What’s Your Experiential Intelligence (EX?)

An Interview with Soren Kaplan

Matthew E. May
5 min readJan 31, 2023

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It’s been over 100 years since the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was established as a success indicator. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is nearly 25 years old. Now comes what bestselling author Soren Kaplan calls the missing link in the evolution of intelligence: Experiential Intelligence, or XQ.

In his new book (out today), Experiential Intelligence: Harness the Power of Experience for Personal and Business Breakthroughs, Soren defines XQ as “Your combination of mindsets, abilities, and know-how gained from your unique life experience.” The important word, at least for me, in that definition, is “unique.”

As Soren tells it, in the same way simply memorizing facts doesn’t give you a high IQ, your XQ isn’t merely what you’ve learned over time. It’s how you uniquely perceive challenges, view opportunities, and tackle your goals. Your XQ includes the beliefs and attitudes you hold about yourself, other people, and the world in general, along with the differentiating abilities that you’ve developed that make you, well, you.

I’ve known Soren Kaplan for over a decade, and we share a passion for innovation and innovative thinking. I caught up with him recently to ask a few questions and get some firsthand insight.

Knowing you, there’s a fair bit of foundational research behind your ideas around XQ. Care to share some of that?

“Of course. First off, it’s not my concept. Experiential Intelligence was first introduced by Robert Sternberg, the past president of the American Psychological Association. What I’ve done is to further develop and refine the concept using research from the field of positive psychology. Carol Dweck and Alia Crum’s work at Stanford University on mindsets and Jeremy Clifton’s work at the University of Pennsylvania on Primal World Beliefs are big influencers. There’s also a strong connection to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that he developed at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.”

We have IQ and EQ, why do we need XQ?

“It’s a completely different world than the one in which IQ became a thing. Same with EQ. Today’s environment is all about navigating constant disruption and managing distraction. IQ and EQ are still important, but XQ introduces the third leg of the intelligence stool that’s been there all along but is now equally important to recognize as a critical success factor in life and business. To deal with today’s disruptive world, we need to first understand and then develop certain mindsets, abilities, and know-how to ensure we survive and thrive. These are the components of XQ.”

Are we basically talking “street smarts” here?

“Yes and no. Street smarts is usually used to describe people who lack formal education yet are still able to survive in tough situations. The reality is that we all develop a form of street smarts starting early in life, and we use this intelligence to navigate both personal and professional challenges and opportunities over time.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes the smarts we develop through our experiences help us, and sometimes they outsmart us later because, while certain strategies were once useful, they can end up undermining our success. The greater self-awareness you gain around your own XQ, the more you actually develop it and can use it to your advantage.”

OK, say more about that development path. What’s that look like?

“Sure. XQ exists on three levels. First is your know-how, which includes your practical knowledge and skills. Second is your abilities, which guide how you apply your knowledge and skills to use them in the most effective way possible. Abilities can include higher order things like pattern recognition or managing uncertainty. Third is your mindsets, which are your attitudes and beliefs about yourself, other people, and the world. And those can be conscious or subconscious. Gaining greater self-awareness of your mindsets, abilities, and know-how plays a big part in developing your XQ. When you understand what led you to adopt certain mindsets for example, you increase your ability to consciously change them, which can lead to growth in your abilities and know-how.”

How does all this play out in the world of business — for leaders, for teams, for organizational cultures in general?

“If you look at companies like Google, Apple, Tesla, IBM, Home Depot, Bank of America, Starbucks, and Hilton which no longer require a university degree for an interview, these organizations understand that future success relies on way more than diplomas. So the first big opportunity is to recognize the value of experience beyond just formal education and training. Hiring managers, team leaders, and talent and leadership development needs to seek out the higher order mindsets and abilities needed for the future versus pigeonhole people into narrow boxes.

Many organizations haven’t fully tapped into the mindsets, abilities, and know-how that inherently exists across their people and teams. Leaders first need to recognize that the reality of life, including in business, is that everyone brings the whole of who they are with them wherever they go, including both their strengths as well as self-limiting beliefs. Until companies embrace this fact, they’ll never reach their full potential. For example, we may need to help people overcome their limiting mindsets, or help them uncover their hidden assets derived from their full set of life experiences, not just their work experience. Developing XQ helps people become better leaders. Teams that harness their collective XQ achieve greater collaboration and innovation. Organizations that recognize XQ as a strategic imperative can more fully leverage their talent and transform their cultures by scaling the assets that exist across their people.”

Final question: If I want to know my XQ, the actual number, how do I get that?

“You can get an individual or a group XQ, or both. I partnered with a well-known psychologies to create an assessment that measures four dimensions of Experiential Intelligence: 1. Ability Appreciation, which is your recognition that you possess specific strengths in the form of attitudes, assumptions, knowledge, or skills due to your unique experiences; 2. Impact Awareness, which is your attunement to the impacts you’ve experienced in life and how to view and use them to your advantage; 3. Mindset Flexibility, which is your awareness that your attitudes and beliefs will change over time based on your experiences; and 4. Amplification, which involves sharing your personal XQ journey while providing a safe, trusted space for others to openly share and receive your insight and encouragement at the same time. How an individual or group scores on these dimensions indicates whether they have a lower or higher level of XQ.”

I highly recommend you picking up Experiential Intelligence for yourself and your team. There are plenty of experts, authors, and leaders out there who distance themselves at a personal level from their work and messages to the world. That’s not Soren Kaplan. He reveals a good bit of his personal journey, some of it quite poignant. He models what’s involved in developing XQ by humanizing the approach and demonstrating that, as paradoxical as it may sound, the same things that traumatize us in life can also deliver assets that can be uncovered and used to our advantage.

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Matthew E. May

Senior GTM strategy advisor at Insight Partners. Co-author, What a Unicorn Knows: How Leading Entrepreneurs Use Lean Principles to Drive Sustainable Growth.