You aren’t as smart as people say. You aren’t as smart as your tests say. You aren’t as smart as you say, your parents say, your future or your past says. You aren’t as smart as you think others are, and you aren’t as smart as you want to be.
But you are as a smart as you let yourself be.
THE INTELLIGENCE PROBLEM
Intelligence lies not in being intelligent; it lies in the process of attempting to become more intelligent. Like good science, it’s not about discovering where you’re right, it’s about discovering where you’re wrong.
Right now your intelligence is filling the cup you’re pouring it in. Your intelligence is being defined, and ultimately limited, by you. You are the jailer of your own intelligence.
But you have the key.
As a species we devote an enormous amount of emphasis on someone’s ability to solve problems or be creative – we focus on associating intelligence with status as if the intelligent among us have access to a quality of life that is denied to the rest.*
But intelligence isn’t just confined to any simple definition, in fact, it spreads across an enormous spectrum of categories, of which are just the ones we have so far identified. Here’s some examples:
- Fluid intelligence and Crystallized intelligence
- Quantitative reasoning and Reading and writing ability
- Short-term memory and Long-term storage and retrieval,
- Visual processing and Auditory processing
- Processing speed and Decision/reaction time/speed
Yeah. If that sounds like an incomprehensible nightmare, well, that’s because it is.
Modern IQ tests don’t account for all of these. Beyond this, they don’t account for additional factors like, say, anxiety affecting someone’s ability to state their answer even though they’re sure it’s correct. Once again, everyone’s friend Confidence is rearing his ugly head.
Emotional intelligence is your ability to effectively manage and handle the emotions that you are feeling, but crucially the one’s other people are feeling as well – and from this identification, make correct decisions.
Theory of Mind is your ability to, essentially, empathize with other people. You understand yourself – your makeup of beliefs, values, and perspectives, but you can also understand the makeups of other people. In simple terms, Theory of Mind is your ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
Intelligence in humans isn’t simple. What we have discovered is that first, the brain computes information in a varied amount of ways, and we don’t fully understand it and cannot accurately predict it. Second, that the brain is subject to emotional makeups and fluctuations, and understanding those is crucial to intelligence. However, this is poorly understood and isn’t accurately predicted either.
What does this mean? Well, to be dumb is to be human. And to be unsure is to be human. You aren’t as smart as you think you are, and neither am I. Hell we can’t even figure out what ‘smart’ is.
So how are we to solve the problem of intelligence? Well, I think the answer lies in the reason you’re here. Why do you want to be more intelligent?
I would imagine it’s because you want to live better.
That’s what this article is about. It’s about using the tools available to you to enhance your ability to make the decisions that enable you to live better. Smarter thinking through stronger self-education, challenged beliefs, and broader thinking. It’s about escaping your own inclinations to confine your thinking and instead, open yourself to new connections and associations, and ultimately better ways of living.
These are the tools that will help you do this:
Everyone loves a story. They take you to new worlds, allow you to meet new people and experience new things. They allow a temporary break from the reality of our own world and give us a chance to escape into something new.
Fiction is, in essence, virtual reality. Whilst Samsung and PlayStation are proudly showing off their latest advancements in the field of virtual reality tech – nobody seems to realise that we’ve had this shit figured out for a while now; people love to anywhere else but here, and especially love to anyone else but themselves. And ever since we started telling stories, we’ve done exactly that.
Stories are part of our nature. There’s no escaping them. Our inclination towards alternate realities isn’t something we designed but in fact something intrinsic to our design. Human brains are wired to be problem solvers, and with our oversized frontal cortex* we are able to solve problems that haven’t yet existed. We are able to tackle issues and run through scenarios that haven’t happened, might not happen and probably will never happen. This allows us to strategize, plan, and ultimately outwit our obstacles.
Fiction is the long form imaginings of this same muscle. It takes the ‘what if’ and builds on it, using life experience, imagination and plotting to flesh out stories that are not real.
So what should you read?
OUT WITH THE NEW, IN WITH THE OLD
When it comes to fiction, literary fiction is second to none. Beyond consistently proving to enhance people’s performance on tests, theory of mind and empathy – literary fiction takes our innate ability to enter ourselves into other realities, and uses this to put us into the shoes of other people –the adulterous Emma in Madame Bovary, the paedophile Humbert in Lolita or the sprawling lives of five Aristocrat families in Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Literary fiction allows us to enter the lives of others, vastly different to ourselves and allows us to realise that we aren’t so different after all. That it isn’t us and them; it’s just us, experiencing the same human condition – warts and all.
