On the Nature of Intelligence

If you’ve got some spare time, head on over to MetaFilter and check out this link to a video of Stephen Colbert interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s an hour and a half long, so make sure you’ve got the time, but it’s amazing stuff.

(Side note for my non-nerd readers: If you’re not familiar with Dr. Tyson, he’s an astrophysicist and a popularizer of science with a podcast and a TV show and another TV show and, well, you can read about him here. I’m more than a little in love with the man.)

I’ve watched it twice now, once while brainstorming ideas for a new application I’ve been kicking around, once just the other day while flying out to a conference. I’ve made a permanent copy on my iPad so I can watch it on the rare occasions that I’m offline. Don’t sue me, anybody.

I did this partly for the entertainment value, but also because it reminds me of how stupid I am.

I am, according to the usually accepted definition, a very smart guy. Been told that ever since I was three years old, when I walked into my preschool and read a book to my class. Ever since then, my life has been one of gifted programs and honors classes and people telling me how smart I am. And I wish they hadn’t done that.

You’ll get about two-thirds of the way through that video before you hear Tyson speak about the nature of intelligence. Absorbing and collecting facts, he says, even having a rare facility for doing so, isn’t intelligence.

Intelligence is about curiosity and searching and asking questions and embracing, indeed loving your ignorance as you find ever more ways to whittle away at it. It’s about puzzling over things and picking them apart to see how they work and, maybe, make them better.

I don’t do that, not much. I’ve mostly been afraid to. Instead, I collect facts like a human vacuum. When I was small, I regurgitated all kinds of data to grownups about weather and the human body and physics and math. It was stuff I devoured from books, mostly because I found it fascinating, but I think also because impressing grownups was a hobby of mine. Is, rather.

When people slap labels like “gifted” on you, now you’ve got a role to play. You’ve got a title to live up to. And that scares you. When things don’t come easily to you, you worry that maybe everyone was wrong. You become terrified of displaying your own ignorance. And you stay in your comfort zone. I absorb facts like crazy, but I don’t do very much with them except talk about them on the internet and at parties. Dr. Tyson is right: I’m not intelligent, I’m a collector.

It appears that science backs me up on some of this. I’ve taken that article to heart, shared it with my wife, and told her my desire that we praise our children for their work, not their smarts. She agrees, so we try like hell to remember not to even utter the word “smart” in their presence. Indeed, it makes me uneasy to think that we should delineate between people who absorb facts and make connections easily and those who do not.

There’s a great quote from the man whose name is a synonym for genius: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I know a man who couldn’t tell you a damn thing about Newtonian physics or poetry, but his skills as a knifemaker are earning him national recognition and may well immortalize him, if he keeps growing. I know another who couldn’t do differential calculus to save his life, but has skill as a pianist that humanity produces only a couple of times a generation. Still one more, this one extremely book-smart and on his way to becoming a university professor, who tossed it aside to pursue his passion of making the music of his home country.

These men found their intelligence and poured their guts into it. They are all driven by a curiosity and a need to create. All of my friends: the glassblower, the jeweler, the woodworker, the singer, the poet, all have a need to channel their genius into making or investigating something every day, and I have never in my life been able to find that. They take their skills and they use them, because of that need.

What I have instead is a sort of meta-need, a need to need to put my hand to something. A hunger to find that passion and pursue it. I’ve been searching for an object of obsession that I can put my alleged smarts to for a long time.

Now, I’ve dabbled, tried music and carpentry and stained glass (I haven’t fully given up on that one) and fiction. The only one that really ever took was cooking, which is about as instant-gratification as it gets—you don’t have to spend three days sanding food, if you’re doing it right. Not to mention that I still don’t have the patience for learning proper presentation or some of the more long-form methods.

So I look around, I surround myself with talented people every chance I get, and I collect more facts.

The Fibonacci sequence tends toward the golden ratio, which is found in innumerable places in nature, even in the standard flour-to-water ratio for making bread.

Electrons behave differently depending on whether their behavior is being directly observed. Because of this, we have quantum mechanics, and so you get to read this on your computer.

Objectivism is generally regarded as a self-defeating philosophy, as its ethical aims are weakened every time another person learns them.

Traditional 12-bar blues music tends to follow a I-IV-V chord progression. The Chinese have a far higher incidence of perfect pitch because they speak a tonal language.

These curiosities aggregate, and I enjoy them, and I enjoy sharing them, and I certainly enjoy looking smart when I share them. But I think I have a sliver of understanding for why most child prodigies never become anything of note. I behold the aggregation of trivia and antiques and God knows what else that is my mind, and I wonder what it is good for, what the hell I can do with it that will hold my anemic focus.

Really, the only project that I haven’t abandoned is myself, my desire to find what is lacking in me and excise it with either scalpel or hammer. It’s my focus on my lack of focus. Masturbatory? Narcissistic? Probably. But it’s something.

I’ll keep looking. I’ll keep surrounding myself with my betters, wherever I can find them. Something’s bound to rub off. I hope I’ll know it when I see it—or rather, that I won’t, that it will become so ingrained in me that I take it for granted. That’s when the good stuff happens. That’s when you’re a smarty-pants.