Vagueness of Intelligence and Unique Contributions

Vague IntelligenceOne of the most annoying thing in the world to me, is when someone tells me that they aren’t smart. I understand: I bring this out in people. I know a lot of stuff and I’m quick witted. And above all, I’m an intellectual. But none of that means anything but that I’m oriented in a particular way. I’ve been carrying around books with me for as long as I can remember. It’s just the way that I am. But that doesn’t make me smart in any kind of absolute sense, because I don’t even know what it is to be smart in an absolute sense.

I do know what it is to be smart when it comes to an IQ test. Those tests measure very specific things. As I recall, they measured some kind of special reasoning — there were blocks involved. And there were “general knowledge” questions like, “What is a mantis?” When I was young, I did very well with the blocks and not very well with the questions. Now it would probably be reversed. I’ve noticed cognitive degeneration over the last two decades. But I’ve certainly gained “general knowledge” at a far faster rate than I have been aging.

There are an infinite number of ways to be smart. All kinds of people impress me with their intellects in various ways. My greatest complaint with people is that they bore me, not that they aren’t smart enough. But I’ve known people who can’t do math at all, who are absolutely brilliant dealing with numbers that represent dollars. I think that shows the way people put up blocks around themselves and stop themselves from being “smart.” But the bigger issue is that no one feels smart because the things they understand seem obvious. Personally, I think anyone who understands the game of cricket is brilliant.

“I saw on Facebook that Rich joined a band called the 999 Megabytes. They haven’t got a gig.”

People think that I’m smart because I am good at the kinds of things that we think of as smart. So we don’t think of people with a preternatural ability to rebuild carburetors as smart. I do! But there is a way that people get a pass by claiming not to be smart. If someone asked me how to solve a differential equation, I couldn’t get away with, “Oh, it’s easy! You just do it!” But that’s what people do all the time with things like rebuilding carburetors, watching cricket, and playing guitar.

Another thing I hate is the distinction between being “book learning” and having “common sense.” For one thing, I have no idea what “common sense” is. If it is so common, why are people constantly complaining that other people don’t have it? As far as I can tell, “common sense” is anything that you know. That’s bad enough. But “book learning” is even worse. It implies that the knowledge wasn’t acquired quite legitimately. Rather than figuring it out for yourself, someone told you. Of course, someone also told them the “common sense” of not running out in traffic, it’s just that they don’t remember it.

But the notion of “common sense” is something more than just a face saving device. It is an indication that everyone actually knows that there are a great many ways to be smart — all wonderfully useful under the proper conditions. I just wish we could get more explicit about that so that I don’t have to hear phrases like, “I’m not book smart, but I have common sense.” That always makes me feel like I’m intimidating people. And I’m really too selfish to intend that. If I find you boring, I’ll just be gone.

All of that was prelude so that I could tell you a story and about how smart I am. The other day, Will told me, “I saw on Facebook that Rich joined a band called the 999 Megabytes. They haven’t got a gig.” Here’s the thing: I don’t like Rich and I never have. But I do know that he has a lot of talent as a musician. So he’s in a band. Whatever.

The next day Will told me the same story. I said, “You told me that yesterday. Is there some reason I should care? I know Rich is a pretty good musician.” Will replied, “Gigabyte?” I said, “Oh! That’s funny. So Rich didn’t join a band?” He told me that he had not. Even realizing it was a joke, I needed to be assured that Rich hadn’t, in fact, joined a band just to make a joke.

At the same time that I was totally clueless about joke, it also bothered me that it wasn’t quite right. I mean, a gigabyte isn’t a thousand megabytes; it’s 1,024 megabytes. Now sure, it’s true that 999 megabytes is also not a gig, but so too is 999 kilobytes. But that’s the thing: I would gladly trade all that mindless digital knowledge for just having gotten the joke in the first place.

It takes all kinds in this world. And I’m happy that I add something unique to my small part of the world. I wish other people were more happy with their own unique contributions to the world.


That image above really has nothing to do with this article. But hey: mouse fairy. That’s brilliant.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Vagueness of Intelligence and Unique Contributions

  1. Part of it is certainly the vast rewards of different career options. Every schoolkid knows that the ones who test best have better future jobs open to them. Even though a teacher or repairperson contributes to the economy and a CFO for some hedge fund hurts the economy, the CFO has a lot more financial comfort. And because we’re constantly told how worthless we are if we face financial stress, making “book smart” a pejorative is one way for demeaned people to reclaim some self-respect.

    • The main thing for me is that I don’t want to feel apart from other people. I like working with other people. I have unique talents, just as others do. Put a bunch of interesting, varied people together and you have a powerful force. This goes along with my distaste for hero worship.

      • I would agree, Mr. Frank . . . or should I say Captain Jean-Luc Moraes! Working together with a diverse group is better than heroes! Kirk sucks, Picard rules, choke on it!

        (Although heroes are better for drama, so I’m kidding! Seriously, though, “Darmok.” Paul Winfield, who played MLK on a TV miniseries, and Patrick Stewart, learning to talk with each other. Thing makes me weepy every damn time. You don’t get to be a true nerd if you can’t reference “Darmok and Gilad at Tanagra” inappropriately in social situations.)

        • With the stipulation that we have yet to create a form of drama that is able to deal with the team. But I always wanted to be Kermit the Frog: the relatively sane one surrounded by crazies. But I never would have sung about rainbows.

          When I was younger, I was very much into the hero archetype. But even then, I preferred to work within groups. The truth is that everyone does, regardless. The whole idea of the hero archetype is to make sense of what is a far too complex a thing.

  2. When I was in junior high I was one of the obvious smart kids. So naturally I made the mistake of trying to explain to some of the kids bullying me that we all have different things we are good at. Either I was terrible at explaining or more likely, I was being an know it all which drives other kids nuts. Their response was to steal my bag and hide it from me until I cried.

    Ah memories of a lovely childhood.

    It is still true though-we all have different things we are good at.

    • That is one of the big problems when your skill happens to be analysis. Also the “I would be really helpful to have around if we were marooned on an island” argument tends to fail.

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