In his book, What is Art, Leo Tolstoy argues that art serves to bring people closer together. By his rationale, a book like Mein Kampf would be less favourable than The Rights of Man. But in terms of fiction, how do we measure a book’s worth?
Well, you work in reverse.
If you like an author, don’t read what they wrote. Read what inspired them. If you do this with an author like Hemmingway, you’ll be reading authors like Shakespeare, Turgenev or Tolstoy. If you do this with Tolstoy, you’ll be reading the works of Eliot, Flaubert, Hugo and Gogol.
These are works that have stood the test of time, and have, since publication resonated with people throughout multiple cultures and various eras. And the reason is simple – they’re books that capture the experience of being human. Not how we’d like it to be, but how we are. They deal with uncomfortable realities about us, others, and us as a species. They’re books that humble our conception of who we are and who other people are – and in doing so, bring us closer together.
They’re the books that are going to increase your ability to make accurate reflections on yourself, others and people as a whole. They’re going to add depth to your decision making, and enrich the intelligence of your thinking. That is exactly what you want to be aiming for.
ESCAPE FROM REALITY
The flipside of literary fiction is escapism. Where literary fiction seeks to present people and reality as they are, escapism shows us an alternate version of events – perhaps a fantasy of other worlds, how things might be or how we’d like them to be. They are designed, by nature to illicit emotions in us – be that wonder and excitement in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or power fantasies as represented by any superhero ever.
The problem with escapism lies less in the fact that it is inherently untrue, but more in how it is consumed. When you take the human brain – an information gathering, future simulating organ – and start feeding it things that do not in any way reflect reality or the experience of being alive, you can fall into potential pitfalls. Consider the staggering statistics that adults now engage with around 8+ hours of media every day. That’s roughly 60% of their day. This media is largely composed of social media, television, and the internet. Through various methods of consumption, we are ingesting escapism and distraction at a staggering rate. And throughout this, the brain remains the same. It learns whatever you feed it.
If you’re learning about relationships from Twilight, it’s going to have a different effect on you than Madame Bovary. If you learn about war from G.I. Joe, it’s going to have a different effect on you than War & Peace. Your brain is always learning, always paying attention, and always feeling and experiencing. You want to expose it to the experiences that actually mirror the experience of your own life – this will allow you to make better, more intelligent judgements.
Now, I’m not saying don’t read anything that isn’t literary fiction. I just want you to consider where the bulk of your ideas about human beings are coming from. Remember, before we considered it normal, it was called escapism. Before it was considered escapism, it was called romanticism. And before that, it was called myth.
Reading is the food that nourishes your mind and fiction provides the bedrock of your emotional intelligence – feed it the information that is going to make you more connected, more aware, and ultimately more intelligent.
BUT WHAT ABOUT NON-FICTION?
Fiction is a tool for empathy, but non-fiction is a tool for practical ideas. These two are not independent– and in fact, they are enormously interdependent. A good idea isn’t one that’s the most practical; it’s also one that takes into account people, their motivations, their strengths and their weaknesses.
But with a reading diet that’s already (hopefully) dense in literary fiction, what non-fiction do you read? I believe the answer is simple.
There’s an old joke that goes: “How do you tell if someone is a vegetarian?”
“Don’t worry they’ll fuckin’ tell you.”
When we find a topic we’re interested in, we tend to focus our attention and develop our knowledge of this particular topic. This has its strengths, but it also pigeonholes our minds and exposes us to one of it’s greatest weaknesses. Human’s love to hold on to certain perpectives. To a man with a hammer, everything is nail – but a man with a toolbox can consider the problem and act appropriately.
With your non-fiction, you want to explore a diverse array of topics, ones that challenge your assumptions and ones that do not fit within a niche. If all you read about is diet, read about psychology, if all you read about is psychology, read about history, if all you read about is history, read about science.
The wider you cast your net, the better the breadth of your knowledge will be and the more informed your decisions will be. But most importantly, the better the breadth of your knowledge, the more you’ll be able to make connections and come across ideas between topics that inform you in ways you couldn’t believe.
I’ve been asked before what books informed me most on my ideas of dating and personal development. My answers? A book about a homicidal Tiger and a book on killing people in Samurai sword duels.*
That is not a joke. I learned more from those books than I did from twenty self-help or dating advice books. Never underestimate the power of diverse reading.
Non-fiction is about collecting certainties of the world, and then challenging and broadening these certainties. When we collect too few, we assume them as our own. When we collect many – we begin to see they are just tools to view the world.
BECOMING BOOK SMART
In 1909, one of the fathers of behavioral ecology, Jakob von Uexkull, introduced us to the concepts of Umwelt and Umgebung. He considered them enormously important tools for interacting with the animal world. Not just understanding the animal, but understanding how the animal understood itself, and the world around it.
