of fields that require 3-D mental acrobatics.
Coming soon in Part 2 of this article series, Cracking the Talent Code, I discuss the even more intriguing issue of how most of us make it all the way through school, then go on to college and even graduate school without knowing whether we have spatial ability, or not.
Learn how to find your career path direction:
Got questions? Contact Anthony Spadafore, coauthor of Now What?, top selling career choice guide for young and mid-career professionals.by