Smart and Dumb

About ten years ago, I realized something significant: there really are no innately “smart” and “dumb” people. Or, at least, there are so few of them as to make those labels, at a minimum, inadequate. Realizing this had far-reaching implications for how I understood others that I continue to process.

There are at least two major problems with the concept of “smart/dumb” humans. The first is the idea of intelligence itself. Namely, no one can tell you what it means. Is being smart being able to sound glib, deploying just the right bon mots and being charming? Maybe… but a lot of people mask profound ignorance by being glib. Surely a brilliant engineer or poet or quant or essayist could qualify as “smart” too. There’s nothing natural about any of these skills; they’re simply activities that humans have found a way to direct their mental energies into in a way others find interesting and recognizable.

Science still can’t really agree about what intelligence is. “IQ” tests have been around for centuries, incorporating everything from logic games to phrenology, and have been almost uniformly awful (and often pretty racist). Modern IQ tests are still looked at very skeptically by many in the research community. Their basic effectiveness is still in doubt and, importantly, the actual meaning of their results (one’s “IQ score”) is deeply misunderstood by the public. The theory of multiple intelligence “types” (visual-spatial, linguistic, logical, etc.), popularized in the 90s, has since encountered strong pushback in the academic psychology and neuroscience fields and remains very controversial today. In sum, almost any existing quantitative measure of intelligence is notoriously dependent on one’s socio-economic background and a long list of environmental factors, which belies the idea that they measure anything innate.

The second big problem with “smart/dumb” labels is how poorly they reflect my personal experience with people. Certainly, I’ve met many people whose intellects I’ve found particularly impressive (or the opposite), but these have almost always been in a single context or setting. Many times, after silently writing someone off as just not being very bright, I’ve been forced to reexamine that conclusion after seeing that person perform in a different situation. I’ve witnessed people with subtle and piercing insight and ability in one area turn around and be completely hamstrung in another.

Most of what we believe about “smart” is just culturally constructed, and most of that is empirically wrong. Lots of people are very eager to believe in a theory of intelligence that relies on hardwiring: you’re either smart or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do about it. How many times have you heard someone say that they’re “just not a math person” or that their “brain just isn’t wired that way” in relation to why learning a foreign language is difficult for them. This is almost completely untrue. Rather, these are two skill areas, like many, that simply require a lot of time, focus and patience to learn. (Trust me – I took three years of German!)

Jean Yang recently wrote a great blog post that reminded me of this called The Genius Fallacy about how the academic system prizes “stars” with supposed innate genius over plain old hard work. Likewise, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s really what my old coaches called “stick-to-it-ive-ness,” determination, and a willingness to brave the vulnerability of looking amateurish for a long time that have brought me more long-term success than any innate talent. Reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset was a real treat because it finally put into a cohesive theory – the growth mindset – something I’d wondered about for a long time. The human brain is much more plastic than we give it credit for, and in almost all cases, our intellectual limitations are more a function of our beliefs about ourselves than any extrinsic factor.

I’ve become a big believer in mindsets and attitudes as true markers of intellectual quality. What both the red-faced blowhard and cool dilettante share is a complete lack of self-awareness about the limitations of their understanding, as well as humility. It’s great to be an expert in something, but I’ve noticed that what most often demonstrates subject matter mastery is a willingness to be wrong and openness to questioning assumptions. The really wise person’s emotional status as an “expert” isn’t easily threatened by the possibility of ignorance in another domain. (E.g. Nassim Taleb might know some things about economics, but he is not a wise man.) Likewise, the person who fails at a task or lacks an understanding of thing X isn’t a “dumb person” – they’re just someone who doesn’t know the thing yet.

This isn’t to excuse the utterly vapid who wield their ignorance like a weapon. (What would the internet be without them?) There’s nothing sadder than stubborn ignorance. Yet distinguishing a person’s topical ignorance from an innate quality of them as a human being is actually, I think, pretty crucial. It has made me happier and more easily forgiving as an adult. As I start the long road of childrearing, I’m thinking a lot about how I can incorporate this value into helping build Penny’s worldview. (I get a vote, right?)


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