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.