Skip to content


February 5, 2016

I dislike the way many (most?) people seem to conceptualize “smartness” or intelligence in others, because I feel it misses the mark in two separate, important ways.

1. Many of the things most people consider “intelligence” are in fact acquired (or at least acquirable) skills

You think someone being “smart” means they automatically can do things you can’t, and will never be able to learn, so there’s no point in even trying? Maybe, but it’s generally unlikely.

She has a phenomenal memory for facts and can just rattle them off? Must be eidetic memory, right? Actually, probably not. You too can improve your memory for abstract facts greatly by learning mnemonic techniques, if you want to. More so than you probably think.

He is great at mathematical problem-solving? Some of that requires genuine insight, sure. A lot of it is just pattern matching (which takes mainly familiarity and practice), some fairly general problem-solving heuristics that help you if you’re stuck (if you don’t know that book and want to become better at math, just buy it or lend it at a library!), and enough patience and stamina to keep going.

And so forth. Now I don’t mean to suggest that all that stands between you and a Nobel prize is three self-help books, a week of work and some autosuggestion! Anyone who claims that is a crank trying to sell you something (probably self-help books). But many people “don’t understand science” or “are just not smart” or “just don’t get math” in the same way that I am terrible at pole vaulting: not only do I not possess the skill, I also have never once seriously tried it or made an effort to become better at it in my life!

Which brings me to my second and more important point.

2. A lot of “being smart” actually consists of getting comfortable with feeling stupid

I knew a few people back in my early teens who were Mensa members and made sure everyone knew. They didn’t really do so well in the medium and long term. The problem was that they were brilliant, they knew it, and so they never really learned how to work for something; when they ran into a problem they didn’t immediately see how to handle, they would quickly give up in frustration.

Guess what; many of the problems you will actually face, both professionally and personally, cannot be solved using brilliance. They just take effort and stamina. And those that can benefit from brilliance…. well, usually we don’t really know how to solve them yet.

Most schools teach you well-known solutions to well-known, well-specified problems. And standardized IQ tests likewise ask clear questions with known “right” answers. Being good at that is a particular (and somewhat peculiar) skill. Real-world problem solving is mostly about heuristic solutions to messy, unclear, unfamiliar problems, usually subject to random external constraints, frequently not all satisfiable at once. And it tends to make you feel stupid.

This is normal, and it has been said better elsewhere, for example in “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”. I’ll quote a bit from it, but really you should just read the whole essay, it’s pretty short.

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. [..] But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve.

This quote is talking about academic research, but the same thing applies elsewhere. I’ve done programming, I’ve done research, and I’ve done art (in the form of PC demos). What all three have in common is that most of the people I know and respect in those disciplines spend the majority of their time feeling like idiots and talentless hacks. Impostor syndrome is the norm.

Being “smart” is not actually about knowing all the answers. One of the biggest parts is being aware of the limits of your knowledge and not running around like a headless chicken when you don’t know what to do. And it’s about being wrong a lot of the time, realizing the fact, and taking steps to be slightly less wrong next time round.

From → Thoughts

  1. Alex Kaye permalink

    Great post. I’d highly recommend giving Jeff Hawkins’ book On Intelligence a read if you haven’t already. Really interesting stuff.

  2. I remember reading this research paper that had an enormous influence on me ..
    In the research paper they investigated why some people with high-IQs would achieve so much in life while others with high-IQs would basically achieve nothing.

    It turned out to have to do with how you see intelligence.

    If you think of intelligence something that you’re born with, something that’s fixed, as in you’re either smart or not, then you tend to avoid trying new things and things that seem hard because you might not be “smart enough” and that would hurt your ego.

    If on the other hand you believe that everything you learn makes you smarter then you’re not afraid to try new things and fail, because whatever you do you will become a better person because of it. So you’re more likely to try something and not care too much if you fail at it .. maybe even try it again a couple of times … until you succeed.

    It’s not surprising that the second group is the group that achieves the most in life..

  3. One thing that helps when you see someone more knowledgeable than yourself is to just recognize that they are not special, but that they just put more hours into it than you did. If you do put in the hours you can get that understanding too. That’s the only direction that they are more special than you, they worked hard and they’ve put in more hours. Nobody is born with knowledge and understanding embedded into their brain.

    Also, people should stop being afraid of showing they don’t know something, Nobody will mark you as an impostor or fraud, but on the contrary. For example I appreciate it when someone asks for advice, or admits not knowing something. I do that all the time :).

    And remember this poem (I first saw it mentioned by Knuth):


    The road to wisdom?
    —Well, it’s plain and simple to express:
    and err
    and err again,
    but less
    and less
    and less.
    — Piet Hein

    • That’s the only direction that they are more special than you, they worked hard and they’ve put in more hours. Nobody is born with knowledge and understanding embedded into their brain.

