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What Makes You So Smart?

2011 April 10

Are you smart?  Really?  How smart? Socrates famously said that “the only true knowledge lies in knowing that you know nothing.”

More recently,  G. H. Hardy wrote that “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” Einstein himself said that his gift for “fantasy” was more important than his ability to retain facts.

Those are some pretty smart guys, so they would know.

That some of history’s most brilliant people hold such opinions about what it means to be smart should give the rest of us pause.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “smart is as smart does.”  So the question is, what does smart do?

Innate Genius

We’re all familiar with the concept of innate genius, those who were simply born with incredible intellectual aptitude. They make intriguing fictional characters, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting or Dr. Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds, but are there really such people?

It appears that there are.  History has documented prodigies such as Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss and John von Neumann, all of whom had seemingly superhuman faculties in computation, memory and languages.

There are stories of Gauss doing complex computations in his head at the age of three.  It was said that von Neumann could read a book in one language and recite it from memory in another.  As a child in Budapest, his parents would entertain guests by having him memorize pages of the phonebook at a glance.

However, despite these exceptional talents, another salient feature of these amazing minds is that most people have never heard of them.  Meanwhile, others famous for major intellectual breakthroughs, such as Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, were late starters, showing little or no special early aptitude.

Measuring Intelligence

The measure most associated with innate intelligence is the IQ score.  We’re all given IQ tests at a young age to gauge our intellectual aptitude and there is much evidence to support the importance of IQ scores.   Identical twins raised separately have very similar IQ’s and scores correlate fairly well with later professional success in intellectual fields.

However, the relationship is far from complete.  While a reasonably high IQ is required to perform well at certain tasks, once a threshold is past it loses its relevance.  Richard Feynman, a Nobel prizewinning physicist considered so smart that even other leaders in the field considered him a “magician,” had an IQ of only 125, above average but by no means unusual.

Another curious thing about IQ scores is that they keep rising, by about 3 points per decade, a documented fact referred to as the Flynn Effect.  That’s much too fast to arise from anything but environmental factors.  Steven Johnson, for one, attributes it to more complexity in popular culture, such as TV shows and video games.  There are of course, other theories as well.

In any case, we’re all getting smarter.  It also stands to reason that some of us are improving faster than others.  So, while very few of us are blessed with photographic memories or can count cards in Las Vegas with Tom Cruise, overwhelming empirical evidence suggests that we can improve our aptitude.

Gut Feelings

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist who researches decision making.  He became intrigued when one of his patients, a highly intelligent and professionally successful man named  “Elliot,” suffered from a brain lesion that impaired his ability to experience emotion.  It soon became clear that Elliot was unable to make decisions as well.

This became the basis for Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis.  The idea is that when we encounter certain stimuli, we have a physiological reaction (in effect, a “gut feeling”) which drives how we will react.  We can use our powers of rationality to override these feelings of intuition, but only with difficulty.

Researchers call our ability to recognize such stimuli in other people and act appropriately emotional intelligence.  Some even suggest that emotional intelligence has greater influence on professional success than IQ does.

One thing is clear, being smart involves a whole lot more than the ability to retain facts and calculate figures.  Our minds are set up to take shortcuts, which is why we learn with experience.  Smart thinking often depends not on being able to retain and manipulate lots of information, but by focusing on the data that matters most.

What Smart People Do

Chess Grand Masters are able to remember where every piece on a chessboard sits, even if they  are playing 20 games at once.  Jack Welch was legendary for his ability to digest complicated financial statements at a glance.  Aren’t these signs of unusual ability?

Hardly.  In memory tests unrelated to chess, Grand Masters don’t perform any better than anyone else.  Jack Welch’s amazing feats of financial cognition were conspicuously absent in his early career.  What they are actually doing is chunking.  In other words, they are recognizing familiar patterns, not memorizing atomic facts.

And that, it seems, is where the secret lies.  Our ability to think is a direct result of the firing of synapses in our brain, most of which, we acquire throughout life.  Smart people, then, are the ones who constantly seek out new patterns and learn to recognize them.

The ability to retain facts and compute numbers is, of course, helpful, but as computers increasingly do those things for us, the value of natural skills in those areas is diminishing.  To innovate, we need to understand relationships between clusters of information and realize new and important ones when we see them.

How to Get Smarter

The truth about being smart is both encouraging and daunting.  The smartest of us get that way by working at it.  Einstein spent 10 years thinking about special relativity before he was able to publish his breakthrough paper.  He then spent another ten years before completing general relativity.  Geniuses, it seems, are more often made than born.

Moreover, the vast body of research suggests concrete steps we can take to improve our intellectual ability.

Build a Database of Experience: The reason that people like chess Grand Masters and Jack Welch can instantly recognize complicated patterns is because they have seen so many of them.  The more our neurons fire, the more synapses we build and the better we will be able to “chunk” information.

Break Out of Your Comfort Zone: As we settle into a specific field of endeavor, we stop actively thinking and rely on patterns that are familiar to us, which is very helpful for executing tasks, but hinders our faculty for original thought.  That’s why, as I wrote in a previous post, great innovation is more likely to happen when you cross domains.

Deliberate Practice: Anders Ericsson, who researches  expertise and developed the now famous 10,000 hour rule, stresses the importance of deliberate practice (pdf).

It is not enough to simply go through the motions.  In order to build our abilities, cognitive or otherwise, we must think about what we’re doing, concentrate while we’re doing it and then review what we have done.  Further, we need to seek out mentors and peers who will critique our efforts.

So, it seems, Socrates had it right all the time.  If you want to be smart, it helps to think of yourself as dumb.  That’s how you keep learning.

