Someone made a rather plaintive comment in this Google+ conversation, and it’s been stuck in my mind ever since: “So, again, what is the point of being smart if it does nothing for you? If you really are so smart, why can’t you get what you want?”
There are so many myths floating around about being smart and what that might mean. Even defining “smart” is full of pitfalls. I realized when I tackled the subject of intelligence a few weeks ago that it was a bit taboo, but I didn’t realize the full extent of it until I was reading other people’s reactions. So of course I had to write a follow-up.
A Few Intelligence Myths Exploded:
1. What is the point of being smart? There is no intrinsic point. It is not something you choose for yourself, just as you can’t choose to be naturally athletic or flexible or have perfect pitch (although I keep hearing rumors there are ways to train this) or be gifted with languages. There are things you can do to take advantage of any of these things (hard work and training), but not everyone will choose to use these skills or have the opportunities to do so. In the same vein, recent studies suggest it is quite possible to train yourself to be smarter if you are interested in doing so.
2. Smart people can get what they want. Ha! I wish. I don’t know if any studies have been done on this subject, but I haven’t read anything about how smart people are so much more happy than less smart people. Plus, what if a smart person wants something that requires additional skills besides just being smart (and most accomplishments do require additional skills)? And what if said smart person doesn’t have the right additional skills and fails (for whatever reason) to develop them? Or what if the smart person in question is on track to get what she wants and then is deterred by any of a host of reasons, including ill health (either hers or a loved one’s), economic realities, or her background? Or what if the smart person does get what she wants and it just doesn’t look like the societal norm?
3. Smart people look down on those who they perceive as less smart. First off, I mentioned before that many genius-level people (and perhaps particularly women) suffer from impostor syndrome, meaning they don’t believe they are as smart as they are. Secondly, I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect and the false consensus effect back in March: the idea that people who are above average (including having above average intelligence) tend to assume everyone is just the same as they are unless presented with quite explicit proof to the contrary, thereby often underestimating their own intelligence. How all these people who don’t even realize how intelligent they really are can be looking down on everyone else is beyond me.
Secondly, even if they do realize they are intelligent, that still doesn’t mean they feel superior. Sure, there are a few people who do, but just because you are smart does not mean you are automatically arrogant and non-appreciative of other people’s abilities. Which leads me to my next point…
4. A specific kind of intelligence is more important than anything else. Um, no. There are many kinds of intelligence, and basic IQ test-measured smarts are no more useful than a host of other mental attributes. These include emotional intelligence, charisma, experience, wisdom, empathy and insight, kindness, courage, determination, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills. For example, if a very intelligent person wants to complete a difficult project but is not willing to work hard to do so, they probably won’t do as well as someone who isn’t quite as intelligent but is willing to work her ass off. Ultimately what matters about our lives is what we choose to do with them, not whatever set of attributes we start out with. Intelligent people who realize the truth of this aren’t likely to be very arrogant at all.
Any other intelligence myths you can think of? (Besides the whole “women aren’t as intelligent” thing we already talked about.) I’d love to hear from you.