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Are you doing what you want to do? Heading where you want to head? If you’ve chosen your major and minor, are you confident they will build on your strengths and support your life goals? Sometimes it’s not obvious where we should be going or what we are best suited to. Standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, assess primarily our mathematical and linguistic abilities. But there are more than those two ways to be smart. Recognizing our strengths (and what we need to work on) is key to a satisfying life.

Back in the 1980s, Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, contemplated the range of skills that humans use in life and the problem-solving and creative abilities that are valuable to society. That’s when he coined the term “multiple intelligences” and determined that humans demonstrate at least eight categories of smarts.

Hardly anyone will rank high on every type of intelligence. That said, we can harness our strengths, allowing them to guide our personal, academic, and career goals and decisions. We can also improve in the areas that don’t come so naturally to make sure those relative weaknesses don’t hold us back. Click to learn how.

1. Linguistic intelligence

Use words effectively to tell a story, explain, or convince, either in speech or writing—as demoed by journalists, lawyers, and marketers.

If you’re a whiz at reading, writing, and maybe even public speaking, linguistic intelligence is probably one of your strengths.

Natural career fits

Journalist, lawyer, marketing consultant, politician, social media manager, writer/editor

How to develop your linguistic intelligence

  • Create a blog to practice your delivery and figure out how to engage others. You can relate it to a career interest or any topic that inspires you.
  • Consistent practice will help you brush up on your skills, even if it’s simply for the sake of improving your conversation and email correspondence (which you’ll likely rely on in any career).

“Being more vocal in a conversation, not being intimidated, and being willing to state your opinion are great things to try! If you find it hard to speak with other people, speak in front of a mirror or practice with your close friends/family. Also, recording yourself is a great way to learn our strengths and weaknesses.”
—Laura B., second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

“Read, write, and talk more. [Try] dense and informative topics such as scientific articles, economic forecasts, political writings, and philosophy. It may sound too simple to be true, but just getting more involved in intense subjects like these is actually an outstanding way to improve your linguistics.”
—Reza W.-L., second-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Hone your vocab with addictive word puzzles

How to start a blog online

2. Logical-mathematic intelligence

Use numbers effectively (e.g., to solve math problems), notice patterns/relationships, and reason clearly—as demoed by scientists, social scientists, and computer programmers.

If you’re the one solving puzzles, calculating how much tip everyone needs to pitch in for the pizza, and deconstructing the fallacies in presidential candidates’ arguments, you’ve got logical-mathematical skills.

Natural career fits

Accountant, actuary, computer programmer, database designer, doctor, engineer, mathematician, website coder

How to develop your logical-mathematical intelligence

  • Play Sudoku and crossword puzzles. Relish brainteaser puzzles and riddles.
  • Logical thinking goes way beyond math. Question and investigate your and others’ assumptions. Learn to spot the flaws in arguments. Read about human irrationality and biases. Join a debate team.
  • Make sure your budget’s working for you. Make or revise your spending plan using apps that help structure and organize the info. (This will cover you in all kinds of ways.)

“Numerical intelligence helps in every aspect of life because logical thinking is the basis for everything. I’ve always been pretty good at math, but I definitely sharpened my critical thinking skills when I debated competitively in high school. It improved my life in so many ways that I feel all students should be strongly encouraged to take part in competitive speech and/or debate.”
—Reza W.-L., second-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology

“I was always bad at mental math until I watched these videos [below right]. When I started studying it on my own time and finding the stuff I was interested in (coding and physics), I found a way to appreciate it.”
—Karl J., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

Lift up your logic with this fan-favorite puzzle app

Human quirks and foibles and what they mean for us

Tricks that make mental math easy [videos]

3. Spatial intelligence

Think in terms of physical space while being very aware of your environment, indoors and out—as demoed by architects, designers, and guides.

What do escaping mazes, playing video games, constructing objects from a kit, and mentally rearranging stuff have in common? Spatial intelligence—it’s key to success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as visual design and other careers.

Natural career fits

Architect, artist, physicist, civil engineer, game designer, interior decorator, outdoor guide, urban planner

How to enhance your spatial intelligence

  • Try navigating your city without GPS. Take a look at your smartphone map and try to get a feeling for your destination in relation to your current location, but then put your phone away. (OK, fine—pull it out again if you get lost.)
  • Playing chess boosts your problem-solving ability and creativity—important skills for careers that require spacial intelligence. Playing video games improves a range of spatial tasks. Also, grapple with Tetris, Rubik’s Cube, and other puzzles.
  • Make stuff—e.g., build furniture or models from scratch or kits.

“I never really considered how objects relate to each other until I was in my first figure-drawing class in college. Figuring out how the model related to the space around them was both difficult to master and a (surprisingly) crucial piece of my higher education. This has become an important part of my career as a graphic designer.”
—Katie M., recent graduate, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

“Spatial skills are especially important for the sciences because they help you visualize what’s going on in nature without having to actually see it. For example, organic chemistry is heavily based on spatial and 3D thinking because the shapes of molecules determine how they interact with each other.”
—Reza W.-L., second-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Solve the digital Rubik’s Cube

Play Tetris online

4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Use your own body to express feelings or ideas, or use your hands to transform things—as demoed by dancers, sculptors, surgeons, and mechanics.