Umwelt describes the personal, self-centered world of the animal. How it perceives it’s environment through the lens of its wants, needs, sensations and feelings. No one animal has the same umwelt, as it is unique to each. Umgebung on the other hand, describes the objective world as it is, outside of these self-centered private worlds. It is a world nobody really sees as it is, but only glimpse and distort through their own Umwelten.
You and I might exist in the same world (Umgebung), but our respective perspectives (Umwelten) would be different. And this understanding lies at the heart of being book smart.
Literary fiction is the tool that enhances your ability to enter into the umwelten, the personal world of other people – and understand them as they are and how they interact and interpret the world. Non-fiction, when taken in diversity, allows you to broaden your understanding of what the world might really be (Umgebung), and explore the possibilities that are out there – instead of, when taking non-fiction in a niche, deciding that you have defined the world and in turn damaged your ability to empathise with other people’s understanding of it.
When your world is textured and your empathy is strong, your ability to make intelligent decisions improves. As ever, that is what we’re aiming for.
LOGIC AND REASON
All of us want an easy answer. We have a problem, and we want it solved. We want to feel safer at night, we want to feel like our economy is more secure, we want to feel like our nation has an identity, we want to feel like we are lovable, we want to feel like we aren’t alone.
But yet, we often come to conclusions like:
- All men are cheaters.
- All women are untrustworthy.
- All minorities are criminals.
- All immigrants are parasites.
- All success is genetically predetermined.
- All success in dating comes down to looks.
- My entire race is superior to all of another race.
- My entire gender is superior to all of the other.
Aside from demonstrating a poor theory of mind and confirmation bias, these conclusions demonstrate a poor use of logic. Take this example:
- The English live in England. England is in Europe. All Europeans are English.
Which is, of course, absurd – Let’s take the same logic:
- This man sleeps around. Sleeping around is dirty. All men are dirty.
- This woman cheated. Cheating is untrustworthy. All women are untrustworthy.
- This minority is a thief. Theft is a crime. All minorities are criminals.
- This woman is irrational. Irrationality is stupid. All women are stupid.
- This man is insecure. Insecurity is weak. All men are weak.
The use of poor logic is what shifts an observation into a generalization, which can then shift into a prejudice. It is the heart of ignorance. Holding on to a poorly thought out conclusion can lead to a belief, which can lead to a life lead of ignorance.
The understanding of logic is fundamental to undoing not just your bigoted views of others, but also yourself:
- I failed this test. Failing a test is stupid. I am stupid.
- I got rejected. Rejection is bad. I am bad.
- My partner doesn’t love me anymore. Loveable people are loved. I am unlovable.
The logical flaw lies in taking two observations and assuming a tenuous link between them makes a conclusion drawn from both to be as factual as the initial observations themselves. The problem with this thinking is that first, it is illogical, and second because it ignores the wider context.
- Why did you fail that test? Did you really try? Did you make a mistake? How is this test any indication of your inherent ability as a person?
- Why did you get rejected? Was this person even available? Were you even their type? Would you think the same thing if you approached someone else and they were receptive?
- How do you know your partner doesn’t love you? How do you know you are unloveable? Does your partner reflect all of humanity, or is this just the actions of one person? Why do you feel unloveable? What is it inherently about you that makes you unlovable? Are any of these things factually true, or do you just feel they are? Does this have anything to do with your partner, or does it have more to do with issues independent of them?
Intelligent thinking is like a chess game. Thoughts must be considered from every angle, as impulsive conclusions are vulnerable to being the incorrect one, and can result in failure. Be that failure in decision, moral failure, failure in action or a failure of character.
Logic is the tool to questioning your own assumptions. It is the roadblock to ignorance. Learn to doubt your own eyes and question your assumptions. When you put logic in the way of your inclinations, you open yourself up to more intelligent decisions, and deep emotional connections with others. Instead of assuming the intelligent choice, you make the intelligent choice. Instead of assuming who people are, you learn what people are.
When I first started hitting on girls, I assumed all hot girls were bitchy and were dating men far more successful than me. This led me to not approach them.
When I did start approaching them, I learned that yes, some of them were bitchy and some of them were dating men who were more successful than me.
But I also learned a lot of them were lonely. A lot of them didn’t feel they were taken seriously. A lot of them were talented beyond their looks but felt they never got to show that. A lot of them just wanted to have an intelligent conversation. A lot of them were just tired of men being scared of them.