– Greg

Update: In an earlier version, I wrote that IQ’s were rising by about 3% per year, which was a misprint.  It’s about 3% per decade.  Thanks to Christopher Burd for pointing that out.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. April 10, 2011

    Hi Greg!

    Great post! I find the way we learn coupled with our beliefs in what is possible directs those who achieve great things. I am also fascinated by the human ability for pattern recognition which provides more nuance than machines. You many also enjoy “The Genius In All of Us” by David Shenk and this video filmed at The Commonwealth Club: He takes the 10,000 hours of practice further with the crucial idea of “permission to fail.”

    Funny, the smart theme is in the air today, as I came across this question on Quora just before finding your post in my stream: :

    “What is it like being the smartest person in the room?” “It means you are in the wrong room” was the favorite answer.

    I also agree with your conclusion. In mentoring children, I always tell them that the smartest thing they can say is “I don’t know” as long as they are curious enough to find the answer!

    Thank you for the inspiring read!

    Angela Dunn

  2. April 10, 2011

    Thanks for the links Angela. I’ll check them out.

    – Greg

  3. Christopher Burd permalink
    April 11, 2011

    I believe the Flynn Effect has amounted to a rise of about 3 IQ points per decade, not per year. If it were 3 points per year, that would awesome. The average 16-year-old today would make Einstein seem like a cretin. But this is not so.

  4. April 11, 2011


    You’re right. Good catch! Sorry for the mistake. I will correct it.

    – Greg

  5. April 11, 2011

    Hi Greg,
    It’s another interesting post. As I get older I have come to realize the power of the “database of experience” you describe. The accumulated experiences of our lives comprise what we call wisdom, and properly applied is extremely powerful.

    With the modicum of wisdom I now have I understand my late father’s perspective on knowledge and insight. He was a very smart guy and he was fond of saying, “You don’t know anything until you are X years old.” X was always his age, be it 50, 60 or 70. At 80 he conceded that he reached the plateau and maybe his cognition was starting to decline. But now it occurs to me that it took considerable intelligence, and some courage, for him to recognize and adapt to his age related limitations.
    Best regards,

  6. April 11, 2011

    Thanks Steve. Great story about your Dad!

    – Greg

  7. April 12, 2011

    Excellent points Greg. It’s incredible how much weight IQ has on people’s perception of intelligence when it doesn’t really explain the whole.

    I like this quote by Einstein because it says it all, the goal is to always keep learning:

    “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

    A young mind is a healthy mind.



  8. April 12, 2011

    Thanks Jorge!

    I like that quote as well. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    – Greg

  9. Steve Johnson permalink
    April 20, 2011

    I knew I was getting smarter!

    Seriously, thanks for continually delivering posts that are thoughtful and relevant. I realize this takes effort. Your articles are among the very few in the web world that I find consistently informative.

    Steve Johnson

  10. April 20, 2011

    That’s very kind of you.


    – Greg

  11. April 26, 2011

    Informative post and just the kind I was looking for since morning! Yes geniuses most often are made than born! As for getting smarter is concerned moving out of the comfort zone could be both challenging and a great way to boost one’s self esteem . About wisdom,I think I should stay shut! But yeah I make it a point to not repeat my mistakes which I did in the past.
    The Complete Aptitude Test
    The definitive test to tell you where your aptitude lies and what you are good at.

  12. April 26, 2011

    Thanks, John. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  13. September 9, 2012

    Great post. This reminds of another thing that is very true about smartness.

    Your smartness is the average of the smartness of the 5 people you hang around with. So, smartness is infectious.

    Also, people go from being smart to dumb. It is simply because the patterns that they identify don’t get repeated anymore in their line of work. That’s precisely why people say “do what you love, you’d do it best” (because you’ll be the smartest in that area of work).

  14. September 9, 2012

    Good points. Thanks.

    I gotta find some smarter people to hang out with…

    – Greg

  15. babby permalink
    April 10, 2015

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but Feynman’s IQ was much higher than a mere 125. That is just a story that is passed around to give people with average IQs something to feel good about. Similarly to the story about Einstein being bad at math early on, when in actuality he stated that he had mastered university level math in his early teens.

    The thing people dont understand about intelligence vs IQ scores is that it is not linear, it is exponential. Someone with an IQ of 150 is not “just a bit” smarter than someone with an IQ of 125. Similarly someone with an IQ of 180 is not “just a bit” smarter than someone with an IQ of 150. There is very little distinction between 100 and 125, but as is seen with child prodigies, there is a severe difference in aptitude between gifted (130s), genius (150s), and prodigy (170+) children.

    Consider how much more intelligent the average person is to someone with an IQ of 70. These people are generally moderately retarded, and are not capable of any high level cognition. That is a difference of 30 points (about two standard deviations) from the average person. Now apply that to someone with an IQ of 180 compared to someone with an IQ of 100; over 5 standard deviations.

    The average person is profoundly retarded in the eyes of a high genius, something a colleague of von Neumann once remarked, when he noticed that Neumann would converse with his 3 year old child in the same way that he talked to “the rest of us.”

    Most Nobel laureates have an IQ in the 150+ range. Feynman is considered one of the most profound geniuses in recent generations. Do you really think the “genius of geniuses,” the guy who came up with ideas that even the brightest minds still couldnt understand how he arrived at them, had an IQ that is only barely higher than average?

  16. April 11, 2015

    Hi Babby,

    The “story” comes from Feynman himself, which is one reason he was always skeptical about IQ scores. So until I see evidence to the contrary, I take him at his word.

    Incidentally, there has been significant research that suggests that there isn’t much difference in intellectual achievement in people with IQ’s over 120. It seems to be a threshold.

    – Greg

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