Qualities of Intelligent People

Archimedes, Domenico Fetti, 1620

Archimedes, Domenico Fetti, 1620

And notes on how to understand things

The smartest people we know all share the same qualities that makes them intelligent

1. will to know

The first is they are not willing to accept answers that they do not understand.

No one can convince them of the answers, no matter how many people already believe it, only they can convince themselves of it.

With effort, this is a software trait of intelligence that can be learned, independent of hardware traits like working memory and processing speed.

This means “intelligence” is not fixed. You can adopt practices that increase your intelligence.

Why don’t more people to it?

Because thinking hard takes effort.

Its much easier to stop at an answer that makes sense. Or stop when you think you already understand something, when you actually don’t.

Think of college students who race through difficult concepts week after week in class pressured to learn the rules and operations so they’re not left behind in the current. They’re not offered time to think deeply and test their own understanding by attacking it from multiple angles. They’re not incentivized to stop and think why this equation looks the way it does. They’re not rewarded for going down into an endless series of rabbit holes to pursue everything that they don’t fully understand.

It also requires intrinsic motivation. And motivation is hard to come by. Energy is a scarce resource.

You have to motivate yourself to expend large amounts of energy on a problem, which on some level means not understanding something should bother you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.

2. Honesty

The second quality is honesty, or integrity, an inability to lie to yourself.

Feynman said the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

It's easy to lie to yourself, no one else is holding you accountable for your own understanding, only you can recursively ask yourself "Do I really understand this?"

This is why writing is important. Writing is thinking, you can't lie to yourself because the thoughts will come out all messy and disorganized if you lack understanding. Writing forces clarity.

3. Experimentation

They third is they understand through experiments.

Physicist Michael Faraday always had to repeat, and perhaps, extend the experiments of others to assess their work. Hearing or reading was never enough for him. This lifelong habit is what led to his discovery of electromagnetism.

Nothing beats direct experience. If you start with somebody's lossy compression of a messy, evolving phenomenon, you're just resurfacing cached thoughts and narratives. But if you're hands-on, starting from scratch, you develop basis in reality, and reason up from there. You're closer to generating truth.

Understanding something deeply is connected to physical intuition. A simple text-based understanding can only go so far. You need to be able to visualize, in three dimensions, so your brain can grasp onto something to use as a model.

Generating concrete examples, even if you're not physically doing experiments is crucial. If you're learning things in the usual dry mathematical way, force yourself to come up with visualizations, you'd be much further than others in true understanding.

4. "I don't understand"

Lastly, they're unafraid to look stupid.

Looking stupid takes courage, it's always easier to just let things slide.

Ask the most obvious question. Don't care if it sounds foolish. Don't feel guilty for slowing the group down. It's likely nobody else understands what is going on, but they're too afraid to ask.

Saying "I don't understand" and asking sincerely is a habit you can pick up, and it can make you smarter.

Go slow

For people trying to understand something, go slow.

Read slowly, think slowly, really take time contemplating the thing.

Think about the questions yourself before reading a bunch of stuff about it. Spending time continuously pondering about a question can get you surprisingly far.

For example, Bill Gates structures his "reading weeks" around an outline of important questions broken down into pieces. "water scarcity" can be broken down into -> "How much water is there in the world?", "where does existing drinking water come from?", "how do you turn ocean water into drinking water", etc. and then he picks reading to address those questions.

Get closer

Understanding is not a binary "yes/no". It has layers of depth

When in doubt, go closer.