If you’ve got great dance moves, a steady hand when crafting, or a natural talent for sports, you’ve also got bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. You have control over your body and can use it to produce small, specific movements (e.g., with your hands) or large, dramatic ones (e.g., with your whole body).

Natural career fits

Actor, athlete, carpenter, craftsperson, dancer, jeweler, mechanic, personal trainer/fitness instructor, sculptor, surgeon

How to enhance your bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

  • Join a sports team, dance or martial arts class, or drama group. Ask a friend to sign up with you and pledge to make it a no-judgment zone. This is about doing it and seeing what it does for you.
  • Get hands-on. Find activities that involve touch and texture, like braille, massage, sculpture, or knitting.

“Joining my university competitive cheer team and performing in front of big crowds has helped me to build confidence and close friendships. It’s also provided me with many personal fitness goals to work towards. The physical element of stunting, dancing, and tumbling has provided me with a weekly stress buster.”
—Serena C., third-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Find a local sports opportunity

Find free sculpture lessons online

5. Musical intelligence

Understand, create, or express musical forms—as demoed by music critics, composers, DJs, and musicians.

Do you play an instrument, sing, or create the best playlists? Are you always feeling the beat? Your musical skills are likely your strength—even if your singing voice is fit only for the shower.

Natural career fits

Conductor, DJ, music critic, musician, singer, sound engineer, speech therapist, talent agent

What if your dreams don’t align with your ability? “You don’t have to automatically discard your passion if it’s a weakness. You can find an industry that has to do with your passion where you could use your strengths. For example, you may be passionate about singing, but if you’re tone-deaf, it might be better to keep singing as a hobby. You could become a talent scout, a music critic, a concert promoter, or a recording engineer.”
—Hallie Crawford, certified professional career coach, author, and speaker based in Atlanta, Georgia

How to develop your musical moxie

  • Learn an instrument or take voice lessons. This takes time and probably money, but is a worthwhile investment if you’re passionate about singing or music.
  • Switch up the type of music you listen to. If you’re using Spotify or Google Play Music, challenge yourself to pick a different genre playlist every day. You’ll train your ear to recognize different pitches, melodies, and tones.

“Whether you’re trying to create better playlists or expand your knowledge of music, if you only listen to one genre, you’re limiting yourself. Approaching new artists/genres with an open mind allows you to observe different attributes of the music. I always take note of the background music in offices, stores, my friends’ cars, parties, etc. Music theory classes are a great way to get more knowledge.”
—Taylor R., third-year undergraduate, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York

Find free music lessons online

Sing up with this vocal training app

6. Interpersonal intelligence

Understand the moods, intentions, feelings, and motivations of other people, and know how to handle social situations effectively—as demoed by service industry professionals, public relations agents, social workers, and teachers.

Are you the first person your friends come to for advice and one of the last to leave a party? If you’re socially connected and comfortable communicating with almost anyone, your strength likely lies in your interpersonal intelligence.

Natural career fits

Business administrator, hotel or restaurant manager, journalist, nurse, psychologist, public relations agent, salesperson, social worker, teacher

How to lift your interpersonal intelligence

  • Rather than sticking to surface-level “Hello” and “How are you?” conversations, make it a goal to have a substantive talk with at least one different person every day. If face-to-face communication is difficult for you, start a conversation online. Try to learn something new about the other person while also sharing something about yourself (keep your personal info private online, though).
  • When a friend confides in you, listen. Put yourself in their shoes and consider what would help you in that scenario. Maybe you’re there to hear them without judgment, or help them access additional supports, rather than tell them what to do.

“We read tone differently online, so anything I write in an email I say aloud to myself first. I use the sandwich technique for cushioning messages that deliver bad news: Start off with a positive point, lead into the critique, and finish off with ‘this was good/I like this.”
—Karl J., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

“If you’re not feeling confident about your ability to contribute to a conversation or connect, listen and take in the scene. Notice how other people succeed in conversation, email, public speaking, and so on. Practice how to introduce yourself to people in different scenarios: someone you want to network with in your career versus a friend of a friend at a party.”
—Taylor R., third-year undergraduate, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, New York

Cultivate empathy via these six habits

7. Intrapersonal intelligence

Accurately understand yourself (including your strengths, biases, and limitations), and make decisions based on your goals and interests—as demoed by counselors, career coaches, and business owners.

If you’re self-aware enough to recognize your positive traits and flaws, and can catch yourself in rationalizations and denials, bravo. You’re likely self-motivating, adaptable, and thinking about both your short and long-term goals.

