intelligence is a crutch

Being smart is a good thing, as any smart person will tell you more times than you care to hear. And being really smart is like some kind of weird superpower. If you’ve ever been at the head of your class, or the smartest person in the room, or even just the subject matter expert in conversation with the uninitiated, you know what it feels like to not only have every answer but anticipate every question – it almost seems like being able to bend space, time and reality to your will.

Now, maybe you’ve never had that superpower smartness – that’s also a good thing. Because that means you may have had a chance to observe really smart people at the height of their powers, glorying in their intelligence and in love with their knowledge of the world. And you may have achieved a striking insight that is beyond the understanding of many smart people, a special insight that seems to routinely escape the most massive intellect. This insight is painfully obvious to everyone else: Smart people suck.

Intelligence is a largely genetic trait that is also substantially influenced by environment and circumstance. In this way, it’s a lot like height. So before we talk more about smart people, let’s talk about tall people for a bit. Tall people get some pretty nice prizes from winning the genetic lottery. Tall people make more money and find more attractive mates. Height provides some advantage in many sports, and is a virtual requirement for success in some. So being tall is overall a good thing.

And here’s the point: Tall people know they’re lucky. They know that they have an advantage in life that others don’t have, and they know that they did very little to secure this advantage. They also know that to maximize their advantage, they have to add their own efforts – if they want to make the team, get the job, get the girl or guy – they have to eat right, work out, study hard, take care of their skin, hair and personality.

Not so with smart people. Even though smart people are generally aware of the genetic, environmental and circumstantial contributions to their intelligence, they rarely think of these as luck. Instead, smart people tend to think they’re better than other people because they’re smart, not because they’re lucky. And smart people often think that the world owes them something merely for being smart, as opposed to being diligent, sincere or personable. Smart people think that being smart should be enough, where tall people know that being tall is just a start.

The problem with intelligence is that it does, to some extent, make up for the absence of other admirable qualities. Smart people can get the same or better results as others even when they work less, care less and cooperate less. Intelligence is a crutch. And a smart person who leans on that crutch to the detriment of other important traits can become a monstrously malformed person. Intelligence is used worst when it’s used as a crutch to escape the hard work of being human.

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3 thoughts on “intelligence is a crutch

  1. I find intelligence sooo interesting. To me, there’s levels of intelligence – there’s the ‘concentrating on one specific thing for complete mastery, to the exclusion of everything else’, and then there’s the slightly higher level, where there is awareness of what you don’t know, and some hopefully some humility comes in.

    I look at it as congruent to learning martial arts. When you are a brown belt, you are so hell bent on getting to black that it’s all about what you know, what you need to know etc. And there’s a fair bit of ego in there as well.

    When you get to black, you relax a bit, decide to swank about a bit, go to some other classes, check out a tournament or two and suddenly begin to realise how much you really _don’t_ know. You might have *some* degree of mastery over *one* slice of the martial arts pizza pie, but a) there’s a hell of a lot more of the pizza than you are ever going to be able to eat and b) there’s *always* someone who has eaten more of the slice you’ve concentrated on than you ever will.

    I find intelligence to be like that. You are either smart enough to know you can learn and infer, and are smarter than the average bear boo boo, or you are _really_ smart, can learn but are also painfully aware of what you don’t know, and thus humility comes in.

    And I do believe it’s possible to go from one to the other, since the former – to some degree – is a function of age?

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    • “Intelligence” is a complex term that I didn’t try to define in the post, because I think the advice here should apply no matter how you define it.

      I think it’s easy for smart people to get seduced by the power of “intelligence,” including overthinking what it really means and how to reach higher levels of it. What I’m saying here is that you should think of it like being tall: OK, so you’re tall, so what? What else are you going to do to make yourself better? “Grow taller” is not a good answer.

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  2. Pingback: four for forty « ginsudo

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