      I have to disagree with that. This sort of depends on exactly where you stand regarding nature-vs-nurture etc., which is a different discussion (and way out of scope here), but this way lies “you can do anything you want if you just put your mind to it!”, and that’s not fact, it’s ideology, and a harmful and reductive one at that.

      For example, approximately 3-7% of the population suffer from dyslexia (currently believed to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors), and about 3-6% from dyscalculia. If you have either of the two, you will hit problems in school, and you will need to invest massively more effort to achieve the same level of proficiency in reading/writing (or arithmetic) as your peers. Neither of these mean you’re “stupid” by any common definition; they do mean you struggle with certain tasks (or at least have problems with the way they are usually taught in school).

      Mind, there’s no determinism here; if you’re dyslexic and really want to be a writer, that’s fine, but it absolutely is going to be (objectively) harder for you than for most of your peers. I have poor eyesight, so I’m never gonna be a commercial airline pilot, no matter how many hours I pour into it. And so forth. Humans come in all shapes and sizes, and not everyone is suited to everything.

      My point is emphatically not that you can do everything if you just try. That’s just not true. Rather, my point is that some level of effort is a necessary (though not sufficient!) condition for proficiency in most things, and that many skills often believed to be innate are in fact eminently learnable (and teachable). Just because you put 1000 hours into practicing the violin does not necessarily make you any good; there may be other violinists that already eclipse your skill after 300 hours of practice. But nobody can play the violin without any practice; you’re never gonna find out if it might be your thing if you don’t try in the first place.

      • I was referring to more on the job, real-life situations concerning normal, average, people working in software, not suffering from diseases or other unfortunate things.
        Most of the time, all human shapes and sizes are great for being a programmer.

      • I gave this specific example for a reason; dyslexia is not rare and plenty prevalent in “normal, average people working in software”. Prevalence in the general population is somewhere between 1 in 30 and 1 in 15, and I’ve so far I’ve had at least one dyslexic coworker in every SW company I’ve worked at. (My mom’s a teacher at a school for kids with speech impediments who also used to do a lot of tutoring for dyslexics; you learn to recognize it, and people will generally tell you if you ask them. It’s not like it’s a big shame. “Functional dyslexics” are really not uncommon.)

        I have at least two friends with face blindness. One of them is a character artist!

        Myself, I’m in the bottom percentile ranks for visual imagination and also really struggle with certain spatial reasoning tasks, particularly spatial relationships between 3D objects. Years ago, I had 3 (minor) car accidents within a 6-week span, all at walking speed and involving hitting stationary objects that I knew were there the entire time and thought I was avoiding (from looking out the windows and in the mirrors) but evidently wasn’t. (At the time my job involved driving; because of my poor driving skills, I have since arranged so that I don’t need a car, which in the US is easier said than done.)

        I could go on. The “normal, average” person is really not a very useful concept with reference to cognitive processes. There’s many of these kinds of deficits. Even if each of them only has a prevalence of 2% in the overall population, once you have 10 independent conditions like that, 1 in 5 people will suffer from at least one of them.

        Generally, this is not actually a big deal. The things our society expects everyone to be able to do are, of necessity, things that can be approached in a variety of ways; it’s mainly a matter of finding the way that works for you.

        But for many more specialized skills that learn heavily on one specific type of cognitive process, these variations become much more visible. And in those cases, there absolutely is a massive difference in the effort required by different people to learn the same thing.

  4. Sander van Rossen permalink

    Exactly .. that’s why stories about “prodigies” are so toxic, it gives people the impression that some people are just born with these talents. What you almost never hear about how these people spent a ridiculous amount of time on something to become good at it.
    We should be teaching our children that to become good at something you need to spend a lot of time trying, experimenting and failing before you actually become good, and that that’s okay and normal.

  5. I completely disagree with the latter part. The only way I can feel stupid is when I interact with other people. In programming I can only say “I made a stupid thing here” in retrospect. Normal life situations not related to programming or science are the ones most likely to make me feel stupid.

  6. Great post which reminds me of the somewhat famous Richard Hamming “You and your Research” talk. Here’s the hook:

    “At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me. I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.”

    A must-read for those interested in this general subject.

  7. Dumbass permalink

    What a great post! Also gives me some insights on why I’m sometimes feeling like a real dumbass. In fact I’m feeling like dumbass way too often, because humankind is large and complicated, it full of people smarter than me and they eventually mange to reach the heights which are really daunting for me to understand.

    But somehow I think understanding one is stupid, that there’re usually many ppl better than one performs and so on are quite a good motivation to try to be a bit less dumb, learn new things, learn how to use brain, learn from those smarter than you and eventually taking new heights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: