Convergent vs Divergent Thinking: Which Is Better?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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IQ and intelligence are one thing. But how you apply this power is just as important. There are two types of thinking – convergent thinking, and divergent thinking. Which one is better? Which one leads to more long-term success? Learn more about divergent vs convergent thinking.

Convergent vs Divergent Thinking

Gladwell argues there are two types of thinking:

  • Convergent thinking happens when you choose an answer from a list of possibilities. This is the kind of thinking measured by IQ tests.
  • Divergent thinking is the ability to consider multiple possibilities and think creatively.

While convergent thinking is the type most often measured by grades and test scores, Gladwell argues that beyond a certain point of intelligence, divergent thinking is more important for success. 

What is divergent thinking? A test of divergent thinking might ask:  “How many uses can you think of for a brick?”

Here is an answer from a student who excels in divergent thinking:

  • “To smash a store window in a protest. To build a cathedral. To tie down birthday balloons…” 

Here is an answer from a student with one of the highest IQs in his school:  

  • “Building things, throwing.”

The second student might have a higher intelligence through certain tests, but the first demonstrates creativity beyond the functional. He’s the more likely of the two to win a Nobel Prize or found a revolutionary business. This is the power of divergent vs convergent thinking.

(Shortform note: Gladwell isn’t explicit about tying this into the book’s themes of external factors influencing success. We take this section as a suggestion that schools and employers may have too narrow a view of intelligence. As a result, many divergent thinkers who don’t test as well on convergent tests are deprived of an opportunity to thrive.)

Convergent vs Divergent Thinking: Which Is Better?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "Outliers" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full Outliers summary :

  • What makes some people outliers, and most others not
  • Why some genius outliers end up failing in life
  • Why Asians are good at math, and other curiosities of culture

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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