Emotional Health

Intelligence: What Does it Mean to be, Like, Really Smart

Intelligence: most of us recognize it when we see it and know it is a great asset in life. A woman of intelligence is a person who “gets it quickly,” puts ideas together easily, or comes up with creative solutions. We all closely watch our children develop, looking for early clues of their level of intelligence, which we hope will be high. But children develop at different rates, and just as the short kid in grammar school may turn out to be really tall in the end, current levels of intelligence in children are not always reliably predictive of future intelligence. In fact, vocabulary is practically the only trait that correlates highly with adult intelligence.

I.Q. tests, first developed in the late 19th century, were designed to measure the kind of minds that would excel in academic settings. Many very smart people do not necessarily score well on these tests. However, though there are many kinds of intelligence, and educators are finally beginning to recognize this, highly intelligent people share certain characteristics.

Here I will talk about general intelligence, rather than focus on the stereotype of the idiosyncratic “genius” who can do amazing things, but may not be able to interact well with others or understand jokes. These people, many of whom may be on the “Asperger’s spectrum,” are more unusual and don’t lend themselves well to generalizations.

In the general population, people who are very intelligent have many shared traits:

1. They know what they don’t know.

These people are usually highly aware of complexity and don’t readily think they have mastered a subject.

2. They see depth.

This is related to the first trait: they very rarely focus only on the superficial, preferring to understand and learn about complex things. In school settings, the gifted child can be bored by tasks that are too simple, for example.

3. They are attracted by problems and puzzles.

Again, intelligent people find problems challenging and are motivated to understand more. They enjoy the “work” of figuring things out.

4. They are curious.

This is very central, and a trait related to all the others. Smart people usually have broad interests. When they discover something new, they often want to learn more about it. They can’t help it.

5. They ask questions.

Again this relates to all the other traits but isn’t always the case. Smart people can be self-involved and insecure too. But often their curiosity gets the better of them, and rather than trying to demonstrate what they know, they want to learn what others know.

6. They have multiple abilities and talents.

This contradicts the image of the highly focused genius, but most intelligent people have multiple talents, and some are renaissance men and women (the quintessential example was Leonardo Da Vinci, whose interests and genius went well beyond art.) Albert Einstein, for example, played the violin, and often said music was his first love. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the string quartet he played in while a professor at Princeton. Another member, frustrated that Einstein wasn’t keeping tempo with the others, asked, “What’s the matter with you Albert? Can’t you count?”

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