Natural career fits

Business owner, entrepreneur, career coach, consultant, counselor, psychologist

How to enhance your intrapersonal intelligence

  • Create your own personal development plan. Write down the goals that you’d like to achieve within the next year and reflect on the specific steps and decisions they require. For instance, think about which classes are in line with your career interests and what internship experiences could work for you.
  • Think long term: Where do you want to live? What kind of lifestyle do you envision for yourself after graduation? How can your natural strengths and abilities help you get there, and what areas do you want to improve on?
  • Apply for scholarships and grants. The application process is a good way to develop perspective on yourself in addition to the other potential bonus (free money).

“Writing in a journal helps me become more introspective, which has caused me to become more aware of myself and my surroundings. It’s been useful at work, when I’m interacting with co-workers, to develop my empathy and understand what they need or where they’re coming from. Plus I know my strengths and I can work to them.”
—Lauren C., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Create your personal development plan

Tune into Happier with Gretchen Rubin

8. Naturalist intelligence

Recognize species and natural phenomena in the environment (e.g., flora and fauna, cloud formations, mountains) or apply that same lens to the urban environment—as demoed by conservationists, biologists, and veterinarians.

Do you naturally recognize and build knowledge about the living things around you, like which tree species grow in your neighborhood and which birds live in them? If so, you’ve got naturalist intelligence.

Natural career fits

Anthropologist, botanist, biologist, conservationist, environmental lawyer, florist, geologist, veterinarian, wildlife expert

How to nurture your naturalist intelligence

  • Get comfortable with nature. Spending more time outdoors. Plan a camping trip with a friend, and make it a point to learn which plants and animals live in the area.
  • If you’re interested in plants, consider starting a garden in your yard (or on campus, if you can negotiate that). Or care for a few indoor plants. You could try growing your own veggies, which will help keep you stocked with healthy ingredients and earn you bragging rights when you treat someone to a “garden to table” meal.

“Naturalistic intelligence can be helpful because you can recognize if there are any changes in the ecosystem, such as if a new plant species starts dominating a park near you. It can be very useful if you have an environmental career or if you are in politics because you can try for ecological solutions. If you put in effort to being aware of things like the type of ecosystem you live in or whether you live in a valley or on a bedrock, you can develop a deeper understanding of the importance of the natural world.”
—Lindsay M., third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Find out which plants and animals live locally

Check out the 7 easiest veggies to grow at home

How these intelligences might look in your day-to-day life:

  • That time you intervened in the awkward conflict at the bar? Your interpersonal instincts helped everyone get comfortable.
  • Rocked that class presentation with integrated graphics and tools? Props to your spatial intelligence.
  • When you spot the flaws and fallacies in other people’s arguments (whether or not you agree with them), you’re demo-ing logical-mathematical skills.
  • When your insightful remix lifted your music grade to an A? Bravo—you have musical strengths.
  • Remember your winningest soccer goal? Thank your bodily-kinesthetic abilities.
  • Do others admire your self-motivation? That’s a vital intrapersonal skill.

Real life is multidimensional

“When we think about real-world problems, not just those on an IQ test or an exam in school, we see that there are many ways to solve problems, many ways to be smart,” says Dr. Thomas R. Hoerr, author of Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (ASCD, 2000) and director of New City School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Build your life goals around your strengths

Different careers require different skills. “People who are able to use their strongest intelligences at work are more likely to be successful,” says Dr. Hoerr. “That’s not to say that we can’t improve skill in an intelligence; we can. But it does mean that we will find more success and pleasure when we work in areas in which we have strengths.”

Don’t neglect some of the weaker areas

At the same time, “success” (however we define it) cannot depend on just one or two life skills. “Obviously some [careers] rely heavily on a particular intelligence, but most require a balance of several,” says Mindy L. Kornhaber, associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University. If you are relatively weak in areas that are broadly relevant to productivity and happiness, like interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, look at how you can build those up.

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Article sources

Mindy L. Kornhaber, associate professor, Department of Education Policy Studies, Pennsylvania State University.

Hallie Crawford, MA, certified professional career coach, author, and speaker, Atlanta, Georgia.

Thomas R. Hoerr, PhD, author, Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (ASCD, 2000), head of New City School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Armstrong, T. (2009). Multiple intelligences in the classroom (3rd ed.). Cloverdale, CA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Retrieved from
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Hambrick, D. Z., & Chabris, C. (2014, April 14). Yes, IQ really matters. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/04/ what_do_sat_and_iq_tests_measure_general_intelligence_predicts_school_and.html

Hampshire, A., Highfield, R. R., Parkin, B. L., & Owen, A. M. (2012). Fractionating human intelligence. Neuron, 76(6), 1225–1237.

Hiss, W. C., & Franks, V. W. (2014). Defining promise: Optional standardized testing policies in American college and university admissions. National Association for College Admissions. Retrieved from http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Documents/DefiningPromise.pdf

National Academy of Sciences. (2011). Assessing 21st century skills: Summary of a workshop. National Research Council (US) Committee on the Assessment of 21st Century Skills. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK84217/

Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., et al. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139(2), 352–402.