The Counterintuitive Process of Increasing Intelligence
What it means to truly learn
Most of the conventional wisdom about intelligence is wrong. In reality, intelligence means much more than meets the eye.
Society creates narratives about what’s good and bad, who’s smart and who isn’t, what success and failure mean, etc.
We’ve been led to believe a few things:
- Fixed mindset — Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, talks about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. We’re raised to believe in the power of fixed abilities when in reality intelligence is malleable.
- Testing works — We grow up in a society where good grades are supposed to be a metric for future success. We stress kids — who should be learning for the sake of learning — with standardized testing because it’s supposedly useful.
- Titles matter — Certain careers are labeled the “smart” careers. Non-white collar work is seen as a “trade” and is associated with lower intelligence.
Here’s the truth to all of the statements above:
- Growth Mindset — Scientists have proven our brains have something called “neuroplasticity” meaning our brains can form new connections through learning. A simplified example of this: if you practice the guitar, the area of your brain that controls motor functioning will grow. There is no ceiling on intelligence.
- Testing is a waste — There is zero. I repeat…ZERO correlation between grades, test scores, and real-world success. There’s actually a coined phrase saying “A students end up working for C students.” In the real world, you don’t get multiple choice answers to choose from. You have to deal with other people and social intelligence isn’t taught or tested in school. You have to sell, persuade, lead, coexist, create, and execute on ideas. School paints a narrow picture of intelligence and testing makes it worse.
- Intelligence comes in many forms — It’s extremely hard to take apart an engine and rebuild it. That requires intelligence. Testing the ph level of the soil in someone’s lawn as a landscaper requires intelligence. Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe it is stupid.”True intelligence starts with figuring out what you’re suited for and growing in that area.
Now that we’ve dispelled some of the myths regarding intelligence, let’s look into some practical action steps. These won’t be your typical “read more books” type of answers. I’m going to go deeper and talk about the types of intelligence that actually rule the world.
Never Accept Anything at First Glance
“Trust none of what you hear, some of what you read, and half of what you see.” — Nassim Taleb
Do you think the news is a beacon of truth? Do you believe that your financial planner is acting in the sole interest of helping you build your portfolio?
For various reasons, people have incentives to mislead you. If you don’t pay attention to these incentives, it’s easy to be fooled.
Some reasons why you shouldn’t automatically trust what people tell you are:
An agency problem occurs when the interests of the “agent” don’t match the interests of the affected party. The interests of a wall street banker trying to polish up his quarterly earnings (usually) don’t match the interest of borrowers, taxpayers, and the general public. The interest of a news network whose entire business model is predicated on attracting and retaining eyeballs doesn’t match the interest of the person watching the news, which is to know the truth. Anytime someone is seeking to inform you, ask yourself, what’s in it for them?
Survivorship bias occurs when you only see the “winners” left in a given situation and the “losers” are tucked away into obscurity.
For this section, I’ll draw from an example used by Nassim Taleb in the book Fooled by Randomness.
Say you’re approached by a “fund manager” who has had a track record of making higher than market returns for a decade. Given the size of the original pool of fund managers, his success could be and probably is a result of pure luck. You don’t see the losers who went bust, which makes it seem like this fund manager is skilled. Maybe he is.
But as Taleb says, “If one puts an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters and lets them clap away, there is a certainty that one of them will come out with an exact version of the Illiad.” Be careful how you interpret impressions of other people. They made be skilled, or they may be a “lucky monkey.”
Say someone walked up to you in a police uniform and asked to search you. Would you say no?
If you know your constitutional rights you’d say no, but often people will comply simply because they’re given instructions by a person of authority. What’s worse? Someone who isn’t actually a police officer and just has the uniform on could still probably get you to comply. The appearance of authority carries that much weight.
This is the authority bias in action. You probably won’t be approached by a fake police officer anytime soon, but you might be inclined to believe the opinion of authority in his or her field, regardless of whether or not they’re right.
The book The Tyranny of Experts explains why experts don’t always have the best solutions to problems on the ground. Yet we almost always put them in a position of the decision maker.
For these biases and reasons, smart people hold a healthy amount of skepticism.
Never Stop Learning
“Those who keep learning will keep rising in life.” — Charlie Munger
Most people’s education ends when their schooling ends. If you spend time adding new skills to your tool belt and become a self-taught student of many subjects, you’ll move miles past the competition.
