What intelligence means to me

Put almost any group of people in a room together, and they’ll eventually start talking about how dumb everyone else is.

Put a group of people with above-average intelligence in a room together, and they’ll start talking about what intelligence means — when they first started to realize they were “gifted,” how they tried to measure and quantify their intellectual gifts, and how little those scores really tell us.

If this sounds self-congratulatory, that’s because it is.

At some point in that conversation, someone will jump in and say, “Well, here’s how I can tell when somebody’s smart…”

That’ll set off a whole debate about the traits that each person thinks are the surest indicators of smartness. Everyone in the debate will agree that some set of traits, certainly, lies at the core of intelligence — but they can never agree on what those traits are.

This is because “intelligence” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about the “emotional intelligence (EQ) versus intellectual intelligence (IQ)” discussion — that’s a whole separate issue. I’m saying that even in the realm of intellectual intelligence, no group of smart people can seem to agree on exactly what makes a person “smart.”

I’m going to tell three stories to explain what I believe.

The “Dinosaur Island” story is #2. We’ll get to that one in just a minute.

But first, here’s a story about a prodigy.

1.

Solomon Shereshevsky never had to take a note in his entire life. Toward the end of his life, he took to writing notes and burning them.

Solomon Shereshevsky
Solomon Shereshevsky

Impossible as it seemed, Shereshevsky could apparently remember everything he’d ever seen or heard. He could recite every book he’d ever read, word-for-word. He could sing all the lyrics of songs he’d heard only once, decades ago. Psychologists studied and tested him for decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s — and though there was some controversy around the results, Shereshevsky’s overall talents appeared to be genuine.

If you’d given Shereshevsky a few weeks to study for the SATs — or a legal bar exam, or a medical exam — he probably would’ve scored higher than anyone in the class. In all kinds of areas — from math to languages — he could “download” data into his brain in seconds, and regurgitate huge volumes of it on cue.

By Shereshevsky’s own account, he had great difficulty working with abstractions and metaphors — but hey, that’s true of plenty of brilliant engineers, inventors, and literal-minded geniuses. Every idea in Shereshevsky’s mind, he said, set off an explosion of connected thoughts: words that sounded similar, colors associated with sounds (synesthesia), memories related to other memories; on and on down a never ending chain that slowly drove the poor man crazy — and the same is true of a lot of world-changing artists, musicians, and other synesthetic prodigies.

So: Was Shereshevsky a genius? Why or why not, exactly?

That isn’t a rhetorical question — even today, psychologists still disagree about the answer. Take a few seconds to reach your own conclusion.

You can see, now, how frustrating these debates become.

2.

I hope this helps explain why my friend Reichart decided to split the question up into four distinct (but overlapping) categories:

If you don’t feel like watching a 14-minute video — and really, who can blame you? — here are the four categories Reichart proposes:

  • Clever: a person who uses their skills to gain things for themselves.
  • Intelligent: a person who can analyze and fix almost any problem.
  • Smart: a person who uses their resources to maximize happiness.
  • Brilliant: a person who understands the world in a very unique way.

These categories aren’t hierarchical — Reichart isn’t saying any of them is “better” than the others — and they’re also not mutually exclusive. I know of a few people — not many, but a few — who very clearly fit into all four.

As much as I respect what Reichart’s trying to do here, I disagree with some of his definitions — not for logical, mathematically provable reasons; but for the same reasons we all disagree about the exact meanings of words: meanings grow up uniquely in each of our minds, sculpted by the associations we form with those words over a lifetime.

When I say “dog,” you picture a different dog than I do.

In the same way, what Reichart calls “cleverness,” I call “cunning.” What he calls “smart,” I call “clever.” I’ve brought this up with him, and his response is basically, “Yeah, words are slippery.”

3.

All that said, I have my own definition of “intelligence,” or “smartness.”

My definition doesn’t predict how well someone will do on their SATs, or how likely they are to get rich, or how good they’ll be at composing a symphony or engineering a jet engine.

The only thing it means is, when I see someone display these traits, my instant gut reaction is, “Whoa, hey! This person is smart.”

To me, high intelligence / smartness is the ability to be dropped into a completely weird, novel situation — with very few cues — and immediately start picking out patterns, predicting what’ll happen next, making relevant observations, and saying and doing surprisingly clever things.

Here’s a story to explain what I mean.

Say you’re out on a date with someone you really like.

