Intelligence is Overrated

Stop trying to be intelligent.

Jordan Fearn
Apr 5 · 6 min read
Photo by Andrew George on Unsplash

A study conducted in 2018 found that 65% of Americans consider themselves of above-average intelligence. This is probably not a surprise to a lot of people. It takes a lot of courage to admit that one might not be as smart as those around them. A lot of this fear is unfounded though. While at its extremes a lack of intelligence might drastically affect a person’s quality of life and the way they function day to day; if you’re anywhere around the centre of that IQ bell curve or even closely within a standard deviation, you have nothing to worry about.

For one thing, intelligence is really, really, hard to define. The most common metric is in fact IQ but that has a plethora of problems assigned to it, the main one being that IQ is basically a measure of logical reasoning and pattern spotting and so is only relevant to people in those fields. Personally, I take Steven Hawkings’ side in the IQ argument

I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers. — Steven Hawkings in response to a New York Times journalist asking about his IQ,

In my experience, I have found IQ to only be the foot in the door. Like Hawkings I study physics(though I do it far less successfully), quick humble brag aside, a study by ETS found that across a wide range of majors found physicists have the highest average IQ.

Graph depicting the average IQ of students across a range of college majors. Graph provided by Author, data gathered by ETS and available here.

I say this only to point out that I engage with some very smart people on a daily basis — whether or not you think people with higher IQs are more attracted to the scientifically rooted disciplines or believe that these degrees themselve train higher IQs is neither here nor there. Personally, I think it is a mix of both with more weight on the latter than the former but I’m sure there are people who would disagree.

While dealing with some of these people I’ve come to notice that intelligence is really no measure of success. Some of the smartest people I know have barely passing grades and struggle to grasp some of the basic concepts, irrespective of how high their IQ may or may not be.

When I started my Industrial placement I found myself surrounded by more people far smarter than me and in a more practical sense too. Yet, once again, I have come to notice that once more it is not necessarily the most academically talented that thrive.

What Really Matters?

I think it is important to also distinguish between raw smarts and perceived intelligence. I think a lot of time what we perceive to be an inherently intelligent person is just someone who has spent immense amounts of time honing their craft. It is often very easy to write someone else off smarter than us because that means we have an excuse for not knowing what they know — it is a way of shielding our own feelings. I myself have fallen for that pothole many a time.

What I mean when I refer to raw smarts and intelligence is someones ability to look at something complicated and understand it. What I like about this definition is how flexible it is. Someone’s IQ, for example, might be a measure of a person able to look at one or a few specific types of logic problems, but it says nothing about their ability to understand others emotions(this is not completely true, but try to take it at face value for now).

I like to think of myself as an example of this.

When I started University I was by far one of the least qualified to be there, I more than likely only got in because my poor background makes for good statistic material, my grades and level of knowledge were far beneath those of my contemporaries and it showed(my grades notably well below the Universities asking grades). Even now I would put myself in the lower half of the pack when it comes to raw smarts, yet my grades are good and I have been having a fantastic time on my placement, so, what did I do?

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

I stopped telling myself other people were smarter than me for one. They might have remembered things faster and for longer, they were and still are able to see how equations fit together better and use them more efficiently, but that did not matter. I was running my own race and decided to work on two parts of myself:

The first was my ability to sit down and focus. This is something I had always struggled with and still do even to this day. It. Is. Incredible. How much time I can waste pretending to work, occasionally checking my phone, having a video on in the background. This was always my biggest flaw and is something I am working on to this day. Have I made much progress? No, not really, but the small progress I have made really shows in the amount of work I produce and more importantly the quality that work.

Just being able to sit down and consistently engage in the subject matter will put you miles ahead of a smarter person who cannot. It sounds simple because it is. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the hardest things to achieve.

The second is the ability to imagine the situation. For physics, at the very least, I always found it very difficult to picture things. A particle with this charge moves at this velocity at a right angle to a magnetic field and I’m lost. This is something I have really improved on and something I think ties into the ability to focus as well. Whether it be drawing pictures, writing it out in words or any other way that helps you picture things I would strongly recommend it. On top of helping me picture situations in my head better, I have also found it has improved my memory by leaps.

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. — Albert Einstein

Albert Einsten 1921. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is these two things that I have noticed to be the cornerstone of a persons ability to thrive both in an academic environment and a working one. As I continue to work on these points myself I become more and more convinced that intelligence is only useful with the proper discipline — and is certainly not the end-all and be all that we as a society seem to accept it as.

Closing Thoughts

Intelligence is nice to have, but it is only one piece of the puzzle and not even the most important one. The ability to focus on and imagine a problem in your head is, in my mind, a far more important set of skills than any homegrown intelligence. This shows, look around your workplace/university or wherever you spend your day and find the smartest person you know. Chances are that they probably are a genuinely very intelligent person, but I’m also willing to bet that they put in the workday in day out.

Giving yourself the excuse of simply not being smart enough is damaging and almost in every case wrong. There is nothing a high-IQ person can learn that someone with a lower IQ cannot — provided they have no debilitating conditions that is. Instead of worrying about our own intelligence, it is a better use of our time to work on things we can control, namely, in my case, how I focus and how I picture things spacially.

Intelligence is useless without a means to apply it and an imagination to wield it. Einstein knew this and so did Hawkings.

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Thanks to Jordan Gross

Jordan Fearn

Written by

Currently pursing my Masters Degree in Physics, I have a keen interest in history and science of all kinds, and the figures that made it all possible.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Jordan Fearn

Written by

Currently pursing my Masters Degree in Physics, I have a keen interest in history and science of all kinds, and the figures that made it all possible.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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