The Context Variable

7 Mar , 2020 Culture,Lifestyle

The Context Variable

“The world ain’t got no patience for some shit that’s introspective…”

J. Cole


The town of Málaga sits in the southern Andalusia region of Spain. A calm harbor town across the sea from Africa. A young boy from the town struggled in his early schooling and eventually failed parochial school education because of reading and related academic difficulty. The boy’s father, understood the context his struggles but also his interests were a gradient different than his school peers and directed the boy to focus on art school. Overtime the boy became a young man and then one of the most celebrated 20th-century artists. His cubist style being probably his most recognized contribution to the art world. That boy, Pablo Picasso, was Dyslexic and of course struggled with a traditional education.

Gradients of Difference are at the core of learning and communication. I am older than you, I know more, I have seen more, I look different, I speak differently, or I think differently. Every interaction with someone else, familiar or unfamiliar, involves some level of difference that fuels the transfer of information from one person to another. Context is the equalizing medium, that pushes our dissimilarities to the background and pulls a peaceful conversation to the front. Without context, misunderstandings brew and a productive discussion becomes a pointless debate.

A person’s ability to observe the intrinsic gradients of difference between parties and discern context on their own, is a measure of their Cognitive Empathy. Also known as “Emotional Intelligence.” Both are based in the idea of understanding “context” to improve communication and connection. As I see it, both require foremost, SLOWING DOWN. Specifically, to slow down and try and see in the other person or in the situation the Past, Present, and Potential. Seeing beyond our initial prejudices and below the line. We may be very well missing an artist developing before us.



We live in an time of statistical and algorithmic quantifications of everyone and everything. Computer Algorithms and Data Scientists have calculated the world down to a set of measurable and predictable data points. Even the idea of the measure of a Person can be broken down into three common values; constructed to tell you what someone is capable of and how they relate to others around them in probabilistic terms. So now, we group people across there IQs, AQs, and EQs.

IQ : Intelligence Quotient – where in we measure a person’s intelligence based on standardized testing. Though initially understood to be just an estimate, we have butchered the stat to be a predictor of future ability and success.

AQ : Adversity Quotient – the calculation of one’s equanimity. Or the ability to persevere, as described in Angela Duck worth’s book Grit. Which is why some refer to AQ as the study of resilience in people.

EQ : Emotional / Empathy Quotient – is the measurement of our ability to absorb, identify, and appropriately respond to the emotions of others and our own. This skill can be summarized as our adaptive capability to all people.


These measurements, read without context, are probabilistic inferences that can be rife with bad interpretations. There has always been the issue of people who are bad test takers. Those who are asked to take tests in languages that are their second or third. Or those, like Einstein, who do well in tests that are unambiguous in the answers (math and science) but struggle with topics that are more subjective in what is an acceptable answers (writing and art). Moreover, we often subconsciously succumb to these stereotypes when being tested.

Malcom Gladwell discussed the topic of “stereotype threat” in his piece “The Art of Failure.” The concept was introduced by Psychologist, Claude Steele of Stanford. The primary take away from this principie is that any group when asked to perform under a situation where a known stereotype is looming tends to underperform. Black students told to take an IQ tests with white students had lower scores. But when a similar test was run and the students were told it was just a survey, both groups had nearly identical scores.

Furthermore, in a study conducted by Dr. Adrian Owen, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging, the following observation was made about IQ measurements in a report in the Toronto Star. “When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth… There is no such thing as a single measure of IQ or a measure of general intelligence.”

Again, Context

The argument I am making is that the tests and their scores have to be carefully defined, captured, and interpreted to avoid their misuse in the charecterization of a person’s ability and potential. The same oversimplification and trust can be extended to AQ and EQ; the nuance of how the scores are defined, captured, and interpreted are often not handled by the well informed or with context. Context is the cure-all for almost any misunderstanding.

When we consider the concept of the whole person, we should observe their complete experiential life. Their efforts at work, their family and home life, and the pivotal experiences that lead to choices that could lift or ruin a person. The collective whole of these environments and experiences should fundamentally be tied into defining their IQ, AQ, and EQ. If the environment of a person, their past, present, and potential are not carefully weighed against each other and the norm, are we not just creating a new type of prejudice?

There are some careers for which society does not need a “a very stable genius” to occupy the role, if at every bout of adversity a scandal will follow. Or their inability to understand others not like them results in the trampling of freedoms. If we look inwardly, we cannot define our own wholistic “health” versus the struggles of others from within our own echo chambers. We have to develop our cognitive empathy, to be in the other’s shoes, to get a more accurate measure of each other. That we should accept our gradients of difference as necessities for growth.

Getting It Right

In Midtown Atlanta, there are technology hubs called Coda and Tech Square among others bringing together technologists into buzzing centres. Corporations from everywhere are setting up here and hiring the latest graduates from nearby colleges that can code applications that will take in, analyze, and make decisions on all types of quantitative measurements. Most of these technologist, unfortunately, will not lean on the lessons from Thucydides or ask themselves whether they should pursue a technology just because they can.

Is it reasonable to hope for a similar surge by universities and companies to better combine the humanities with the sciences to create career pathways that produce the kind of people that know, that when we build data models and statistical inferences about humans, we have to get it right? We know how to measure, calculate, and place someone into a percentile; but what we don’t know is how to layer the complex nuances of reality onto this data, so that we incorporate context into them. How many future creatives get a bad test result, are put into the wrong percentile, and not correctly nurtured for the skills they have, all because the testing lacked the right context?

Understanding most people is a struggle between trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery. With people that are puzzles, we just need a bit more information and to establish a contextual shared plane of understanding. With people that are mysteries, we can have all the information, that leaves us no closer in understanding them because all that information is like “noise” that confuses us. It is ultimately, context, of the person, historical trends, and more that can help us solve the puzzling character and bring clarity to the mysterious persona.

Like Aristotle’s Causes, our preconceptions are the Efficient (natural) cause, testing and quantification gives us a Formal (momentary, explainable) cause, and context is the Final (root) cause of who someone is.

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