I learned that some hot girls, who I assumed would never be interested in me, were, in fact, interested, and had a lot in common with me. They were people just like me. People who were confident and insecure, all at the same time. Otherwise known as human beings.
CULTURE AND IDENTITY
You exist within a culture and a language. The customs you engage with, the norms you consider ‘normal’ and the words you define yourself by are all subject to variance based on the part of the earth you were born on, the environment you were raised in, and the heritage of your parents.
When we compose an identity for ourselves, we compose one that exists within a culture and one that is defined by a language. If we are English or American; Christianity and Greek philosophy hold a huge influence on our morality. When we think of marriage, we think of it according to its English definition. On the flip side, if we are raised in Asia, our morality is influenced by the iChing, Confucius and Lao Tzu. These cultures, beyond having different histories, have a profound effect on the perspective of the individual. Studies show that where the western mind is inclined to viewing the world in black and white, the eastern mind likes to take things more holistically. Culture and language don’t just shape who we are, they shape how we see.
When we attempt to make ourselves more intelligent, one of the chief obstacles we face is our identity and our ingrained beliefs. In his book, On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche suggests that we bring into question not just our values, but also the value of our values. He suggests that we question exactly what it is we believe, and why we believe it. The idea at the heart of this is that we don’t accept the definitions of our culture, and instead question what it is about ourselves that we are so sure of – in other words, we challenge our certainties.
I believe that one of the strongest ways we can do this is to learn about the history of our own culture and language, and the ideas and events in history that have shaped it – and then to do the same with other cultures, ideally through immersion. Through this process, we reverse engineer our certainties and then give our intelligence more freedom to grow.
The more we let go of a particular culture, and open ourselves to others, the more we experience what Donald Brown described in his book as Human Universals. These were the traits that humans expressed in every culture, for which there is no known exception. Where this becomes interesting though is that across cultures, whilst certain traits might be ubiquitous – the way in which they are expressed is unique to each. Or in other words, what you consider being ‘normal’, isn’t normal everywhere else.*
This idea is fundamental to intelligence. What is normal? What is right? Who am I? Who is everyone else? What is the correct decision? These are the problems of intelligent thought, and the answers are not easily arrived at when constrained by the confines of culture. Taking our identity as an example, we can take a value, and we can ask ourselves simple questions:
Is this me? Or am I telling myself this is me? Have I accepted this as normal because it is accepted as normal by my culture? Have I adopted this in a desire to fit in?
We can explore these questions through our macro-culture (our country of origin) and our micro-culture (our social circle) – and when we do, we start to experience aspects to our thinking that previously we have not come across or been open to. In short, you might not be that Goth you thought you were.
It is only when you address the perspective that your own cultural sphere has imposed on you, that you develop the intelligence to explore the full spectrum of living – and in doing so, develop the capacity to make the choices that are more informed and organic, than they are ignorant and mechanistic.
Just as you learned your patterns of thinking, you can unlearn them.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Being smart isn’t complicated, it’s just a process of letting go, and opening up. Beyond your life experience, books provide the foundation of your intelligence. The ideas that you will draw upon, and your understanding and empathy for others.
From this foundation, you are likely to draw conclusions about the world and the people in it, including yourself. This is normal, but you are likely wrong. This is where logic comes in. Logic is the tool for challenging ideas and breaking them down piece by piece –it is the tool for making the decisions that are considered, and as close to right as you are capable of doing. Life is a chess game*, and logic offers you the correct move – both in your internal and external world.
Lastly, there is culture and the worlds you expose yourself to. Human’s are social creatures and we cannot help but be affected by the worlds we are in; our families, our friends and our society as a whole. Questioning your culture and your values, and exposing yourself to news ones is key to offering yourself a broader spectrum of ideas and values to make decisions from. We’re always actively being programmed; this step is about programming yourself, and discovering the spectrum of being human.
Being intelligent isn’t about being right; it isn’t about being certain and it definitely isn’t about being intelligent. It’s about the process of becoming intelligent, and utilizing the tools available to make the best decisions you can in order to live well. The fundamental engine behind this process is a simple question – how am I confining my intelligence?
The most we can do is attempt to understand the world as it is, and as it exists outside of our perspective. The less we try to define, and the more we try to accept, the more choices open themselves to us – we don’t confine our intelligence, but we let it grow, both in our connection to others, but also in the opportunities available to us. And that’s something any of us can do.
Don’t live certain, live smarter.
*Learning logic helped me enormously. The book, Logic: A Very Short Introduction is a good start.
*Traveling alone in a country where you don’t speak the language is the single best method I’ve found of doing this.
*Play chess. It’s great for practicing logic and reasoning.