You decide to find out if they can get on your level, roll with you; however the kids are saying it nowadays. So without warning, you throw out a totally absurd random scenario to see how they’ll react: “What if tomorrow we woke up together on an island inhabited by dinosaurs?”

Which of these responses would make you happiest?

a) “I — uh — well, I guess I’d hope I don’t get eaten by the dinosaurs.”
b) “I know how to start a fire. I’d try to keep us alive.”
c) “I majored in Stegosaurus language. We’ll soon have allies in our war against the carnivores.”

This ability to give a “c” type of response — in any situation; romantic, silly or serious —

That’s the core of my personal definition of intelligence.

It’s not the fact that “c” is the silliest response — or even that it’s the most creative of the three. And it’s certainly not about “being sooo random” just for randomness’ sake.

It’s that “c” starts with only a single, out-of-the-blue cue — “What if tomorrow we woke up together on an island inhabited by dinosaurs?” — and immediately picks up the underlying theme, then adds a clever, relevant, constructive spin on the theme; all without needing to ask for clarification, explanation or even context.

I’ve met people who can give a clever, helpful, relevant response in a conversation in a language they barely speak, on a topic about which they have no background knowledge at all — just by identifying the theme, picking it up and playing with it. That, to me, is “smartness.”

This isn’t just about verbal responses, either. I’ve seen smart people give “c” responses in musical improvisation, in computer programming, in cooking… in all kinds of domains, verbal and otherwise.

The fewer cues a person needs in order to give a “c” response — and the weirder the scenarios in which they can immediately give one — the smarter that person seems. To me.

4.

You might be thinking, “This sounds a lot like playfulness.”

You’re absolutely right. Throughout the animal kingdom, playfulness and intelligence go hand-in-glove. Dolphins love to play, as everyone knows. So do chimps. And crows. And dogs. Even octopi — those cleverest of invertebrates — need daily playtime.

What’s more, this definition of intelligence means a lot of us were brilliant as kids — we just lost our smartness somewhere along the way.

Just about any child under the age of seven can take a sentence like the one I used above — “What if tomorrow we woke up together on Dinosaur Island?” — and create not just a clever response to it, but build a whole afternoon’s worth of playtime around it.

But a lot of us seem to lose that power as we get older.

Here’s my third story, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about.

Last week, a friend of mine came to visit me — in Croatia, as it happens, because that’s where I’m backpacking at the moment. As we set off on our adventure, we stocked up on snacks at the local grocery store. All the labels, of course, were in Croatian — which neither of us spoke. The label on the carrots said “mrkva,” which I thought was a funny word.

A few hours later, I pointed toward the pile of snacks and asked her to “Pass me the mrkva.” I was feeling playful, and was curious to see what she’d do. Sure enough, she checked the labels, then grabbed the carrots.

A lot of people I know — and unless I miss my guess, a lot of people you know, too — would react with, “Huh?” or, “Grab the what?” In the world of regular adults, these are perfectly sensible reactions.

But think about the young children you know.

They’d realize that “mrkva” is a word they don’t know, and a lot of them would look at the packages, trying to figure out what the “mrkva” might mean. If they could read, they’d check the labels until they found the right one. They’d be happy they learned a new word.

Hey, even a reasonably smart dog would at least look where you pointed and take a guess!

Why don’t we encourage our human friends to do the same?

As we grow up, it’s natural to grow more afraid of being wrong. We learn to furrow our brows and make fun of “weird” words and behaviors, to protect our positions within the in-group. We learn hundreds of little mental tricks to avoid the burden of trying out a new thought process; to dodge the embarrassment of making a mistake.

This avoidance does more than just kill our curiosity and creativity — it chips away our abilities to adapt, to improvise, to catch the underlying theme and riff on it without hesitation.

That’s why the world is full of people who give boring answers to the “Dinosaur Island” question.

Those people didn’t give boring answers when they were five years old — I promise you that. As they got older, though, they learned to protect themselves by becoming less smart.

The good news is that anyone who practices smartness can re-learn it — not by memorizing facts or doing logic puzzles, but simply by learning to remain centered in the present moment, like a child, and enjoy play for its own sake. Playfulness is correlated not just with higher intelligence, but also with lower stress, better physical fitness, and — you guessed it — attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Everyone on earth has brilliant, playful ideas every day. The trick is to welcome your smartness at the moments it pops up, instead of brushing it away. Give yourself room to play, no matter how busy you are.

If you know how to do that, you’re smart in my book.