To think you know everything you need to know — about life, business, your career, success in general — is arrogant and frankly…dumb. Smart people devour as much useful information as possible because they know it may come in handy at some point.
When you have a base level of knowledge of many different subjects, you can form mental models that help you solve different types of problems.
The more developed your array of skills, the more opportunity available to you in this world. Instead of trying to be the best at one thing, you can become pretty good at several things, making you one of the top people with these combined sets of skills.
What’s your “talent stack?” What combinations of skills can you combine to help you stand out from the crowd?
Even if you’re in a narrowly defined field, say a physician, skills like bedside manner (persuasion), leadership, and performance under pressure come into play.
The combination of skills matters in any life.
The good news? You’re already highly skilled. You were gifted with some innate talents other people don’t have. Add even more skills to your repertoire, and you’ll be unstoppable.
Don’t Believe in Rationality
The most counter-intuitive fact of rationality and sound decision making is how little people rely on it in their lives.
We think we’re rational decision makers with free will, who carefully discern each step we take.
In reality, we rely on mental shortcuts and preconceived notions to get by. This can be useful in ways. If we had to consciously process everything we needed to do on a daily basis, we’d never get anything done. On the flip side, our emotions and biases can get us into trouble.
Take the confirmation bias for example. Confirmation bias causes you to ignore any evidence that disconfirms what you already believe to be true.
Why do you think two people can debate polar opposites and both believe they’re 100 percent correct when that’s impossible?
Confirmation bias runs deep in partisanship, education, and other important areas where it does the most harm.
With algorithmic social media — that feeds us only the information we believe to be true — the problem is getting worse.
Confirmation bias is hard to combat because of the dissonance it causes. In order to reverse a confirmed bias, you have to admit being wrong. In a world where being wrong can signal your incompetence, the decision to reverse beliefs is to make, no matter how wrong you are.
“My lesson […] is to start every meeting at my boutique by convincing everyone that we are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are mistake-prone, but happen to be endowed with the rare privilege of knowing it.” — Nassim Taleb
I’m susceptible to biases. I’m sure this post contains many. But I’m aware of my ignorance, and as much as it doesn’t feel good, I try to change course when I realize my irrationality is getting the best of me.
Play the Long Game With Your Life
Imagine you’re building a sandcastle.
You’ve been toiling away at it for hours. After you craft it to stand tall and firm, you add one piece of sand to it. The seemingly insignificant spec of sand applies enough weight to topple the entire castle.
The “sandpile effect” explains how you can work fruitlessly towards mastery for years until one day everything clicks. The “piece of sand” could be an entire book, a revolutionary business idea, or a cure for a disease.
People who quit early don’t understand this. When developing a skill, no time spent is in vain. Success in skill building isn’t linear, meaning you don’t get better at an equal pace each time you practice. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere, but each minute spent building your skill sets you up for a leap in the future.
Luck exists and it plays a rather large role in our lives. The best you can do is continue to increase the odds of your success.
While everyone else is writing 500-word click-bait pieces, you pour your heart and soul into long-form deep dive essays.
While your competitors look to make a quick buck, you spend extra time talking to customers, learning exactly what they need, and deliver it to them while testing and improving along the way.
When everyone else worries about what’ll happen next week, you think about what you can do today to benefit five years from now.
Change Your Mind
When I began my journey of self-teaching, I changed my mind on a lot of things. Instead of believing the only path to a successful life was going to college, I realized there were other avenues to prosperity. That set me on a mission to start my own side projects, but it also led me into another trap. My new found beliefs caused me to believe that every corporate job made people feel deeply unhappy and stuck. It also made me believe college was completely useless. I still lean toward those beliefs, but I don’t treat them as absolute because nothing is absolute.
Since nothing is absolute, it’s foolish to “marry your position.”
When Darwin was developing his theory, he focused on trying to disprove it, because seeking disconfirming evidence helps make your case stronger.
I do not enjoy studying claims that oppose what I believe, but I want to stand firm in my beliefs.
It’s easy to shout in your echo chamber and live in your intellectual bubble. That’s been going on a lot lately — both sides slinging mud at one another and getting nowhere in the way of convincing the other side.
Few people can listen. Few can swallow their pride and change their mind, even if changing it benefits them.
If you can learn to change your mind with new evidence, you’ll be agiler in the way you create, live, and make decisions.