Throughout grade school I was a good student.  However, I use the word “good” here very specifically.  To the best of my memory, when I was in grades 6-8, I would put a decent amount of effort into my assignments and, as a reward, receive the grade of “good” from my teachers.  At that point in my development I hadn’t really figured out what it meant to really be a student.  I didn’t manage my time particularly well, I routinely misunderstood assignments, and I certainly hadn’t figured out that the grade of “good” was really a euphemism for the grade of “C”, while “great” and “excellent” represented “B” and “A” respectively.  For better or worse, my super-progressive elementary school gave no letter grades until high school.

Entering high school was a bit of a wakeup call for me.  My older brother had just been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania (earning him the implicit label of “the smart son”), many of my friends had their hearts set on ivy league educations, and my “C” grades were no longer hidden behind a shroud of feel-good euphemisms.

There was one consistent theme throughout all of my teacher evaluations: my writing was awful.

My teachers were right.  Well, partially right.  My writing certainly was the clearest manifestation of the problem – but the source of the issue is that I had not yet figured out how to clearly and concisely communicate my thoughts to other people.  I wasn’t mapping out ideas well in my head, and in turn, they were not coming out well on paper.

The turning point for me was an English class with a teacher named Kevin Coll. I don’t remember the subject of the class, but the lesson I took away was transformative.  Every other class I had ever taken until that point had taught me about schemas, structures, and theories that had been pre-bottled by other people for consumption by students.  For example, my Shakespeare class taught me about the age old lessons that Shakespeare has to offer, my biology class taught me about all of the text book lessons on flora and fauna, my Greek Drama taught me all of the well documented lessons from Oedipus and Elektra, etc.  Every class I had ever taken in my life had taught me how to participate in “mental maps” that had been created by other people.

In a lot of ways Mr. Coll’s class was just like all the rest.  He taught us about all of the schemas, structures, theories, and conventions that are usually taught to writing students.  The difference came later.  After he taught us all of the background information he stared unblinking into our eyes and told us to throw it all out the window and to make our own mental map.

I learned soon after that while I was just “good” at participating in the systems and structures that had been prepared by other people, I was excellent at creating my own mental maps.  I went on to score a 4.0 GPA my junior year of high school and found much success in college.

So what does my experience say about intelligence?  Is intelligence a trait that you are born with or is it a skill that you can learn with persistence and dedication?  I’ll spare you the pain of reading my awful elementary school writing, but hopefully this blog stands as living proof that it is at least partially the latter.

My Experience with Intelligence
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  • Funnily enough, I was talking about intelligence with someone over drinks on Friday.

    Now, I wouldn’t call anything in your post “intelligence.” That’s building particular skills, and using those skills to make a difference in the world (e.g. writing).

    I don’t think intelligence has (very) much to do with performance; many intelligent people fail, and many “unintelligent” people succeed, even (or especially) in a purely merit-based system.

    Now, I have a pretty specific definition of intelligence (which I’ve held onto since high school, where I “invented” it). It’s pretty different from how psychologists conceptualize intelligence.

    That is: intelligence is the ability to fully conceptualize a thought of some size. To put it another way – and using a computer metaphor – intelligence is the ability to fully hold a complex thought or concept in your head without “paging out” some of the concept.

    The difference is that to understand a concept if you can’t hold all of it in your head at once takes a lot longer. Think of the difference between looking at a 3D graph and being able to rotate it, and looking at six 2D graphs that represent the same information and trying to understand it.

    It’s easier, and faster (in most cases) to navigate the 3D graph.

    But the end result is exactly the same.

    Also, the vast majority of things people do (in work, life, etc) don’t require that particular ability very often. Being responsive – to emails, phone calls – or meeting with people, etc all have very little to do with intelligence. In some cases intelligence makes things easier – I think writing is easier if you have a full conception of it in your head at the time, as opposed to taking it in small chunks – but the vast majority of (effective) emails don’t require much thought/etc.

    (And, of course, intelligence doesn’t make it easier to make – or execute – decisions; nor does it necessarily make decisions better).

    The other implication of this theory is that intelligence is divorced from skills. Not-so-smart people can reach the same level as really-really-smart people, it might just take a little longer.

    I think that’s borne out by the history of discoveries that geniuses make. A genius may make 3, 4, 5, etc import discoveries in their lifetime – but in nearly every case in the history of science, other “less” smart people were nearly there too. In some cases, only days behind to “register” or “publish” the discovery.

    Without certain scientific geniuses, we’d still have those discoveries – just distributed over more people, and having taken a little longer to get here.

    In net, intelligence isn’t as important as the consistent development of skills, and a certain dedication in applying them. The ability to actually get stuff done is important, and intelligence is simply an occasional shortcut.

    Or: “Why it bugs me when people call me smart”

  • Andrew Eifler

    Really like your comments here – totally agree with your concept of intelligence. Excellent!