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True Grit

Sure, IQ is important, but maybe it's really the AQ -- adversity quotient -- of an individual or organization that determines entrepreneurial success.

By: Edward O. Welles

Published July 2000


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Field notes

Forget IQ. Forget EQ. It's the AQ -- adversity quotient -- of an individual or an organization that determines entrepreneurial success

You know the old joke, why are academic politics so vicious? Answer: Because the stakes are so small. Maybe that's also true of the rough-around-the-edges trade of journalism. What else would explain my colleagues' envy after I recently moved into a new -- and incrementally larger -- office: "This is obscene. How did you get this place? ... I thought I would get this office." Maybe I should have spotted that reaction for what it really was: rank "camper" behavior. Camper is a term coined by Paul Stoltz, a consultant who since 1987 has been studying how people respond to adversity. He divides the workforce into three groups: climbers, campers, and quitters. Climbers seek challenge, quitters flee from it, and campers -- the broad, fleshy middle of any organization -- want to know what's for lunch.

To put it another way, campers are about as rare as cockroaches.

Stoltz contends that you can forget about brains (IQ) or the touchy-feely stuff (emotional quotient, or EQ). The people -- and organizations -- that really thrive have a high adversity quotient (AQ), and Stoltz says he's got data to back that claim up. His consulting company, Peak Learning, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has measured the AQ of more than 100,000 people. And Stoltz, Peak's president and CEO, has done in-depth work with some 100 companies.

Who comes out at the top of the AQ scale? Entrepreneurs, salespeople who work on commission, and companies imbued with a sense of adventure. (Microsoft is one such "climbing organization" that comes to Stoltz's mind.) At the other end of the spectrum, huddled among other terminally risk-averse individuals, are education majors -- alas, tomorrow's teachers and mentors. As Stoltz notes: "You know the three best reasons for going into teaching?" Answer: "June, July, and August."

Stoltz says that having a high AQ grows more important as the world gets messier. He perennially asks his clients how many adverse events they experience in a given day -- with such incidents ranging from a broken watercooler to massive accounting fraud. Ten years ago the average number was 7. Five years ago it was 13. Last year it was 23. "That trend is global and independent of industry," says Stoltz. There is no escaping the grim reaper of complexity.

That said, what do most people do when the going gets tough? "They camp," says Stoltz. "People resist giving up their comforts, no matter what the price."

Campers constitute about 80% of the typical workforce; the balance is divided between quitters and climbers. Because they raise tensions inside the "tent," campers and quitters often drive climbers -- key talent -- away. "Climbers are frustrated by the campground. They reroute around it," says Stoltz. Why? "Climbers have an utter refusal to be insignificant. What they do and who they are has to matter to them."

When Stoltz rappels into a company, his mission is to convert the heathen and slothful -- to get them onto the trail. That begins with an AQ test, whose score will range from 200 ("Let's climb Mount Everest this weekend") to 40 ("Just shoot me"). Then, through intensive one-week training sessions (reinforced by 90 days of Web-based instruction), Stoltz teaches people to improve their ability to respond to adversity.


Paul Stoltz says that AQ is rooted in how we perceive and deal with challenges. People who have higher AQs don't blame others for setbacks, and they take responsibility for fixing problems.


Stoltz says that AQ is rooted in how we perceive and deal with challenges. People who feel a sense of control tend to have higher AQs. They don't blame others for setbacks, and they take responsibility for fixing problems. And they don't see setbacks as reflecting poorly on themselves. In other words, they think problems are due to circumstance, not character. Finally, people with high AQs believe that the problems they face are limited in scope and duration ("This, too, shall pass") and can be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Stoltz says that because we live in a culture suffused with blame and guilt -- and often clouded by "info smog" that only heightens ambiguity -- finding solutions fast is easier said than done. His job is to "unburden people of a lot of their low-AQ assumptions." (For example, someone else is to blame, the problem is insurmountable, and so on.) He does that by first getting people to listen closely to how they respond to adversity, so they can anticipate their own behavior before a crisis hits full force. (Stoltz likens that to having an early-warning system that tracks hurricanes, which can't prevent disasters but limits property damage and saves lives.) With such a warning system in place, people are better able to take responsibility for changing the situation and rationally analyze the problem. By taking such a systematic approach, they are better equipped to do something. They develop a bias toward taking action. (People with low AQs, conversely, are often paralyzed by fear and self-doubt, resulting in inaction.)

 

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